Posted in Mutuality

Mutual Marriage: Was Jesus a feminist?

Before moving on to an extended discussion of Ephesians 5, which will be the center point of this discussion, I want to look briefly at the teachings of Jesus as they relate to this topic. Jesus rarely addressed the topic of marriage directly, and then only in the context of a question about divorce. Nevertheless, I believe Jesus’ words and actions regarding women speak loudly about his perspective.

To give us context, we must first take a look at the status of women in his culture. First century Jewish society was highly patriarchal. Women had little power or authority. They could sometimes inherit land, but control of that land would generally pass to her husband or to male relatives. Their subsistence was derived solely from the males of their household. This is one reason why having a male child was so important to a Jewish woman. Not only were they needed to help carry on the family line, but they were the only means of survival for widows. In addition, some of the most influential rabbis of the day taught that a woman could be divorced for the most insignificant of reasons, even for burning dinner! At the same time, a Jewish woman had no right to initiate a divorce herself.

When it comes to religious observance, Jewish women were not generally included. They were not allowed to enter the Temple past the outer courts and women were generally not educated in the Torah or allowed to speak in the synagogues. One of the more extreme first century rabbis wrote “Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.” In fact, it was generally considered improper for a man to speak with a woman other than his wife at all, especially a rabbi.

Jesus’ teachings and actions contradicted the culture around him in many ways. First, Jesus’ teaching on divorce was primarily directed toward men, since women had no right to divorce at all. His restrictions were effectively an affirmation of the value of women in marriage, and had the effect of protecting women from frivolous divorce and the subsequent poverty it caused. Jesus’ treatment of immoral women, too, was scandalous and a direct challenge to the patriarchal environment around him. He also included women as disciples, perhaps the first rabbi to ever do so, and encouraged women to learn all they could from him. Finally, all four gospels record that women were chosen to be the first apostles of his resurrection, a fact which most historians find quite striking.

In the context of his culture, Jesus was a liberator of women. In fact the entire scope of scripture, including passages in the Old Testament that many find offensive, show consistent movement away from the harsh patriarchy of the prevailing culture and toward the empowerment of women. In the same way that Christianity has followed the redemptive movement of scripture toward the abolition of slavery, we should also follow the redemptive movement of scripture toward the elimination of female subordination.

P.S. I know “feminist” is a loaded term today, especially in evangelical circles. However, despite the extreme attitudes of some feminists, liberating women from patriarchy was the cause of Christians such as Catherine Booth and Katharine Bushnell long before the birth of the modern feminist movement.

What do you think? How should Jesus’ treatment of women influence us?

Further study:
Women and the Genesis of Christianity by Ben Witherington III
Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals by William Webb

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About Bob Mitton

Bob Mitton is an application development manager and teaching pastor at Central Church (Madison Heights, Michigan). He is co-founder of Permanent Passionate Partnership.