Jesus, Women, and Us
We live in an era in which misrepresentations of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality are common. We’re told that being pro-life is the same as being anti-women, that marriage is simply a matter of male dominance, and that Scripture’s teachings about male and female roles are merely subtle ways of affirming male patriarchy.
These things are not only common but utterly false. Scripture tells us from Genesis 1 on that women are, like men, image-bearers of God. In short, the Bible’s teachings about women are a radical departure not only from the treatment of women in the ancient world but also a culture which allows and sometimes celebrates pornography, “hook-up” sex, and the sexual trafficking of women and girls.
Consider the context of the New Testament. Brothels were about as common in ancient Rome as 7-Elevens are in modern America. As one scholar notes, “Prostitution was part of the official, public face of Roman life, not something hidden or in the background. Prostitution was considered a social necessity, an important safety valve. Rome in the fourth century had no fewer than 45 public brothels.”
It was into this world that Christianity brought the moral law of a God Who condemns prostitution, polygamy, incest, the sexual abuse of children and youth, at-will divorce (legal under Roman law), abortion and infanticide, and Who affirms the beauty and dignity of one-man, one-woman covenantal marriage.
One example: Ephesus was a major Roman city; its coliseum could hold up to 25,000 people and one of its major industries was the production of fertility idols (see Acts 19). Imagine how shocking to the Ephesian Christians this command of Paul’s might have been: “Sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you” (Ephesians 5:3). This is dramatic, revolutionary — and an affirmation of God’s good design for human sexuality.
Christianity ennobles womanhood. For example, in John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman. The Jewish people had been taught that Samaritans were their inferiors and their enemies. Yet Jesus began speaking with her — a woman no doubt known for her immorality — in broad daylight. This violated rabbinic oral law— “He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself” and “One is not so much as to greet a woman.”
Similarly, Lazarus’s sister Mary sat at Rabbi Jesus’s feet, listening to Him teach. As theologian Susan Bohlen explains, this, too, was an affront to the religious traditions of Jesus’s day. The rabbis had written, “Let the words of the Law [Torah] be burned rather than taught to women,” and “If a man teaches his daughter the law, it is as though he taught her lechery.”
Our Savior elevated the status of women in these and many other ways, recognizing them as persons possessing the same value as men. His disciples went on to affirm their Lord’s example; Peter, for instance, called on husbands to treat their wives as “fellow heirs of the grace of life,” persons for whom Christ had died and to Whom He extended the gift of salvation (I Peter 3:7).
Consider, too, the radical changes in the way the early Christians addressed issues of human sexuality. “Christianity began recognizing women as equal yet complementary to men, all being sacred in the eyes of God,” according to the late scholar David Theroux. “Christian wives did not have abortions (neither did Jewish wives), and Christians opposed infanticide, polygamy, incest, divorce, and adultery, all of which prohibitions added to the well-being of women.”
Throughout the New Testament, women are regarded as the equals of men. Paul writes to the Philippian church that women named Euodia and Syntyche “labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers” (4:2-3). In the final chapter of his letter to the Roman church, Paul lists several women, describing them in such terms as “fellow workers” and, in one case, a “fellow prisoner” for the gospel.
The great English writer Dorothy Sayers recognized in Jesus a uniqueness it is easy to miss. “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man — there had never been such another,” she wrote. “[He] had no ax to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; [He] took them [women] as He found them and was completely unselfconscious.”
This is the Lord Christians worship, born of a young Jewish virgin whose care He entrusted to John the apostle even as He, Jesus, was dying on the cross. This kind of love and respect is a reminder to all of His male followers that they serve a Master Who demands they live as He did, including in their treatment of all the women in their lives.
Want to be radical in contemporary America? Follow Jesus. You’ll get noticed — and so will He.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.