In my previous post, I gave an overview of what the Old Testament says about gender roles and gendered activities. In this post, I give an overview of what Jesus says about this. Does Jesus give instructions about gender roles as complementarians understand them: that men are to be leaders and women are to be submissive to male authority? Does Jesus affirm the idea, evident in the Old Testament, that the primary role of women is having children?
Gender Pairs in Luke’s Gospel
Jesus acknowledges gendered activities in his culture.
A few times, Jesus implicitly acknowledges that there are some activities in his culture that are more closely associated with women and others that are more closely associated with men. We see this especially in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus sometimes uses male and female pairs in his parables and when making certain points in his teaching.
In Luke 13, for example, Jesus tells the parable of a man planting a mustard seed, followed by the parable of a woman putting yeast in flour in preparation for baking bread. These were two activities men and women in Jesus’ audience could each identify with, but the point of the parables is exactly the same. So while Jesus framed his teaching in a way that was sensitive to the culture of his day, he didn’t have one set of teachings for men and another for women. He taught men and women the same things.
What is even more remarkable about Jesus is that, a few times, he downplays accepted cultural roles of women and offers something better.
Mary and Martha
Learning as a disciple is more necessary than being in the kitchen.
In the well-known story of Mary and Martha, Jesus does not uphold the socially respectable and expected role of women preparing and serving food—and hospitality was practically a sacred duty in that culture. Jesus did not comply with Martha’s request to get Mary into the kitchen.
In Luke 10:39 it says that Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to his word.” Jesus remarks that Mary had chosen the best option, the necessary option, by sitting at his feet, the usual posture of a male disciple learning from a rabbi. Jesus regarded that learning as a disciple was more important for Mary, and by extension more important for women, than preparing and serving food. Furthermore, he says that what Mary has chosen, to be trained as a disciple, will not be taken away from her.
Mary the Mother of Jesus
Hearing and obeying God’s word is more blessed than being a mother.
In another story, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when a woman calls out and says, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you” (Luke 11:27). To have a grown son who was respected and prominent in society was one of the highest honours a woman in that culture could attain: the more honour a son had, the more honour his mother had. This dynamic still holds true in some cultures today.
But Jesus did not affirm the blessing that the woman had shouted out. Instead, he replied with, “Blessed rather are those who are hearing the word of God and obeying it” (Luke 11:28). Jesus’ mother Mary was blessed. She was not only blessed because of her remarkable role as the mother of the Messiah, she was blessed because she had faith in the word of God. The Bible says about Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45). Faith in God and his word is more precious than being a mother.
Jesus never tells women, either plainly or implicitly, that being a wife and mother is their main role. But please don’t think I’m trying to denigrate being a mother. I love being a mother and a grandmother. Yet Jesus indicates that there is more to life for women than motherhood.
The Samaritan Woman
Jesus’ theology doesn’t uphold cultural stereotypes.
The longest conversation between Jesus and another person, which is recorded in the Gospels, is between Jesus and the woman at the well. Jesus and this Samaritan woman have an encounter that broke a few social taboos (as did other encounters between Jesus and women) and they discuss both theology and personal issues.
John doesn’t record in his Gospel that Jesus brings up motherhood with the Samaritan woman. In fact, no Gospel writer records that Jesus discusses motherhood with women. And Jesus doesn’t give dumbed-down theological teaching to women. He teaches them the same things, at the same level, as he teaches men (e.g., John 11:27; cf. Matt. 16:16).
Jesus’ Many Female Disciples
Jesus did other things that some complementarians may have trouble with, such as the fact that that he accepted the financial support of his many female disciples (Luke 8:1-3), or even that he had many female disciples, women who travelled with Jesus around Galilee and went all the way to Jerusalem with him where they continued to provide for him. Then after his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his female disciple Mary Magdalene to tell the others that he had risen from death.
Jesus welcomed women and treated them as capable human beings, and he trained them for ministry. But some complementarians seem more like the men in the Gospels who disapprove of (Mark 14:6; John 12:7), and disbelieve (Mark 16:10-11; Luke 24:10-11), women who minister. It seems they don’t know what to make of women ministers.
Calling and Authority
Jesus does acknowledge some cultural stereotypes of women’s activities in his parables and teaching, but he doesn’t state that these are rules to live by. And other stereotypes he downplays. He says there are better ways for women to live. Namely, being a disciple of Jesus, learning and obeying his word, is the highest calling for women just as it is for men.
Jesus is our Lord and our Shepherd and our Mediator, not husbands. Jesus never broaches the subject of husbands as leaders or of wives being submissive. But he does talk about leadership where he warns disciples about titles and having authority over others. He reminds his disciples that they are all brothers and sisters. Sadly, Jesus’ understanding of leadership and community has rarely, if ever, been fully realised.
The Twelve Disciples
The Twelve is not a model of male-only leadership in the church.
But what about the fact that Jesus chose twelve men, and not a single woman, as his first disciples, a fact that is often used to say women can’t be leaders in the church?
Jesus never says that he chose the twelve as a model for church leadership. He never says only men can be leaders in the church. What Jesus does say is that the twelve were to be his witnesses (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8; cf. Acts 2:32; 3:15; 5:32), and women were not considered to be credible witnesses at that time. Jesus also makes a connection between the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29-30; cf. Rev. 21:12.14). He may have chosen the Twelve as a way of showing that his message, his ministry, and his New Covenant was for all of Israel.
Furthermore, he can’t have chosen Judas Iscariot to be a leader of the church. Judas makes the argument that Jesus chose the Twelve as a model for church leadership less compelling. There are a couple of other things, too, that make the argument untenable. Especially if we keep in mind that Jesus did train women as his disciples.
Jesus’ words, as recorded in the Gospels, never sound anything like what complementarians say, that God has designed men to be leaders and women to be submissive to male authority. Rather, Jesus spoke to women as he spoke to men, with frank and vital theology. He treated women with dignity and took a genuine interest in their wellbeing. Moreover, women were among Jesus’ most faithful disciples and he accepted their support and ministry.
In my next post I look at what Paul says about complementarian gender roles in ministry and marriage, but, until then, here’s a short video by Carolyn Custis James. (See my previous post for a brief discussion on patriarchy.)
Jesus had many female followers – many!
Jesus, Women and Theology: Jesus said to her . . .
Male Female Pairs and Parallelism in Luke’s Gospel
Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany
The Samaritan Woman of Sychar (John 4)
Who was Mary the Magdalene?
What must a woman do to be saved? (1 Timothy 2:15)
Jesus’s Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew Gospel
The Twelve Disciples were all Male