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Gender and Justice in the New Testament


The topic of gender and justice in the New Testament raises two preliminary questions: First, what modern sense of “justice” and of “gender” is closest to the intent of New Testament writers, and, second, how was gender related to justice in Greco-Roman soci­ety? How we answer these two questions should reveal the rela­tive role of cultural expectations in relation to transcultural ideals the New Testament envisages.

‘Gender’ and ‘justice’

One of the most interesting current debates in justice studies is between those who hold modernist enlightenment conceptions of rights and justice as universal, uniform, formal, and ahistori­cal, and the critics of these modernist conceptions, who either re­ject universal, uniform, formal, ahistorical conceptions of rights or who reject the idea of rights and justice altogether.

The former position is sometimes referred to as Liberalism with a capital “L,” and it includes both right-wing liberalism (lib­ertarianism) and left-wing Liberalism (welfare liberalism or wel­farism). ‘Libertarians’ want liberty defined as an absence of co­ercion or interference, the rule of law protecting the equal rights of individuals, and the abolition of public welfare programs. ‘Welfare liberalism,’ on the other hand, wants some balance be­tween liberty and equality that usually involves requiring some significant redistribution. These modernist enlightenment views of justice are challenged by several alternative views, especially the communitarian and the radical feminist critiques.

Communitarians believe that modern Liberals, whether on the right or the left, are excessively individualistic, rationalistic, and without a real place for interpersonal values or societal teleol­ogy in their systems. Such Liberals, it is alleged, want to put in­dividual rights and liberties on the same level with the ‘common good.’ Communitarians want instead to allow communities to set their own standards, to distribute harms and benefits to individu­als in ways that strengthen their membership in the community.

Radical feminist critiques argue that liberal forms of justice fail to take women into serious consideration in their theories of justice that are framed with the ‘public’ male in mind and assume that the ‘domestic’ or private sphere where women are tradition­ally found is governed by other rules outside their systems. Ac­cording to one such writer:

The unequal distribution of rights, benefits, responsibilities, and powers within the family is closely related to inequalities in the many other spheres of social and political life. There is a cyclical process at work, reinforcing the dominance of men over women, from home to work to what is conventionally re­ferred to as the ‘political’ arena, and thence back home again.1

At this point, a question is appropriate. Which view of justice is right? From a Christian perspective, this is to also ask to what extent a biblical view of justice agrees or overlaps with any of the above or does Scripture teach an alternative view?

A biblical view of justice

First, I think it is fair to say that most Christian scholars would agree that the New Testament view of justice rests squarely on the Old Testament perspectives and not on Greek or Roman under­standings.2 In the Bible, justice is closely associated with ‘righ­teousness’ (meaning ‘straight’ or ‘norm’), and both are directly derived from God’s revealed character and perceived through his words and particular divine acts in human history.3 This is the theological aspect of biblical justice and righteousness.

There is also a distinction in Scripture between God’s justice and righteousness in ‘general providence’ and his actions in ‘re­demption.’ In ‘general providence,’ God is active in his care for the whole world, but he especially acts to aid the poor, weak, vul­nerable, and oppressed in bringing his justice and righteousness to help them.4 And as Nardoni states, “Israel was called to imitate the saving conduct of God by carrying out actions of saving jus­tice toward the poor, the orphan, the widow and the foreigner.”5 In the area of ‘redemption,’ God acts in justice and righteousness to condemn the unjust and wicked and to save, deliver, and vin­dicate the just or righteous of his people.

A distinctive of biblical justice is its inseparable connection with God’s mercy, compassion, and love:6

Love raises justice above the mere equal treatment of equals; biblical justice is the equal treatment of all human beings sole­ly for the reason that as human they possess bestowed worth from God. . . . It is need which determines the distribution of justice, rather than worth, birth, merit, or ability. It is this as­sumption that all have equal merit which allows justice to be expressed by the principle of equality….The presence of grace and love in justice universalizes the formal principle of equal treatment of equals, shows a regard for the needs of each per­son, and creates the obligation to seek the good of each.7

Justice, then, becomes one of the means through which love ex­presses itself. George MacDonald has captured the concept well: “Man is not made for justice from his fellow, but for love, which

is greater than justice, and by including supercedes justice. Mere

justice is an impossibility, a fiction of analysis. It does not exist

between man and man, save relatively to human law.”8

Further, biblical mercy/justice is dominated by the principle of redress, which postulates that inequalities in the conditions necessary to achieve the standard of wellbeing be corrected to approximate equality. “According to each one’s need” became the basis for redress as seen in the early church (Acts 4:35). This may from time to time require unequal response to unequal needs. In these cases, justice, then, must be partial to be truly impartial. Finally, the biblical principle of “from each according to each one’s ability” also modifies the formal definition of equality and was practiced also by the early church: “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the believers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). As God’s people, we are to practice the kind of justice that characterizes God’s mercy/justice and righteousness (Isa. 1:17), with the exception that we are never to retaliate vengefully against those who harm us, since God has reserved vengeance for himself alone (Rom. 12:19).

So, where does this lead us in response to the question of which modern justice system is right as measured against the brief sketch of major themes of biblical justice? In Scripture, one may detect elements of both modern Liberal systems of the right and of the left as well as communitarian concerns. But it would be wrong to suggest that the biblical view simply combines elements of each into some type of synthesis of these traditions. Rather, we must allow the biblical construct to take precedence and to be ap­plied first on a case-by-case basis and then related to elements in various modern systems that may be compatible with the bibli­cal principles. For example, biblical justice will be much wider in scope in considering gender issues than the single, reductionist category of ‘oppression’ as is often the case in modern studies.

The question we will explore below is to what extent the New Testament describes cases in point or teachings involving wom­en who suffer injustice, or who experience justice as liberation, vindication.

‘Gender’ in contemporary literature

We must now glimpse briefly the meaning of the term ‘gender.’ The term originally meant kind, sort, class; genus as opposed to specie. Later, it was used as a grammatical term to distinguish masculine nouns from both feminine and neuter forms. The ‘gen­der system’ was the name for what we now call the nervous sys­tem. Gradually, the term came to be used to distinguish the male sex from the female. In modern (especially feminist) use, it is a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to em­phasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, dis­tinctions between the sexes (see The Oxford English Dictionary).

In this more modern sense, what is still debatable is the extent to which biological sex differentiation impinges on and influ­ences ‘gender’ characteristics independent of cultural and social influences. This is not the place to argue for a more maximum or more minimalist position. For our purposes, in this study we will use the term ‘gender’ to refer to women in their social and cultural arrangements vis-à-vis men in their social and cultural arrangements.

Judaic, Greek, and Roman social and cultural backdrops

The narrative and teaching materials of the New Testament are played out in the context of first-century Pales­tinian and diaspora Judaism as well as Greek and Roman culture and society. When the New Testament texts deal directly with or allude to women’s so­cial and cultural arrangements, an attempt will be made to utilize such extrabiblical materials that may cast light on issues of justice. We should remember that the use of such materials, as helpful as they may be, is never definitive, since social and cultural arrange­ments varied geographically as well as from class to class, time period, and even within specific localities.9

Gender and justice in the New Testament

For our purposes of a brief look at gender and justice, perhaps taking cases in point for each of the major divisions of the New Testament, and yet identifying areas of social life where justice concerns are involved, may be the most instructive.

Jesus and impurity laws

In Luke 8:1–3 we read:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magda­lene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.10

Jesus, significantly, heals women directly and delivers them by crossing harmful boundaries created by impurity concepts and social marginalization.11 As Turid Seim notes:

There is implicit in the motif of healing, a Christological moti­vation to service. The benefaction of Jesus finds a response in the women’s subsequent benefactory activity as they follow him. The activity is not directed to Jesus alone but benefits the whole community. . . . They share what they have, in order to meet the needs of those who no longer have anything of their own.12

Such diseases as Luke mentions rendered these women ceremo­nially impure and, as such, they would be avoided and excluded by the larger community and, in particular, by the religious who wanted to draw closer to God and avoid anything or any person who would defile them. The effect was to deny these women full participation in their own communities, which was tantamount to injustice from a biblical perspective. By healing them, Jesus not only alleviates their personal distress, but at the same time restores them justly to meaningful service and to full inclusion in the broader Jewish and Greco-Roman society and, in particular, to the Christian community.

Before leaving this passage, I should note that these women (Luke uses the word “many”) were apparently traveling with Je­sus and the disciples in public view. Such a spectacle would be quite unusual in Palestinian Jewish circles where women were often, but not exclusively, restricted from public appearances, es­pecially when men outside their families were present.13

Another text of this same type is found in Luke 8:42–48:

As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up be­hind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked. When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” Then the wom­an, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

It is generally assumed that this woman had some abnormal form of menstrual blood flow. If this were the case, she would be un­clean, and anything she touched would also be unclean. In Jesus’ culture, this condition is not just a bothersome medical condi­tion, but carries with it all sorts of social and religious marginal­ization. According to the rabbis, this unique condition, true only for women, was interpreted as part of the punishment meted out to Eve because of her sin in Eden.14

Instead of avoiding the woman, Jesus again crosses over a purity taboo boundary and allows the woman to touch his gar­ment. As a result, she is delivered from both her medical prob­lem and from the unjust social exclusion she has suffered these many years. She can be married now if she chooses and rejoin the broader and, more importantly, the Christian community, as a full participant. And Jesus, instead of being himself defiled by the woman’s impurity, is the source of her cleansing.

Another similar taboo-crossing action of Jesus is in the case of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4. In rabbinic law, Samaritan women (also Sadduccean women) were consid­ered always as unclean as menstruants.15 Jesus violates Pharisaic law in even carrying on a conversation with a woman, especially a Samaritan woman (vv. 9, 27). More importantly, Jesus drinks from the jar she was holding and thus allows himself to contract her impurity, an action contrary to rabbinic law for anyone who seeks to be approved by God. By doing this, he reveals himself to her as the promised Messiah and removes her marginalized status by empowering her as a legitimate public witness to this truth of who he is, even though her testimony is not accepted by many of the men of the city until they hear and see Jesus for themselves (vv. 39–42).

To sum up, the words of deSilva are helpful here:

Jesus’ healings of the diseased and encounters with ‘sinners’ are immersed in issues of purity rules and pollution taboos, in which we see Jesus consistently showing a willingness to cross the lines in order to bring the unclean ones back to a state of cleanness and integration into the community. Jesus enacts a conceptualization of holiness as mercy, love and compassion. Such a position is very much in keeping with the prophetic tradition of Israel that he quotes so frequently. . . . The holiness God seeks, according to Jesus’ understanding, entails reach­ing out in love and compassion, restoring the unclean and the defiled and the sinner to wholeness. The command to “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:45) is fulfilled not in the protection of purity (“separate yourselves from uncleanness,” see Lev. 15:31), but in the action of extending wholeness to the unclean (“be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” Lk 6:36).16

Again, Jesus repeatedly crosses over taboo borders in his contact with prostitutes in order to forgive, deliver, and restore them to wellbeing within the larger social and religious community. In Jesus’ day, many Jewish widows and their daughters were forced into prostitution because they could not find jobs to support themselves and their families. Prostitutes abounded in the large Roman cities in Palestine, and two brothels have been uncovered in the cities of Sebaste and Caesarea.17

One example among many recorded in Luke’s account is that of a prostitute (likely) who deliberately enters into the home of the Pharisee, Simon, when he hosts a dinner for Jesus. She ap­proaches the feet of Jesus, wets them with her tears of repentance, wipes them dry with her hair, kisses them repeatedly, and pours a whole bottle of perfume on them. Then Jesus turns to his host with all his guests in front of him and honors the prostitute for all she has done in honoring Jesus, things omitted by his Pharisee host. “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus says to her. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36–41). Jesus was doing justice in that Pharisee’s home.

I cannot read this passage without thinking of an incident in Tony Campolo’s life. Not being able to sleep due to the time zone change from Eastern to Hawaiian, at 3:00 a.m., Tony wandered into an all-night greasy-spoon dive in a dark alley and ordered a cup of coffee and a donut. He sat there munching his donut at the counter when in walked eight or nine provocatively dressed, loud, smoking, cursing prostitutes who had just finished their night’s work. Tony was planning a quick getaway. But, just then, he heard one of them tell the others that tomorrow was her birth­day, and she would be thirty-nine. Another next to her nastily replied, “What do you want me to do, get you a cake and sing happy birthday to you?” Agnes said, “I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

After the women left, Tony turned to the manager and said, “What do you think? Could we throw a birthday party for Agnes tomorrow at the same time when she comes in?” The manager, Harry, agreed and insisted on making the cake, and Tony would decorate the whole place. Harry spread the word around on the streets, and the next morning at 3:00 a.m. almost every prosti­tute in Honolulu showed up. When Agnes finally arrived they all shouted, “Surprise! Happy birthday!” She broke down in tears. And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that’s when she totally lost it. Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, “Look, Har­ry, is it all right with you if . . . I mean, if I don’t . . . I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?” She got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence and, when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other. They looked at Tony.

So Tony stood up on a chair and said, “What do you say that we pray together?” And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m., listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her salvation. Tony recalls, “I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.”18 Tony, I believe, like Jesus, was doing justice by crossing a taboo line and having a party for an unclean prostitute that demonstrated Jesus’ own love for the lost.

Jesus and widows

Another area of interest is Jesus’ attitude and action toward wid­ows. A widow or divorced woman in Palestine had an ambigu­ous life experience. On the one hand, she enjoyed a sort of le­gal liberation, making her a legal entity unto herself apart from the legal oversight of her husband. She was free to remain single (Luke 2:37) or to remarry whomever she chose (in contrast to her earlier arranged marriage). Some feminists have emphasized that widows were freed also from their primary patriarchal, instru­mental purpose in marriage, i.e., of serving the male progenitor’s quest for immortality through his progeny by becoming a wife and mother. Widows gained authority and power over their own sexuality that was otherwise denied them as women.19

Despite these advantages, widows, orphans, and divorced women were among the poorest and weakest members of the so­ciety. Their vulnerability exposed them to easy abuse by greedy persons in power. Jesus warns certain scribes against such injus­tice: “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely” (Mark 12:40). As Joel Green comments, “Distancing themselves from the-population-at-large by their concerns with public honor, they manifest no concern for widows.”20

Jesus tells a parable about a widow who must ‘box’ a corrupt judge into finally granting her her rights. The widow’s powerless­ness before the court is evident by the audacious way she must act to get a just settlement from this godless man (Luke 18:1–8).

Jesus also calls attention to a very poor widow whom he ob­served in the temple precincts putting two small copper coins into the treasury. One hundred thirty-two of these coins would be equivalent to a day’s wage for a day worker.21 So, this is a pit­tance amount, but Jesus says, “. . . she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3). He goes on to contrast the afflu­ence of the teachers of the law with her poverty, their wealth with her deficiency. Joel Green’s remarks are worth repeating:

And thus does Luke draw attention to a system, the temple treasury itself, set up in such a way that it feeds off those who cannot fend for themselves. What is worse, because it is the temple treasury, it has an inherent claim to divine legitimation. How could it be involved in injustice? It is God’s own house! This widespread assumption about the temple only highlights the necessity of Jesus’ criticism of the temple. . . . Because it has fallen into the hands of those who use it for injustice, Je­sus must comport himself and his message over against the temple and its leadership in prophetic judgment.22

Jesus and divorced women

As noted above, the plight of a divorced woman was much like that of the widow. Rabbinical law required a man to issue a con­tract of divorce (a get) to the woman, a certificate that legally freed her from any further obligation to him and allowed her to marry another man of her choice. The contract also obligated him to pay her the sum he settled on for her when they mar­ried (the ketubah).23 Despite these speed bumps that inhibited wholesale divorce in the Jewish community, the divorced woman frequently suffered economically because she had to pursue a le­gal process to collect the settlement of the divorce. Additionally, her guaranteed maintenance from her former husband under the marriage contract was now terminated.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce can be seen as addressing the plight of a woman who could be easily divorced for any reason that brought displeasure to her husband, and thus be put into a social situation of poverty. The four main texts on divorce in the syn­optic gospels have been the object of intense scrutiny and diverse interpretations within the Christian community. It is not my pur­pose here to engage that debate.

In my opinion, the most recent significant contribution to understanding the teaching of Jesus on this matter in his own social and religious context is David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context.24 In Instone-Brewer’s learned opinion, the statements of Jesus are given in the context of the debate between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai over the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. Hillel in­troduced an “any reason” basis for divorce, while Shammai was more strict and allowed divorce only for “an indecency” (under­stood as adultery). Jesus declared that “any matter” divorces were totally invalid, and that any remarriage that took place on this basis placed the remarried parties in adulterous relationships be­cause the former marriages were still valid. In Instone-Brewer’s interpretation, Jesus probably allowed also the other valid bibli­cal grounds for divorce, namely, neglect of providing food, cloth­ing, and love (Exod. 21:10–11). These recognized violations of the marital covenant (contract) are assumed and not stated in the words of Jesus.

One effect of Jesus’ teaching was to argue for monogamous, lifelong marriage. This limited the casual view of divorce that brought harm to women. Another consequence was that the woman could use adultery now as a reason to divorce her un­faithful husband, since he could no longer shield himself from this marital responsibility of faithful­ness to only one spouse. Under Jesus’ teaching, women could now, if they desired, obtain a legal divorce for­merly denied them in rabbinic law.

In another related text, Jesus equates the deliberate harboring of a desire to have sexual relations with another’s wife to “adultery”: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27). Jesus combines the seventh commandment with the tenth and discloses the injustice against women that reduces them to mere instruments of men’s passions. Consequently, women are not honored and respected as full persons. Likewise, Jesus’ teaching puts the responsibility for adultery on the man and corrects the imbalance in Jewish society of that time that blamed only the woman for this offense (see John 7:53–8:11).

A further teaching of Christ about deliberately choosing celi­bacy for the sake of the kingdom of God has not only freed males to remain unmarried, but has also opened up the way for women likewise to choose celibacy as a calling from God: “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others have been made eunuchs; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should ac­cept it” (Matt. 19:12). Paul as well seems to affirm singleness as God’s will for those who are so called (1 Cor. 7:27, 28).

Other New Testament texts: Gender and justice

In Acts and in the New Testament letters, there are several fea­tures that may be considered concerning justice and gender. First, the cultural and social situation of the new community of believers in the Greco-Roman world is very different than the Jewish, Palestinian context of Jesus’ life and ministry. In looking at various texts in this material, I believe, it is important to recog­nize both the diaspora Jewish context as well as the larger Greek and Roman context in which the church lived.

For example, in the early Jerusalem church, a problem arose concerning the Greek-speaking-enculturated Jews whose widows were being neglected in the daily food distribution of the new community. They brought their complaint in this matter against the Hebrew-speaking-enculturated Jews to the attention of the apostles. We are not told exactly why this problem arose, but ap­parently the cultural differences had created the discriminative neglect of the widows. The problem was wisely adjudicated by the appointment of a committee made up largely of Greek-speak­ing Jews (Acts 6:1–6). In other instances, such as at Corinth and Rome, the Jewish believers were mixed in with the Gentile Chris­tians, each with their own cultural and social differences.

Another feature of the context of Acts and the Epistles is that the new community of Christians, made up of Jews and Gentiles, met together in homes, not in religious buildings. These homes were often open to the public for business and, in addition, housed families, including husbands/fathers, wives/mothers, children, and slaves. This presented a unique opportunity as well as challenges as to how to exist in a Gentile cultural con­text without offending Jewish or Gen­tile sensitivities and, at the same time, live as the followers of Christ, a new community, an assembly of baptized men and women who were united together by the Holy Spirit without religious, class, status, race, or gender privileges, each of equal value, each gifted by the same Lord for ministry and ser­vice to the whole community (Gal. 3:28). This kind of community faced a unique challenge as it interfaced with a class- and status-conscious, patronage-oriented, morally confused, hierarchically ordered, and gender-discriminating society.

In Acts, a gender and justice issue may possibly be seen in the perception that women are not the channels of public witness and teaching in behalf of the gospel of Christ. Instead, men carry out the Great Commission publicly while women seem to minister and witness in domestic contexts. In my opinion, this seeming inequality is correlated with both the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures’ view that women were not to engage in certain public activities, such as politics, teaching, athletics, oratory (including declamation), and warfare.25 The public domain was thought to belong to men, and women who ventured into it were seen as try­ing to be men instead of women. Further, a woman’s testimony was not admitted into a court of law. This was an injustice, much like the practice of human slavery, that early Christians did not seek to oppose publicly because of the possible damage to the credibility of the message of Christ’s gospel (Titus 2:9–10). And yet, in the Christian community itself, no such restrictions seem to have existed. For example, at Corinth, women led in worship alternately with men in offering public prayers and preaching so long as both the men and the women maintained by their hair arrangements the differences between the sexes (1 Cor. 11:4–5).26

At Philippi, Paul and Silas encountered an obnoxious slave girl who had a fortune-telling spirit that her owners had market­ed as a profitable business. When she was delivered from this hu­man bondage and prostitution by Paul’s preaching and exorcism, her owners became bitterly angered by their loss of revenue and engineered Paul’s and Silas’s imprisonment. Here we see God’s act of justice in delivering the girl from this dehumanized life. Incidentally, in this case, we may see also how the apostles them­selves suffered unjustly as they brought God’s liberating message. They paid a price for bringing biblical justice to this woman by being beaten and put into jail (Acts 16:16–24).

We should not overlook Paul’s amazing chapter of greetings to the Roman believers as he wrote his letter to them from Corinth. Virtually the only historical information we have of the compo­sition of a Christian church in the middle of the first century, Romans 16 cites no fewer than ten women who are singled out for high commendation by Paul for their work in the ministry of the gospel. These are in addition to the very special commendation given to the church leader Phoebe, and also to Priscilla. What I am suggesting is that, by so commending these women, Paul is doing biblical justice by recognizing their equal status with the men who also labored with him. This had the important effect of enfranchising these women in the eyes of all as full participants in the ministry of the gospel.

Others have called attention to the elevation by Paul of wives’ rights to conjugal marital relations and, at least in this area, his recognition of the equal authority of the woman over the body of her husband as well as the husband’s over the body of the wife (1 Cor. 7:2–5). While this exhortation is given in the context of an ascetic group in the church who wanted to brand all marital sex as having an inferior spiritual quality (cf. St. Augustine!), it may find application to the high respect that both partners are to have for the body and the needs of the other. This certainly would bring justice concerns into the domestic sphere, a place not gen­erally considered a part of any of the major systems of justice.27

Paul’s great text about gender justice in Galatians 3:28 should be seen in the immediate context of baptism into Christ. That women were baptized as well as men (contrast with circumcision in Judaism) signals their full participation in the new community of Jesus where “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.” It is important to note that these religious, social, and sexual distinctions are not erased in Christ, but are relativized and transformed. The distinctions remain, but carry no significance in terms of status or privilege in the new community of Christ’s followers, where all are mutually in Christ, mutually interdependent by means of equally honored but differ­ent gifts of the Spirit, and equally participants in the community and mission of Jesus in the world. This is a statement of biblical justice as it operates in this age.


Perhaps this is enough to demonstrate that the New Testament provides numerous cases of biblical gender justice in operation—this despite the various local forms of patriarchal social systems that constrained the early Christians and challenged them to live as much as possible within the social structure in their locali­ties without fostering unnecessary ill will toward the gospel from either the Jewish or Gentile populace who lived under these so­cietal structures.

On the other hand, early Christians could, first within their own communities and then in the larger social cultural contexts, exhibit such justice and thus subvert both individual and sys­temic evils by protest and by following the example of an alter­native way of doing justice, which they learned from Jesus and experienced in the new community of Christ’s church. Here, they would live together as equally valued, fully accepted members of the one body of Christ with all their individual diversities of gen­eration, race, social status, religious background, or gender pre­served, but carrying no special privilege as they shared together in mutual interdependence in God’s calling for their community and their individual lives.

Does the justice described in the above New Testament ex­amples fit any of the modern liberal concepts of justice? What we have seen is a justice that is rooted in the being and actions of God in history and especially in the incarnate Jesus. It is a justice that is never separated from mercy or love, a justice that is es­pecially focused on the weak, marginalized, oppressed, excluded members of society. Such may by God’s grace and righteousness be delivered, forgiven, made whole, and restored to full partici­pation in God’s community as well as in the broader society—a community where the individual is important, but not absolute; the community’s flourishing is directly related to the individual being restored as a full, valued, honored member.

Finally, gender justice is not optional in the Christian home and church, or in the wider non-Christian social context—not if Jesus’ prayer that he taught us is to be fulfilled: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”


  1. Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (San Francisco, Calif.: Basic, 1989), 11; also in Justice: Alternative Political Perspectives, 4th ed., ed. James P. Sterba (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003), 236; see also Duncan B. Forrester, Christian Justice and Public Policy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 177–81; 220–29.
  2. Norman H. Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (London: The Epworth Press, 1953), 68–78; Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 43–45; Stephen C. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1982), 76–81.
  3. Snaith, 76, argues that God’s righteousness, tsedeq, and God’s jus­tice, mishpat, are virtually synonymous, the former being the standard of God’s revealed will, the latter the effecting of this will in human affairs often in the law courts.
  4. Wright, An Eye for An Eye, 136.
  5. Enrique Nardoni, Rise Up O Judge: A Study of Justice in the Biblical World (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004), 317.
  6. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change, 48–81; Arthur F. Holmes, “Biblical Justice and Modern Moral Philosophy,” Faith and Philosophy 3, no. 4 (Oct. 1986): 416–28; Duncan B. Forrester, Christian Justice, 205–45.
  7. Mott, Biblical Ethics and Social Change, 64.
  8. George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, first series, 1st ed. (Eu­reka, Calif.: Sunrise Books, 1988), 225.
  9. I think an email note to me by my colleague and esteemed Chris­tian philosopher, Arthur Holmes, is significant: “In Plato’s Republic, books IV and V, justice is identified as the virtue that coordinates the other 3 virtues associated respectively with appetites (self control), spir­itedness (courage), and intellect (wisdom). It therefore amounts to the ordered unity of the self, or of the corresponding elements of a society. So how do women fit into society? He declares they can be and do what­ever they are able, education and occupation, just as men do. Aristotle in Book V of his Nichomachean Ethics speaks of justice as fairness, equal­ity, a proper balance, and distinguishes several types: distributive, reme­dial, commercial, and commutative. In his “Politics” (book 1, I think) he asserts that, like individuals, the state rules those who cannot rule themselves, don’t have the rational control life requires, and there are three such groups: young children, those who by their nature are slaves, and women. In effect the ancient Greeks are a mixed bag on women. The Roman stoics seem similar, at least Cicero’s De Republica stresses the rule of reason and the natural ordering of life. But Augustine, for all his dependence on Plato and the Stoics, seems more complex and changes his estimate of women and marriage along the way. Check his Confes­sions, book 1 and then book 9, for the episode with his mother” (note dated 19 March 2008).
  10. TNIV here and following.
  11. David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlock­ing New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 283.
  12. Turid Karlsen Seim, The Double Message: Patterns of Gender in Luke-Acts (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1994), 251.
  13. Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996), 128–29.
  14. Ilan, Jewish Women, 102.
  15. Ilan, Jewish Women, 105.
  16. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, 283–84.
  17. Luise Schottroff, Let the Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament, Gender, and the Biblical Tradition, 1st ed. (Louis­ville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 152.
  18. I have heard Tony relate the story himself in graphic detail, but you can read his full and colorful account in The Kingdom of God Is a Party: God’s Radical Plan for His Family (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1990) 3–8.
  19. Seim, The Double Message, 257–58.
  20. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, New International Commen­tary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1997), 727.
  21. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 728.
  22. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 728–29.
  23. George Foot Moore, Judaism, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni­versity Press, 1962), 2:123.
  24. David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 133–88.
  25. Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (New York, N.Y.: Facts on File, 1994), 339.
  26. Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, The IVP New Testament Com­mentary Series (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004), 188, 192–93.
  27. Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family, 8–10; Forrester, Christian Justice, 177–81, 220–29.
Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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