We often hear that those who don’t affirm modern feminism are “anti-woman.” Christians are no exception. We sometimes get tagged with this epithet, and once the label sticks we’re either total sellouts (the women) or knuckle-dragging Neanderthals (the men).
In light of this claim, it’s remarkable to consider how the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ, interacted with women in his own day. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Jesus’s approach to women was nothing less than revolutionary. Affirming true God-designed complementarity has almost always challenged the status quo.
A Revolutionary Ministry
Out of a cultural background that minimized the dignity of women and even depersonalized them, Jesus boldly affirmed their worth and gladly benefited from their vital ministry. He made the unusual practice of speaking freely to women, and in public no less (John 4:27; 8:10–11; Luke 7:12–13). He also frequently ministered to the needs of hurting women, like Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30–31), the woman bent over for 18 years (Luke 13:10–17), the bleeding woman (Matt. 9:20–22), and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30).
Jesus not only ministered to women, he allowed women to minister to him. Women anointed Jesus and he warmly received their service (Matt. 26:6–13; Luke 7:36–50). Some women helped Jesus’s ministry financially (Luke 8:2–3), while others offered hospitality (Luke 10:40; John 12:2). A number of women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Mary and Martha—are mentioned by name in the Gospels, indicating their important place in Jesus’s ministry. Many women were among Jesus’s band of disciples. And perhaps most significantly, women were the first witnesses to the resurrection (Matt. 28:5–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:2–9; John 20:1–2).
Underlying Jesus’s ministry was the radical assumption that women have enormous value and purpose. The clearest example is his mother Mary, who’s called highly favored in Luke 1:28. Moreover, Jesus used women as illustrations in his teaching, mentioning the queen of the south (Matt. 12:42), the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:26), women at the second coming (Matt. 24:41), and the woman in search of her lost coin (Luke 15:8–10). He held up the persistent widow as an example of prayerfulness (Luke 18:1–5), and the poor widow’s offering as an example of generosity (Luke 21:1–4).
Jesus addressed women tenderly as “daughters of Abraham,” placing them on the same spiritual plane as men (Luke 13:16). His teaching on divorce treated women as persons, not mere property (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), and his instruction about lust protected women from being treated as nothing more than objects of sexual desire (Matt. 5:28). And in a time where female learning was suspect, Jesus made a point to teach women on numerous occasions (Luke 10:38–42; 23:27–31; John 11:20ff).
Jesus’s revolutionary treatment of women was, nevertheless, consistent with God’s original design for role distinctions. The most obvious example is his selection of an all-male apostolic leadership. Granted, that Jesus chose only men to be apostles doesn’t prove conclusively he was a “complementarian,” but it does indicate that his revolutionary attitude toward women stopped short of including them in all forms of leadership.
And it won’t do to say that Jesus was simply going along with the social customs of the day. He had no problem breaking social taboos, which is why he mingled with tax collectors, ate without washing his hands, redefined the Sabbath, reinterpreted the Temple, condemned the Pharisees, and even honored women! The fact is that while he overturned some Jewish interpretations (e.g., about divorce, lust, retribution, etc.), Jesus never rejected biblical teaching from the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17). Jesus honored women in a countercultural way without rejecting everything he inherited from his Jewish-Old Testament background concerning men and women.
Further, that Jesus called only Jewish males as apostles doesn’t mean that for Jesus to be making a statement about normative male leadership he must also be making a statement about normative Jewish leadership. The Jewishness of the apostles is linked to a particular moment in salvation history, while their maleness is not. After Pentecost, the kingdom Jesus ushered was no longer for the Jews alone. Gentiles like Luke and Titus assumed positions of teaching and leadership. But when the disciples needed a successor to Judas, the apostles looked for a man who had been with them (Acts 1:21–22).
In summary, Jesus honored women and empowered them for ministry, but when it came to selecting those for positions of leadership and authority, he chose only men. Our Lord had no trouble being radically pro-women and unequivocally complementarian at the same time. Neither should we.
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