Jesus had a radical approach for the times in which he lived 2,000 years ago. The culture of the Middle East then was male-dominated. Women were second-class citizens with very few rights. Jesus might not be seen as a feminist by some modern standards, but his attitude to women was revolutionary. He challenged the patriarchy repeatedly. He saw women as equal to men and treated them with equal respect. The Bible books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John document a range of encounters Jesus had with various women, which illustrate how he challenged the norms of the time and treated women with compassion and care.
He saw women as equal to men and treated them with equal respect.
The Bible book, John, tells of a meeting between Jesus and aSamaritan woman which shows this. The woman had gone to a well in the heat of the day to get water. Jewish people despised the Samaritans and avoided them and their territory. But Jesus, a Jew, took his (Jewish) followers on a trip through Samaria. He stopped at the well because he was tired and thirsty. In the culture of the times, a man would not speak to a woman he did not know and a respectable Jew would never talk to a Samaritan. And yet Jesus started up a conversation. He soon revealed that he knew she had had several husbands and was living with another man. It is likely that the woman had been shunned by her community – she was fetching water alone at midday whereas women would normally get water in the morning or evening. But Jesus did not shun her nor condemn her. Instead he promised to give her ‘living water’ which would quench her spiritual thirst.
Another encounter reported by the Bible book, John, is where Jewish religious leaders were demanding that a woman caught committing adultery should be stoned to death. Note that they made no such demands about the man involved: there was no sense of equality. The leaders tried to use the situation to catch out Jesus. But he challenged the hypocrisy and misogyny of the leaders. He told them the only ones who had any right to throw stones at the woman were those who had done nothing wrong themselves. The crowd of would-be stoners soon melted away. Jesus did not condemn the woman or condone what she had done – but he did tell her to change her ways.
Jesus spent much of his time of teaching and travelling with ordinary people and the outcasts of society. He healed men and women. He put his commitment to equality into practice. One encounter with an elderly widow illustrates his compassion. The woman’s only son had died, leaving her without help or a source of income. Seeing this, Jesus miraculously brought the son back to life. In another story, we are told how a prostitute sneaked into a dinner party and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears then anointed them with expensive perfume because she was so grateful for the compassion and love she had been shown. It would have been a very controversial thing to do but Jesus was not offended. He was grateful. On another occasion, a woman with prolonged menstrual disorder crept up and touched him to try to obtain healing. For such a woman to touch a man was forbidden, and likely to open her up to severe criticism. But, again, Jesus was unembarrassed and compassionate – and she left, healed.
Jesus’ closest 12 followers were all men, which was probably culturally appropriate for the times. But he had many women followers too. And a number of women played significant roles in Jesus’ life. The Bible book, Luke, says it was women who financially supported Jesus and his 12 disciples as he travelled about teaching and healing people. The accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion make it clear there were many women followers watching as he carried his cross through the streets of Jerusalem and was then executed on that cross. And it was women who first encountered the risen Jesus after his resurrection.
He healed men and women. He put his commitment to equality into practice.
The accounts of the early church show that the template set by Jesus was followed by the first Christians. In the Bible book, Romans, Paul – a key figure in the early church – pays tribute to a woman called Phoebe, telling the Christians in Rome, ‘I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me’. Phoebe was a wealthy businesswoman and a supporter of Paul’s work. In the same book, Paul mentions Priscilla and Aquila, a married couple whose work was significant in the growth of the church.
There are differences of opinion among Christians about the role of women in the church. Some Bible teachings from the time after Jesus suggest that women should not take part in church services – for example, they should not teach or have authority over men. Some Christians believe that this still applies today. The majority of Protestant Christians today believe that this referred only to certain churches in the early days of Christianity.