His treatment of women was revolutionary, counter to the culture of the day

Jesus and Women: What Did Jesus Do?

by Joe E. Trull | April 30, 2000
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Have you seen the bracelets with the letters “W.W.J.D.” printed on the band? This popular item is worn by children, teenagers, and adults to remind them to ask, “What would Jesus do?”

The reminder intends to help disciples of Christ to follow the example of Jesus. Yet that present-day question cannot be answered until the believer first reads the gospel and asks, “What did Jesus do?

The most distinctive element in Jesus’ teachings is Jesus himself. No other religion exists in which the historic founder is the standard for the doctrine he teaches. Only Jesus perfectly illustrates everything he taught. To his disciples, Jesus said, “I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Simon Peter reminded the first Christians that Christ left “you an example, so that you could follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21).

A much-debated issue in the nineties is the proper role of women in church and society. In this century, basic equality for women finally has been realized. A dramatic reversal also has occurred in society’s attitude toward the mistreatment of females. However, many voices are crying for greater liberation and justice for women.

Where Does The Church Stand In All Of This?

Many accuse the Christian community of supporting beliefs and practices that perpetuate female subordination. Is it possible that the church of Jesus Christ may have defended social customs rather than upheld God’s ideal in gender relationships? Does the example of Jesus provide guidelines?

To interpret Jesus’ treatment of women in the first century correctly, an understanding of the New Testament world is absolutely essential. Although Jewish women occupied a position of dignity and responsibility in the home, in social life they were little more than an appendage of their husbands.

In his book The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon, William Barclay noted, “In Jewish law she was not a person but a thing; she was entirely at the disposal of her father or of her husband. She was forbidden to learn the law; to instruct a woman in the law was to cast pearls before swine.” Jewish women were allowed no part in the synagogue service, could not teach in school, and their testimony was not credible evidence in court.

In the Graeco-Roman world, the situation was no better. The respectable Greek woman lived a secluded life, confined to her quarters. Normally the wife appeared in public only once or twice each year, usually during religious festivals or at a relative’s funeral. The reason for the wife’s seclusion was her primary role in the marriage: to bear a male heir for her husband. Demosthenes explained the accepted rule of life: “We have courtesans for the sake of pleasure; we have concubines for the sake of daily cohabitation; we have wives for the purpose of having children legitimately, and of having a faithful guardian of all our household affairs” (Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians).

In stark contrast to this universal denigration of first-century females, Jesus’ attitude toward women was totally countercultural. Sweeping aside centuries of tradition and prejudice, Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary. What did he do? Christ simply related to women in the same way he related to men, never regarding females as inferior in any way.

Four biblical examples illustrate the contrast. In the woman at the well encounter, Jesus recognized women as persons capable of responding to God (John 4:7-30). No rabbi would have spoken to any woman in public, especially this Samaritan with a sinful past. However, the first person to whom Jesus revealed himself as God’s Messiah was a foreign female.

In Jesus’ day, the double standard prevailed. Men could commit adultery with little consequence, but guilty women often were stoned. To the group about to execute a woman caught “in the very act of committing adultery” (John 8:4), Jesus clearly condemned this censorious spirit and double standard (John 8:7).

Another episode occurred in the home of Martha and her sister, Mary, where Jesus confronted stereotyped female roles (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was upset with Mary not just because she was shirking her duties, but also because she was “out of her place.” Mary dared to relate to Jesus as only men were allowed, listening and learning about God. Jesus not only defended her right to do so, but also seemed to invite Martha to join her.

A final episode occurred on the first Easter morning. In ancient Judaism, only the witness of two or more men was admissible evidence in court. Yet all four Gospels record that the first witnesses to the empty tomb were women (John 20:1-18). By announcing the resurrection through the testimony of women, God affirmed their role in sharing the good news.

What do these biblical examples mean? Simply this: Jesus refused to reinforce the cultural misunderstandings of his day about the status of women. Jesus never suggested that women are weak or easily deceived. Nor does he forbid women to study the Scriptures or teach his Word. Rather, Jesus intentionally treated all daughters of Eve as persons created in God’s image, responsible to God for their lives and the use of their gifts.

The New Testament church followed Jesus’ example. Pentecost was Emancipation Day as God’s Spirit was equally poured out on men and women (Acts 2:17-18). As the Christian faith spread throughout the civilized world, the strategic role of women became evident. Churches were founded in the homes of women like Lydia of Philippi (Acts 16:14-15). Women emerged as church leaders in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), Berea (Acts 17:12), Athens (Acts 17:34), and Corinth (Acts 18:1-8). Paul named eleven women in his list of prominent leaders in the church at Rome, including Phoebe, a “servant” (diakonos)—leader (prostatis) in the church (Rom. 16:1-2).

In a day when women were severely restricted from participating in social life, it is remarkable that Christian women were extensively involved in the life of the early church. In fact, this change in women’s roles in the New Testament churches precipitated much discussion about females in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 11:2-16, 14:33-36; Eph. 5:26-33; 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 3:1-13).

As God’s ultimate revelation, Jesus’ treatment of women was determinative. What did Jesus do? Simply this. In a day when women were universally subjugated, denigrated, and mistreated, Jesus affirmed females as persons created in God’s image, equal in worth and equal in responsibility to God (Gen. 1:26-27). Jesus liberated women from slavery to sin and from demeaning social customs, inviting them to work, witness, and serve Christ in the church and in the world (Luke 8:1-3).