The ideal Christian woman is often described as being quiet, meek, submissive—basically the dutiful 1950s housewife who stays home, cooking and cleaning, lives to serve her husband, and takes on the primary responsibility of raising any children. And if you’re not married, well, you’re subject to your father until you do have a husband. (While we’re at it, you’d better get on that. Gotta get that ring on your finger and start making babies!)
The Bible is filled with verses used to support this mindset (1 Corinthians 11:3, 14:34-35; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; 1 Timothy 2:11-15). If you’re a woman who grew up in the church, you’ve probably heard these verses cited a million times. In Titus 2:4-5, older women are instructed to “train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” And thus, the cycle continues.
Paul certainly expresses some very misogynistic views in his letters. (Although the interpretation of these views is controversial. I’ll come back to that later. Let’s not forget Paul also gives special shoutouts to several important female leaders in the church.) However, for now, let’s focus on the primary example we’re given in the Bible: Jesus Christ. After all, he’s the one we’re supposed to follow, not Paul.
While Jesus might not be considered a feminist by today’s standards, his treatment of women was certainly unconventional for the cultural standards of the time period. After all, he allowed women to travel with him and listen to his teaching, which was unheard of in those days. In speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, he crossed both racial and gender boundaries. He allowed the woman with a bleeding disorder—a woman who was considered unclean and caused anything she touched to also be unclean—to touch him, and rather than admonishing her, he healed her and commended her faith. After his death, women were also the ones who first proclaimed the Good News of the resurrection—they brought the Gospel to the disciples, not the other way around.
Let’s take a look at one specific example, which I find particularly interesting:
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
When this passage comes up in sermons, most pastors like to focus on the idea that you shouldn’t get so caught up with good works and service that you forget to stop and actually listen to God, which is certainly a good lesson to remember. However, in context of gender roles, I don’t think we should overlook the fact that Jesus praised the woman who sat and listened to his teaching rather than the one who served him in a traditional “woman” role.
Martha stayed hidden in the kitchen (where women belong) and busied herself preparing and serving food for her guests like a perfect hostess. She was quiet, submissive, and put everyone else’s needs ahead of her own—exactly what a woman is supposed to do.
Mary, on the other hand, ignored her “womanly” duties in favor of sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to his teaching. Now, I don’t know if Mary was the only woman in this group or if there were more, but either way, it was unconventional for women to be educated in spiritual matters beyond the basic fundamentals or for them to be allowed to listen to a spiritual teacher in this manner. Mary completely upturned all expectations of her as a woman and instead focused on Christ.
And according to Jesus, Mary was the one who made the right decision.
Christians need to worry less about forcing women into domestic roles and start putting women in their rightful place: at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching, and following what he has called them to do.
For some, this calling might be to be a wife and mother, and there is great satisfaction and worth in that. Others might have a different calling, whether to a specific career or ministry. One is not greater than the other. The important thing is to follow God’s calling, rather than being constrained by cultural expectations.