“There were also women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. In Galilee these women followed him and took care of him. Many other women had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
The church has a rough history when it comes to the position and treatment of women. Much of this is our own fault. We have too often taken our lead from a culture that has undervalued, underappreciated, and otherwise treated women terribly, and wrapped such harmful assumptions in a religious garb in order to sanctify them. Recent major revelations have shown we are far from rid of such sinful behavior. Where we have done this (and do it still), we have rightly taken our lumps from the world around us (even if such lump-giving is deeply hypocritical). But although we have perhaps done much to sully our own reputation, none of this has been in line with the ethic of Jesus. Let’s talk this morning about His position, that of the early church, and why the church should be the safest and best place for women in the world.
It is a hard time to be a woman. Now, maybe that seem odd of me to say – especially as a father of three boys who believes the cultural deck is stacked against men more than it has ever been – so, let me explain. Yes, women have opportunities today that women of the past couldn’t have imagined. In terms of making society equal for women relative to men, we are vastly superior to pretty much every culture that came before us. Consider just the issue of education. There used to be a culture-wide concern that not enough women were going into higher education. Today there are about a million more women in our colleges and universities than men and the disparity is actually growing. Women and their accomplishments are highlighted and celebrated more than they have ever been before. We’ve just come through the height of the #MeToo movement when our culture discovered just how extensively women have been mistreated and taken advantage of and abused in every corner of our society. No institution has been found to be exempt. Many are actively trying to do something about it.
And yet, in spite of all that, our culture nonetheless treats women terribly. We objectify women more than we ever have. Pornography is ubiquitous. Modern media consistently presents an image of the ideal woman that is far from what most could ever hope to achieve. Not only that, but as a growing and powerful segment of our culture celebrates all things trans, women are increasingly finding themselves again being pushed out of the way and otherwise robbed of accomplishments and opportunities by men. This time, though, the men happen to be wearing dresses (sometimes only figuratively).
The ideal of godly manhood and womanhood is vanishing from our culture and we are all suffering for it. When manhood and womanhood get out of balance, though, that always goes worse for women than men. This time is proving to be no exception. My friends, there is a solution to all of this mess. It is exceedingly simple, but monumentally difficult. The solution’s name is Jesus, and following His lead a whole lot more closely can make everything better.
If you think women have it rough today, try being a woman living in the first century Roman Empire. (Actually, try being a woman living at pretty much any other point in human history or in most other nations around the world today. We have a culture-wide tendency to highlight all the problems with our culture without showcasing where we really are doing well. Good news doesn’t grab many headlines, but there really is a lot of it out there if we’ll spend a bit of time searching for it.) Women in the Roman Empire had a value that was somewhere between a slave and a houseplant. They were objects to be owned. Women were seen as unable to contribute to the functioning of the household in the same way as men. They were extra mouths to feed. We have historical record of an obviously loving husband nonetheless instructing his pregnant wife that if she were to deliver their baby in his absence and the child was a girl, she was to get rid of her. Things for women were marginally better in the Jewish world, but not by a great measure.
And then there was Jesus.
We see flashes and glimpses of this throughout the Gospels, but this statement in Mark is pretty powerful. As Jesus was hanging there dying, abandoned by all of His male followers, there was a group of women standing at a distance watching the horror unfold. Now, from John’s Gospel, we know that he was there too, but he was the only one of Jesus’ disciples to bother showing up. Let that sit on you. One of Jesus’ disciples betrayed Him. One denied knowing Him. Nine vanished when He needed them most. One stuck with Him. But all of these women were there the whole time. They never left.
There’s more. These women had been following Him since Galilee. They took care of Him, Mark says, which means they bankrolled His operation. They believed in Him so much, they were willing to sacrifice from their own resources to allow and enable Him to focus His efforts entirely on what God had called Him to do. Mark even suggests that there were many more women than this trio who had followed Him to Jerusalem from Galilee and were even there at the cross. The men who were with Jesus get all the attention because we know all of their names and a whole lot more about their stories. Cultural practices and assumptions kept the stories of most of the women from ever being told in favor of where the “real” action was happening. But what begins to become abundantly clear when you do a bit of reading between the lines is that Jesus couldn’t have done any of the things He did without these women. They were absolutely essential to the success of His mission.
We shouldn’t see this as Jesus just tolerating them or otherwise taking advantage of them either. Every time Jesus interacted with a woman, that interaction was marked by a gentleness and respect that did not broadly characterize the interactions of men and women who were not married (let alone the ones who were) in that culture. Jesus gave them dignity. He actively and publicly acknowledged their humanity. He listened to them without belittling. He gave them attention no other man would have given. He never took them for granted. He was unfailingly kind. He taught them just as He did the men. He loved them as the daughters of the king they were (and are!).
And, in its earliest history, the church followed His example. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ followers on the day of Pentecost, we are generally taught to envision the group of disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. That’s not what Luke describes. There were 120 men and women gathered in that upper room together. They all received the Spirit together. We know from Paul’s writings that women held leadership roles in the early church. They served as deacons and evangelists. We know from historical records that many of the early converts were women, especially wealthy women. Why? Because they saw the equitable treatment the church gave women that the rest of the culture did not. When the Greco-Roman world was practicing widespread infanticide of baby girls, the church would go rescue them, and raise them in loving, Christian homes. While it unfortunately didn’t last, in the church’s earliest days, there was no safer and more dignifying place for women in any society than in the church. In creating and doing all of this, they were simply following Jesus’ example.
Church, if we don’t follow suit today, we’re in the wrong. Women are a treasure to be cherished and honored. God has given them incredible gifts just the same as He has given to men. He advances His kingdom on their faithfulness just as vigorously as He does men. Now, our roles are not the same because He has created us differently, but that doesn’t make one role any less vital to the church or the world than the other. Even in churches with a tradition of greatly restricting the roles available to women, those churches wouldn’t be able to function without women playing those roles. Where women are being abused or otherwise mistreated, the church should be the loudest voice speaking out against it, and offering care and protection from it. Where we have been complicit in advancing harm, we should repent in sackcloth and ashes because we have wounded the daughters of the king and He won’t take kindly to that. After all, no less than Peter warned husbands that if they don’t treat their wives right, they imperil their own relationship with God. That kind of weighted concern on God’s part doesn’t apply just to married women. The simple truth is that there should not be any place in the world where a woman can find the freedom and encouragement to become fully who God created her to be better than in the church. Where we’re not doing that, we’re not following the path of Jesus, and we need to get back on track. Men, let us honor women well like our Lord did. Nothing else will do.