Often lost sight of in the debate over female ordination and headship in the church is how Christ and Christianity have elevated women.
A. Position of Women Before Christ
In the Judaism of Christ's time, women were usually in subordinate positions. Rabbinical writings taught that women should largely be kept out of public life, and restricted to home and domestic duties. Rabbinical teachings discouraged men from talking to women in public, and held that women should be veiled and accompanied by a man when out in public. That said, the New Testament describes women owning real property, handling money, and traveling locally, all without a male companion, which indicates that, by the First Century, Jewish life had been somewhat Hellenized and Westernized, and that the picture of women as cloistered and segregated was a largely unrealized rabbinical "ideal" created by a handful of influential rabbis.
As to religion, women were restricted to what was called the “middle court” of the Temple in Jerusalem, because it was between the inner area for Jewish men and the “outer court” to which the gentiles had access; the middle court was several steps lower than the court reserved for Jewish men. In synagogues, women did not sit with men, but sat in a women's area in the back of the room. The Rabbis discouraged women from studying the Torah, and from receiving formal religious education.
The pagan Greco-Roman culture of Christ's day was more egalitarian, but there was a tendency to view women either as brood mares or as sex objects. In Greek culture, wives were mainly for bearing children, and men had concubines for sex. Roman society had begun with a very strong family ethic, and polygamy was almost unheard of, but by the time of Christ, the Roman family ethic had been undermined by easy divorce. In the East, polygamy was common, and the position of women was more inferior than in Western Civilization.
B. Jesus Talked to Women
By publicly conversing with women, Christ broke down the barriers that had been erected by Jewish rabbinic custom. John 4:27 records that Jesus’ disciples were surprised to see him talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. They were surprised for a couple of reasons. First, he was talking to a Samaritan, and second, he was talking to a woman. The rabbinic oral law stated that, “He who talks with a woman in public brings evil upon himself.” Another rabbinic teaching prominent in Jesus’ day said, “one is not so much as to greet a woman.”
As someone who had been married several times, and who was then living in sin (John 4:17-18), the woman at the well was exactly the type of woman a proper Jewish man could not publicly talk with without creating a scandal. But Jesus sought this woman out because she was open to spiritual things, and to sharing with her neighbors: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’” John 4:39-42
C. Jesus Healed Women
Only three times during his earthly ministry did Jesus restore life to the dead. One of those was in the town of Nain, where a widow’s last male relative was being carried before her on a funeral bier. There was no Social Security in those days, and elderly women relied upon their adult male children to support them, so this tragedy meant the loss of her sole means of earthly support. Jesus took pity on this widow and raised her son from the dead. (Luke 7:11-17). The better known raising of Lazarus from the dead had a similar function, in that Lazarus was the sole male relative of Mary and Martha, whose mourning so touched the Savior that His sympathetic weeping is poignantly recorded in Scripture. (John 11:35). It could rightly be said that the raising of Lazarus was just as much or more for the benefit of Mary and Martha as for Lazarus.
The third resurrection was Jairus’ daughter. Jairus was a “ruler of the synagogue,” so it could be argued that Jesus performed this miracle on behalf of an influential Jewish man. But it was a twelve-year-old girl whom Jesus raised from the dead. In many cultures around the world—anciently but also today—female children are not as highly valued as male children. In Jesus’ day there was a rabbinic oral tradition that stated:
“It is well for those whose children are male, but ill for those whose children are female. . . . At the birth of a boy all are joyful, but at the birth of a girl all are sad. . . . When a boy comes into the world, peace comes into the world; when a girl comes, nothing comes.”
Because families want to have male children and heirs, China’s recently abolished “one child policy” created a sex-skewed demographic having 117 boys for every 100 girls (upscaled to China’s population, that means there are 30 million men for whom there are no women). By raising a twelve-year-old girl from the dead, Jesus was effectively illustrating, contrary to the Jewish culture of His day, and some cultures even today, that girls are just as valuable as boys.
And on the way to raise Jairus’ daughter, Jesus healed the woman who had suffered for twelve years with a discharge of blood, and who had spent all her money on physicians, with no good outcome. She came up behind Jesus in the crowd and touched the hem of His garment, and immediately her flow of blood stopped. (Luke 8:43-48)
Then there was a Sabbath day when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and a woman was there who had been hunched over and could not straighten her back for 18 years. When Jesus saw her, he called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. (Luke 13:10-13). (Implicit in the narrative is that Jesus called this woman from the women’s section in the back up to where he was teaching in front.) Predictably, the Pharisees were upset that Jesus had healed on Sabbath, but He shamed them by pointing out that they would treat their animals better than that woman: “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:14-17)
D. Jesus Taught Women
One day when Martha was hosting Jesus at her home, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching. Martha complained that, instead, Mary should be helping her with the domestic duties: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” Jesus answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
It was not just Mary that Jesus taught, but also Martha. Martha showed tremendous faith in Jesus at the time of Lazarus’ death, and unusual discernment regarding Jesus' divinity, and Jesus shared one of his most profound teachings with her:
Now Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:21-27)
It can scarcely be overemphasized how revolutionary was Jesus’ role as a teacher of religious truths to women. A rabbinic oral tradition said, “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than committed to women.... If a man teaches his daughter the Law, it is as though he taught her lewdness.” By his example, Jesus repudiated all that. No longer are women to be overlooked by educators, secular and religious. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28). Like men, women must be able to read scripture in order to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. 2:12)
And the results have been world-altering. Even non-Christian countries must educate their women if they wish to trade, and compete economically, with the Christian West. In 1907, over 99% of women in India could not read or write; their literacy rate was less than one percent. (The British suppressed Suttee, but made little headway on female literacy.) Even as late as 1970, the female literacy rate was only 18%. But today India is the “call center” for the world, and Indian women must be educated to serve you when you telephone from Ohio with a computer problem. Today, the female literacy rate among Indian women is almost fifty percent (50%). The same story applies to China, the world’s manufacturer, which in 1970 had a female literacy rate of 37% but today boasts 87%. Some will say this is an achievement of “modernity” or “progress” but in fact it is an achievement of Christianity and the Christian worldview (and the system of global commerce created by Western Christians).
E. Jesus re-affirmed that Marriage Should Last for Life
In Jesus’ day, the divorce laws were completely one-sided: women could not divorce men, but a husband could divorce his wife for trivial offenses. This naturally led to abuse. But Jesus said “Moses allowed you to divorce because your hearts were hard, but I tell you, if you divorce and remarry for any reason except marital unfaithfulness, you are committing adultery. (Mat. 19:3-8). This is a very high standard; grounds for divorce are strictly limited, and they apply equally to both men and women. Secure marriage protects women, elevating their status from chattel to respected life-partner. (Sadly, today’s regime of no-fault divorce renders marriage insecure and perilous, particularly for younger men and older women.)
Christianity has also stripped polygamy of respectability, not only in the West, where it was never widely practiced, but worldwide. The Christian model of one husband and one wife became the universal norm. Even Eastern nations that traditionally had practiced polygamy, such as India and China, outlawed it in the 20th century in pursuit of “modernity,” by which, again, we really mean the values and norms of Christian civilization.
Even Muslim countries that want to be more “modern” and Western, such as Turkey, Bosnia, and Tunisia, have outlawed polygamy, and other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Lebanon, have taken legal steps to curtail the practice without banning it completely. These gains are imperiled by the current Islamic revival, and by Western self-doubt, relativism, “multi-culturalism”, and sheer decadence, but that they were ever achieved at all, in the face of Islamic scriptures that clearly allow polygamy, is quite remarkable.
On this site, we emphasize that God created two sexes, and He doesn’t want the demarcation to become blurry or indistinct. There are different roles for men and women, in the home and in the church. But that does not mean that Christianity seeks to suppress and degrade women. To the contrary, no one has ever lifted up women like Christ did. Christianity has elevated women and created cultures that value and protect them. Although the Scriptures prescribe a patriarchal order in the home and the church, this obviously has not been inconsistent with uplifting women and valuing their contributions.