Is Christianity Anti-Women?
One of the criticisms often leveled against Christianity is that it is fundamentally oppressive to women. While its certainly true that the men who have led the Church for the past 2,000 years have often abused that power, Christianity did not start out this way. This week in our series, “I Have a Question” we go to the Truth and look at what Jesus taught about the value and dignity of women.
Click here to view the past teaching series entitled “Beautiful” mentioned in this message.
If this is your first time here, we’re in a series called “I Have A Question.” And today, the question we’re asking is — Is Christianity anti-women?
What does Christianity have to say about women in particular? Are men and women equal in the eyes of God according to the writers of Scripture?
This is from a book of letters children wrote to God. “Dear God, are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but please try to be fair.”
Now, one of the teachings of Jesus about God is that God is spirit.
Which means God doesn’t have a body.
Which means God doesn’t have sexual organs.
Which means God doesn’t have testosterone or estrogen.
Which means God transcends gender — just as God transcends all ethnicities.
Which means, according to Genesis, quite uniquely in the ancient world, men do not bear or reflect the image of God any more than women do.
Which means you may have to rethink what you think about women, or men, or God.
What I want to do in this message is talk about what Jesus did, and still does for women.
This will be quite a bit of history we walk through so I hope you’re able to stick with me. We’re going to look at how Jesus did and still does honor and value and ennoble women.
Let me start with this question: what is the life of a woman worth?
I want to start with a true story in my life and work back to the ancient world.
About seventeen years ago, when Kathy and I lived in San Diego, Kathy was at work, and I was home with Lily who was about 4-5 months old at the time.
Lily was a strong child. She started crawling at 6 months old and walking at 8 months old.
On this day at 4 or 5 months old, I was feeding her lunch in her bumbo seat on the island in our kitchen, just like we did everyday.
When she was done, I turned 180 degrees to the sink to clean off the dishes. I had my back to her for just a moment.
The next thing I know Lily is on the floor screaming.
Somehow she managed to work her way out of the bumbo seat and fell from the island to the floor, landing pretty hard on her head.
Needless to say, I was concerned that there could be a serious injury. I remember picking her up and holding her so tight and praying that she was okay.
She had a soft spot on her head from the fall so I decided to take her to the hospital to get an x-ray. I was concerned she might have a skull fracture or broken bone or something.
I remember it so vividly Lily was so scared lying on the x-ray table. I felt so horrible as a father. I literally started to shake as we waited for the results of the x-ray.
They came back with no fracture. There was nothing seriously wrong.
And I held Lily as tightly as I could, and I told her, “I’m so grateful that you’re okay. I’m so grateful there will be no permanent damage from this. I’m so grateful you’re so tiny and you won’t remember any of this. I’m so grateful you cannot talk yet and you won’t tell Mommy. I will tell Mommy… someday… maybe years down the road… maybe in a real safe setting like a church service in front of a few hundred people.”
Think about how valuable that little life is.
And now I want you to think back to the ancient world.
There was a common practice in the ancient world of which you may not be aware.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world men outnumbered women. Men outnumbered women almost two to one.
Now, an obvious question is, what happened to all the women?
They were left to die when they were born the wrong sex.
Leaving an unwanted infant to die was common practice in that day. It wasn’t something that got covered up or was considered cruel.
It would happen sometimes with male babies if they were deformed. But it would happen mostly with babies that were born girls.
This is the world into which Jesus was born. A world where girl babies were disposable.
Question: as a matter of history, why did that change? Why did the disposal of girl babies stop?
Because there was a movement of people who said all children matter to God.
All children, male as well as female, carry the image of God and, therefore, leaving baby girls to die is wrong and has got to stop.
And of course this value came from the life and teachings of Jesus. And eventually the value of that little community of followers of Jesus changed the course of history.
Jesus changed the way we treat and welcome children. And he changed the way we treat and welcome women.
Jesus broke through cultural and religious barriers to restore dignity to women.
Jesus was the most approachable person in human history. There was an inclusivity about him. Jesus honored women in a way that drew them to him.
This marked his relationship with every women in his life. And this changed the way you and I view women today.
But this was not the case before Jesus.
In ancient Athens, girls received little or no education. Girls were legally classified as a child, no matter how old they became or what their IQ was. Therefore, they were always the property of some man.
They were often married by the onset of puberty or before. And of course, this goes on in many parts of our world today. The organization Too Young To Wed, who’s mission is to end child marriage, says that today an estimated 12 million girls are married before reaching age 18.
If a woman in the ancient world, in Rome or Greece, was seduced or raped, her husband was legally obligated to divorce her.
In fact, if you seduced a married woman, you would face a worse sentence than if you violated her against her will.
Because if you seduced her, the idea was that she might be tempted to give you some of her husband’s money or property. And laws about women were largely laws about property.
If a woman was violated, compensation would go to her husband or to her father, but not to her.
In the ancient world, it was generally understood that a woman’s highest calling was to bear children, particularly male children.
In ancient Sparta in Greece, a mother who gave birth to a son would receive twice as much food as a mother who gave birth to a daughter.
The only women who got their names put on a tombstone were women who died in childbirth. They wanted women to know that their job was to produce children.
That’s the ancient world into which Jesus was born.
One day Jesus was teaching. This is from Luke 11:27-28.
As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”
Now that’s a nice thing to say about Jesus. You would expect Jesus to say, “That’s right. My mom is the best mom there is.”
But he doesn’t say that. What he says is:
He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Now that’s kind of a cracky thing to say. He basically says to the woman who called out, “No, you’re wrong.”
But he wants to make a point. For Jesus, the highest calling of a woman is no longer to bear a child. Motherhood, like fatherhood, is a noble calling, but it’s not the ultimate calling.
And Jesus wants everyone to know what they often miss. — If you don’t have children, you have not missed out on Jesus’ call on your life. And if you do have children, you are not defined by how they turn out. Isn’t that good news?
The highest calling of a woman is also the highest calling of a man, because we share a common humanity, and that is the glorious adventure of coming to know and do the will of God in whose image they were made.
And through Jesus, this calling is now available to any women, regardless of her age or her marital status or her child-bearing capacity.
This was a remarkable concept in the ancient world.
One day Jesus was teaching in the home of Mary and Martha. Martha has been doing all the work of preparation and hostessing. And we’re told that Martha had a sister, Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he said.
Now Martha gets kind of ticked off that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and she complains to Jesus about this. Look at Luke 10:41-42
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered,
By the way, when Jesus says your name twice, you’re in a little trouble.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Now many people in our day turn this story about Mary and Martha into a story about busyness – how it’s better to be still at the feet of Jesus than to be busy running around in the kitchen.
No one in the first century would have read the story that way.
This phrase to sit at someone’s feet is actually a technical phrase which in ancient Israel meant to become someone’s disciple.
The apostle Paul uses this phrase in Acts 22:3 when he said, “I sat at the feet of Gamaliel.”
Gamaliel was a well respected rabbi, and Paul was saying, “I was his disciple.”
Paul was saying, “I have good credentials.” It would be like someone in our day saying, “I went to Harvard or Stanford.”
When the text says she sat at Jesus’ feet, it means she became a disciple of Jesus.
Martha did what the culture valued in women: she cleaned the house and cooked the food.
Mary did what the culture valued in men: she became a disciple of Jesus.
And Jesus says, “Martha got it wrong and Mary got it right.”
You know, I have two daughters. I look at their gifts, and I look at their minds, what they’re going to contribute to this world. And I am so grateful to serve a savior who had the boldness to say, “It’s a new day for women. I want women as well as men to sit at my feet, to know me and learn from me.”
I’m so grateful Jesus cherishes the gifts of my wife and my daughters as seriously and as deeply as he cherishes my gifts and my sons gifts.
You see, Jesus is inviting women to be his disciples. Jesus is changing the way the world views women.
In John, chapter 4 there’s a story about Jesus having a conversation with a Samaritan women.
A lot of you know Samaritans were sort of despised by most Israelites. Well, Jesus and this Samaritan woman meet at a well where Jesus stops to get a drink of water during a long walk.
This conversation was highly unusual.
First of all, it was not a usual thing for a rabbi in that day to talk to a woman. Rabbis generally held women to be inferior.
One ancient rabbinic saying was, “It’s better for the Torah” — the book of the law — “to be burned than to be taught to a woman.”
There was an ancient prayer that is found in several texts, “Blessed art Thou, oh God, who did not make me a woman.”
A devout rabbi wouldn’t even talk to a woman.
In fact, there was a certain group of rabbis — you’ll think I’m making this up, but I’m not — called the “bruised and bleeding rabbis.”
They believed that even to look at a woman would lead a man to sin. So they walked all the time with their eyes either down to the ground, or would close them if they thought there was a woman in their peripheral vision so they wouldn’t see her.
They were forever bumping into buildings and falling off curbs. And they were called the “bruised and bleeding rabbis.” It’s true.
Well, Jesus’ disciples show up at this well where Jesus is talking with this Samaritan woman.
At one point Jesus says to this woman she has five husbands and is now living with a man to whom she is not married.
People in our day read that and often assume — married five times; living with a guy now — Jesus is pointing out the sexual immorality or unfaithfulness of this woman.
But it’s actually different than that.
Divorce was rare in that day, and we don’t know from this story how many of her marriages ended in divorce or how many of them might have ended because of a husband’s death.
But here’s what we do know — we have no records in that day of a divorce being initiated by a wife.
The men were the ones who held that power.
In other words, this Samaritan woman has been rejected over and over and over again by the men in her life.
She’s poor. She has to go to the well to get water. She doesn’t live in a family or a marriage where they would have enough money to have a servant.
Jesus was probably not talking about casual sex when he says:
The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.
If a man in that time wanted a woman of lower class, a poor woman, he could bring her into his pre-existing marriage as a concubine or a second wife or a slave. So this is very possibly this woman’s only means of survival.
And what Jesus is saying to this woman is — “I know you. I know you’re a woman. I know you’re a Samaritan. I know you’re poor. I know your life is very hard. I know your story. And I care about you. You matter to me, and I want you to know me.”
And this rabbi sits at a well and engages in a deep theological and personal conversation with this poor, rejected, Samaritan woman who was married five times and is now doing whatever she can to survive.
He takes her soul seriously. He takes her identity seriously.
You see, Jesus is intentional about what he’s doing here. He’s treating this woman like someone who has her own identity as a human being.
Men in Jesus’ day had this tendency to define women’s identities in terms of the men in their life.
Old story that I think I’ve told you before but it’s one of my favorites.
There was a guy who was a CEO of a huge corporation. He was driving with his wife, and they pulled into a gas station.
He decided to pump the gas while she went in to purchase a few things.
While he was pumping the gas, he noticed his wife engaging in an animated conversation with the gas station attendant.
As they were driving away, he asked if she knew the attendant. She did and explained that they used to date each other when they were in high school.
This CEO, as he drives away is feeling kind of prideful in that moment.
After a time of silence he says to his wife, “I bet I know what you’re thinking. I bet you’re thinking you’re pretty lucky that you married me, the CEO of a great corporation and not a gas station attendant.”
And she said, “No, actually I was thinking if I had married him instead of you, he’d be the CEO and you’d be a gas station attendant.”
Now, here’s the problem with that story — why isn’t she the CEO in the story?
Or better yet, why doesn’t she work with freedom and joy in whatever area God calls her to, and love with dignity and honor, and instead of finding identity either in a man or in a job, just find identity as a follower of Christ and an image-bearer of God?
Now that would be a cool story.
You see, Jesus changed the story… because he offers women a role in the life of his community.
Think about this — Jesus is changing the world for women.
We’re told in Luke 8 that towards the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:
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… Mary… 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.
Now we read these words and we miss how shocking they were in the ancient world.
In that world women did not travel publicly with men. They were generally encouraged to stay inside the home.
In ancient Greece some Hellenistic plays written a few centuries before Jesus portrayed the women characters primarily as slave girls and prostitutes, because the plays are set outdoors and respectable women and young unmarried girls are expected to remain in the home.
But here Jesus forms a little community made up of women and men who travel from one town to another and study and learn and do ministry together.
Do you have any idea how counter-cultural that was? Can you imagine what kind of rumors were started about this community?
And women are paying the bills.
And Jesus didn’t consider this a threat to him or demeaning in any way. He actually welcomed it.
This is a radically different kind of community Jesus is forming. He gives women new dignity.
You may remember Jesus teaches about adultery, and he addresses some of that teaching towards men.
In our day we sometimes will talk about the idea of a sexual double standard. In the ancient world a sexual double standard, different for men and for women, did not just exist; it was actually public law.
And people were not embarrassed by it; it was just considered normal in that society.
Caesar Augustus ruled that adultery was a public offense only in women.
Husbands were allowed to have sex with prostitutes and slave girls.
All slave girls were sexually available to their masters and often rented out by their masters to make their masters money.
Again, this is the world into which Jesus was born. It’s just the way it was.
In ancient Rome in Jesus’ time, a man could only commit adultery by sleeping with another man’s wife, because that wife was considered the property of her husband.
Adultery was a property crime.
When Kathy and I got married, she told me she considered adultery a property crime. And she made it very clear what property I would lose if I committed that crime.
Jesus comes into that world and through him comes the idea that sexual fidelity was to be a mutual covenant that applied to husbands as well as to wives. And it was to be a matter of the heart.
He actually talks about husbands’ hearts being focused on their wives.
Jesus taught that the will of God was one husband, one wife.
In other words polygamy, as well as the sexual double standard, violated God’s will for humanity.
Again, in the ancient world, Greek philosopher Aristotle said that marriage could never be a love between two equals because women were deficient in rational capacity.
But Jesus said that in marriage two bearers of the divine image were to become one flesh.
Jesus changed the role of a woman in marriage.
Jesus changed the world for women.
You see this when Mary becomes the disciple.
You see this when women are a part of his community.
You see this when he sends the Samaritan woman out to tell others about their conversation.
But one of the great places you see it is at the Resurrection.
In the gospels it’s women who follow Jesus to the cross, when all the men are afraid and run away.
In all four gospels this task of being witnesses who proclaim the Resurrection is actually given only to women.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus is resurrected, it’s women who see him.
And you’re kind of wondering, “What’s he going to say to them after he’s been resurrected.” What profound thing is he going to say?
The only word that Jesus says to them after he is resurrected when they first see him is, Greetings! It’s in Matthew 28:9.
And then they worship him.
A New Testament scholar writes about trying to tell this story in a children’s sermon one time. He asks the kids, “What were Jesus’ first words to the disciples after he was raised from the dead?”
A little girl waves her hand. “I know,” she said, “‘TA-DA!’”
Jesus appears to these women — Ta-da!
And then what he says next changes the world — “Now you go and spread the news. You will be my witnesses.”
Again, Jesus is doing something so remarkable for women, because in the ancient world, a woman’s testimony was not considered valid.
In fact, there was an ancient Roman historian named Celsus, and after a century or two, he wants to discredit Christianity as it begins to spread. He wants to discredit the resurrection story of Jesus, and so he says, “The resurrection rests on the tales of hysterical females.”
One of the ways people in our day say you can have great confidence that the Bible treats the Resurrection very carefully historically is that in all four gospels we are told women are the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
If it was just a made-up story in Israel in the ancient world, no one would have made it up that way.
A historian named Josephus wrote — Let not the testimony of women be admitted.
As a general rule, women were not able to give legal testimony in a trial.
We see a little of this dynamic in the Gospel of Luke. We’re told in Luke 24:9-11
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
Now can you imagine the frustration of these women? Jesus appears to them; tells them to go tell the disciples; they go tell the disciples; and the disciples don’t believe them.
And then Jesus appears to the disciples. I would love to have been there the next time the disciples see the women. Wouldn’t you like to know what the women said?
“Hey guys, Christ has risen. We told you so.”
Can you imagine what it did to the sense of dignity of these women that God chose as witnesses to the most important event in the history of the world?
In Rome in the ancient world, women were under the control of the head of the household. And the household wasn’t just the family of origin, it was the extended group of people that were dependent on this financial system.
The head of the household literally had the power of life and death over the women underneath him. He was also the chief priest of the family.
And in marriage in that day, an interesting thing happened. Anyone ever hear of the phrase ‘giving your hand in marriage’? Have you ever wondered where that comes from – to give someone your hand in marriage?
In Rome, marriage could involve either giving your hand in marriage or not giving your hand in marriage.
It meant the wife could be given into the hand of her husband. In other words he got control of her.
Or she could be given in marriage without hand. That meant not that she got to keep control of herself, but that her father got to keep control of her.
Either way, the woman was in someone’s hand. She was in her husband’s hand or she was in her father’s hand.
There was a religious significance as well. She would either worship her father’s god or she would worship her husband’s god.
But here’s the deal. Jesus comes along and calls women to a higher God than their husbands or fathers, and in fact they were to defy customs and sometimes risk their lives to follow Jesus.
And they did. And he changed their lives as a result.
Women played a role of leadership in the early church that was quite extraordinary.
Paul talks about households. These are often large networks of people. Well, roughly half of the households Paul mentions — that form the infrastructure of the early church — are headed by women.
Because Jesus had such an inclusive spirit, an embracing spirit that included women, the early church of Christ followers became a different kind of world for women.
In Rome in Jesus’ day a widow would be fined if she didn’t get remarried in two years. It was considered bad form to outlive your husband — she would be a drag on the economy.
But there’s this strange thing that happened in the church when they remembered when Jesus was hanging on a cross, he looked down and he saw his widowed mom and he said to his disciple John, “This is your mother. You take care of her.”
And so in the early church, widowhood was honored.
The care of widows became so important to the early church that one of the first fights we read about in the church in Acts 6 was to make sure that the widows got cared for.
When the early church got started, it was a different world for women.
A historian named Robin Fox writes that it’s highly likely that women flocked to the early church.
One early church was found in a community called Certa. It was seized during persecution.
Archaeologists have discovered goods that were given to the people in that community.
They found 16 male tunics. In other words, at least 16 men were a part of that church.
They found 38 veils.
82 women’s tunics.
47 pairs of female slippers.
And 6 copies of Oprah magazine.
It’s all true except for that last one.
Women flocked to the early church.
Jesus radically changed the church community for women.
Jesus is why so many women have committed their lives to ministry. Jesus is why so many women have traveled continents, planted churches, cared for the sick, educated the illiterate, marched for the oppressed.
Jesus has radically changed our view of women. And the world has not caught up to him yet.
Did you know that until 1920 women were not allowed to vote in the United States because the general belief was that they lacked sufficient intelligence and maturity to have a say in who governed them?
Until the 19th century, married women in many states by law could not own property.
Until the 20th century, men were allowed by law in several states to use physical violence to chastise their wives.
To this day in countries where sons are valued more highly than daughters, ultrasound is used to determine the sex of the fetus so that females can be aborted or poisoned at birth.
There are some countries where rape victims are charged with and imprisoned for adultery.
And very often it will be followers of Jesus who risk the most to make significant changes for women.
In our own culture, which so often tells women that you are what you see in the mirror, eating disorders in women outnumber those in men ten to one, beginning now at the early age of eight-years-old and lasting sometimes into a woman’s fifties or sixties.
The church still has not caught up to Jesus!
What if every woman in the world saw herself as Jesus saw her? What if that was so with every woman at Blue Oaks? What if we all lived in a community where we cheered each other on as brothers and sisters who bear the image of God?
If you’re a man, I charge you — cheer on the women in your life. They’re your mom, sister, friend, wife, daughter.
Pray for God to use them to reach their full potential.
There are studies that say men are much more likely to interrupt women in meetings, or school, or business than vice versa. Don’t be one of those men. Be the kind of man that any woman would trust and rely on.
If you’re a woman, know that you are created and cherished by God. You bear God’s image. You carry God’s calling.
Be energized in the use of the gifts God has given you.
Be at peace in the knowledge that God’s grace accepts you apart from achieving anything our culture tells you you have to achieve; or look like anything our culture tells you that you have to look like.
Together, let’s show the world that is still broken by gender and sexuality what a community looks like when men and women serve, and befriend, and challenge, and cherish one another in Jesus’ name.
Let’s do that.
Are you all on board with that one?
Alright, let me pray for you as the band comes up to lead us in one more song.
Blue Oaks Church