Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 2, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 10: Jesus and Women)

Yesterday we alluded to Jesus’ interactions with women.  While they do not seem all that noteworthy to the modern reader, when considered in their socio-cultural context, they represented a truly remarkable paradigm shift.  Jesus acted publicly in defiance of the stereotypes and sexual double-standard of His day.  Although they were considered evil seductresses to be avoided at all costs, Jesus not only portrayed women as protagonists in His parables, but also spoke publicly with them and even allowed them to touch Him.  Although they were considered mentally inferior, He discussed theology with women and even allowed them to “sit at his feet” (a practice reserved for the male rabbinic students of that day).  Considered undependable, it was the women who did not abandon Him after His arrest.  Considered unreliable witnesses, it was women who were first entrusted with the ultimate testimony of all time—His resurrection!  Not only were they the first to see the empty tomb, but also the first to encounter the resurrected Lord.  Three points are noteworthy in a gospel discussion of marriage:

Nowhere in Jesus’ teaching do we see a distinction in the role or status of persons based on gender.  Indeed, Jesus uses gender-inclusive and affirming language to a degree that is startling when considered in the context of other writing of the period  (Matt 12:50, 15:28, Mark 3:35, Luke 7:36-50, e.g.).  Astonishingly, Jesus even features a woman as the character analogous to God in the parable of the Lost Coin.   Jesus doesn’t seem to elevate the prized role of homemaker-wife-mother enshrined in complementarian circles today with His response to the woman who blesses the one who gave birth to and nursed Him:  “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”  (Luke 11:27-28)  Women, like men, are valued as persons in relationship to God, not because of the “roles” they fulfill.

By the time Jesus completed His earthly ministry, we have the entire Old Testament plus all the recorded teachings of God incarnate, and nowhere do we find women being commanded to obey their husbands.  In fact, there is no record anywhere in the biblical text of the people of God refusing to follow the leadership of anyone because of gender.  In Mark 10:2-12, Jesus’ instructions for husbands and wives are identical, a reversal of the sexual double-standard that discriminated against women.  When Jesus was a child, Hillel, one of the most well-known rabbis in Jewish history, passed away.  Perhaps his most infamous legacy was no-fault divorce (for men).  When the Pharisees asked Jesus “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matt 19:3), they were quoting Hillel and asking Jesus to comment on his teaching.

Notice the first part of Jesus’ reply:  “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (verse 8).  What was he talking about?  In the ancient near east, if a man abandoned his wife, no other man would marry her, for fear that her first husband would show up and reclaim her.  This reduced many spurned women to begging or prostitution.  Ideally, men would love their wives; but because “their hearts were hard,” i.e., there was no reasonable expectation that men would change their behavior, Moses instead gave instructions for a certificate of divorce in order to give women a modicum of protection from this sort of mistreatment.  But Hillel and his followers perverted this teaching to mean that a man was justified in dumping his wife for “any and every reason:”  she burned the barley cakes, left his tunic out on the rock too long and it faded on one side, or he just decided he wanted a younger model.  Needless to day, wives did not enjoy this dubious privilege.  But in the Mark exchange, Jesus doesn’t just correct their understanding of what constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce; he adds that women are held to the same standard as men.  Luke 12:48 and James 3:1 explain that there are differing standards of judgement based upon the gifts and influence over others that are entrusted to us.  If, in God’s mind, men and women have differing responsibilities in a marriage, then it makes little sense that men and women should be held to the same marital standard.  Lest we underestimate the weight and impact of Jesus’ teaching in leveling the marital playing field, note the disciples’ (not the Pharisees’) response:  “Gee, if that’s how it is, you’re better off not getting married at all!”  (Matt 19:10)  Jesus does nothing to reassure them that their privilege remains intact.  Instead, He agrees with them…yes, this is a hard teaching.

I think one of the most interesting and often overlooked details regarding the earthly ministry of Jesus is the fact that Gabriel approached Mary directly, not her husband Joseph (Matt 1:19).  If a husband is vested by God with ultimate decision-making authority for his family as complementarians claim, one would think that Joseph (or perhaps Mary’s father) would have at least been included in the discussion, if not approached first.  But by the time Joseph learns of the impending arrival, the decision has already been made…by Mary.  There are only two ways to explain this episode.  Either male authority is not God’s design for the family, or once again, God must be characterized as sidestepping His own mandate.

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Responses

  1. Makes me want to point a finger at all of the male chauvenists and let loose with Nelson’s famous taunt, “HA HA!”

  2. The tough part for me is that the Christian circle that I participate in uses only the KJV. To be honest I don’t think I could part with my own King James Version without much angst. I brought this up only to mention a verse that uses the word “obey”. As you mentioned that ‘nowhere do we find women being commanded to obey thier husbands.” The verse in Titus 2:5, “To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, OBEDIENT to thier own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.” In my KJV it is right there in black and white. KJV only’s see this as a “slam dunk” for women’s suborditnate position.

    What say ye?

    Peace

    • Hi (again) Terri–
      I can relate. I use the KJV in my studies, too. It’s the version I memorized verses from growing up, and Bible tools like Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance reference it. Some of my extended family are members of the King James Only crowd, too. I think what we need to remember, though, is that Evangelicals affirm that what is the inspired word of God is the original autograph, and in the case of the New Testament, that’s Greek. Titus 2:5, like the rest of the texts regarding wives, uses “hupotasso” (submissive) not “hupokuete” (obedient). I think if anyone is going to dig their heels in and insist on obedience over submission because that’s what the KJV says, that’s a sign that such a person is not ready to allow the text to confront them. There isn’t really much you can do about that. I hope that you’re part of a faith community in which Romans 14 is at work.

      I hope we correspond again soon!

  3. You know, it’s funny because I have attended holiness/pentecostal denomination all my life and there has not been any teaching on the original Hebrew or Greek. I have been told that most people that study the original languages (or try in my case) end up losing out with God. I did not know if that person was saying that to discourage my efforts (don’t try to get to smart) or really felt that way. In my christian community religious studies into these areas are frowned upon. I have tried to understand the resistance to such pursuits as God’s Word encourages us not to be ignorant but to be wise and to walk circumspectly.

    It is so great to have someone who has been raised on the KJV. If I try to discuss original hebrew or greek words all my references have to come from Strong’s (that is if I want to them to take me seriously). It is difficult being limited to just a few resources, but, anything else and our discussion will be quickly dismissed (as alot of my christian friends consider anything other than Strong’s resources to be liberal…….?)

    It is difficult as with my Titus 2:5 conundrum. The Bible says, “obedient’, in black and white. I have found it really trying to actually get people to look these words up as they just assume, take for granted, etc. that the English Translators translated Word for Word……..why bother. It amazes me because in the very front of my King James Version it tells me that the translators gave some alternate translations. Matter of fact, this is what is says, “An Alternate Translation–is different in meaning from the words in the text but is justified by the origianl languages. That is, the translators could have understood the original word of phrase this way, although they (felt) their choice was more apporiate.”

    My Bible also says that it has Equivalent Translations—is (similar) in meaing to the translation in the text. It helps you to understand the text by showing you a synonym.

    It also sometimes, shows a Literal Translation of a word (in the margins of my Bible) an example being the world in the Literal was ‘Teacher’ but the translators penned ‘Master’ instead. I guess some would say, ‘whats the big deal? My thought was way didn’t they just use the word Teacher, why change it? Anyway, discussion like this always digress into me NOT believing what Gods Word says……….it is just so frustrating!

    I had one sister give me a stunned look when I read that to her.

    • Lots of difficulties here! Those who have never studied a second language (unfortunately, that’s the majority of Americans) seldom grasp that translating involves more than simply encoding and decoding a string of words. My daughter did something for fun a few years ago. She typed in the words to Ernie’s “Rubber Ducky” song from Sesame Street and ran it through an on-line translator to render it in other languages, and then back into English again. The results were hilarious. We got a great laugh out of it, but it really illustrates what we’re talking about. Many folks are understandably reluctant to engage in the original languages, simply because they do not have the wherewithal to check the facts for themselves. That’s one of the reasons why I try to begin with context first and use the Greek only to supplement. (There are some scholars who argue that context is more important than word studies, anyway, and I tend to agree with them). I don’t want to leave people feeling that they can’t read and understand their English Bible. I do think it helps to look at many translations, especially if one is unfamiliar with Greek.

      I would just remind all of us who are engaged in this discussion (myself included) that we need to remember to be sensitive to Romans 14, to avoid passing judgement upon one another with regard to disputable matters. Often women who are beginning to question the traditional teachings on male authority are labeled as subversive or rebellious, so it’s only natural that we want others to not pass judgement on us. But it’s incumbent upon us to extend the same grace to others that we want for ourselves. It’s only natural to want to share what we’re learning, particularly with other women. I think it’s helpful to remember that growing in wisdom and Christlikeness is a process; God doesn’t show us everything that needs to change in us all at once. We couldn’t take it! So, if your friends are unreceptive, it could be it’s because the Holy Spirit has more important fish to fry with them than male headship right now.

  4. Thank you for all the good advice……..i really do appreciate you taking time to respond to me. I guess it is just so important to me as I have just left the church I attended for over 10 years in part, because of the pastors view of women in ministry, the home and society. Don’t get me wrong, I still respect him as a leader and care for him as a christian brother but I found it impossible to continue to fellowship with him……..as it felt hypocritical. I started off years ago questioning some of his comments (respectfully) from the pulpit. He would say things like the husband is the ‘supreme ruler’, and teaching a chain-of-command, and “Gods Protocol’….etc. He was effectively linking the relationship between men and women to the workings of the military (authority based instead of love and self sacrificially based.) Where my problem started was I simply asked some questions. Needless to say, my relationship with him began to take a nose dive.

    Many women that take the position of an egalitarian are made to feel subversive, rebellious and simply wrong. What I am effectively dealing with is not a conflict of (MY) faith but, instead it is a conflict of differing interpretations that affect me ( as a woman) personally. The fact that words like ‘supreme ruler’ in reference to the husband can be used and nobody bats an eye is scary to me. As I told my former Pastor, “you will never have to deal with rejection by fellow Brothers and Sisters of your ministry, calling, or the gospel message based on your gender.” He stood thier silent……..what could he say. It really began to grate my nerves when I would hear, “Oh, your to sensitive.”……..one of those female traits that keeps us in trouble people say. Regardless of my emotions, it was just flat wrong for him to teach male superiority from the pulpit. Anyway, all this is fresh for me and I apologize if I sound angry, that is not my intention.

    Blessings

  5. Terri, no need to apologize. Many women, myself included, have a similar experience. Being angry is a normal part of the process, as is having people look at you as though you’re crazy. I think the reason it’s so hurtful is not because folks are telling you you’ve made an intrepretive error, but because they’re telling you that there is something profoundly flawed in your character…that’s the “passing judgement” part. That’s why I’ve said that male headship theology has hurt many women, even ones who are not married to a tyrant. One of the things I prize about the group of believers I fellowship with is that we all acknowledge that we have different points of view, but we choose to focus on Christ instead of our differences. It’s so refreshing to have church not be about “what’s wrong with Vickie.” I pray that you will find a faith community in which you can find that kind of rest and refreshment. I’ll be writing about authority in the church soon. I think you’ll find it interesting.


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