by Dr. Niamh M. Middleton
Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism
Thanks to feminism, women in the West have gained significant rights and freedoms in comparison to women of other cultures. Because institutional Christianity remains inherently sexist, however, there has been a massive fall-off in church attendance by women. My new book has been subjected to several attacks by feminists who have seen ads for it and object to the association of feminism with Christianity.
As a former political feminist, I can, of course, understand their objections. My reading of the Gospel texts gave me a born-again Christian experience that led to my study of theology and transformation me into a feminist theologian. I will never forget my amazement at encountering a Jesus in the Gospels with whom I was wholly unfamiliar. His revolutionary attitude toward women—so loving and egalitarian—was strikingly at odds with women’s treatment by the Catholic Church in which I was brought up. My theological journey quickly turned into a quest to find out how a first-century Palestinian Jew could relate to women in a way that obliterated all forms of sexism. A related question I also set out to explore was why institutional Christianity’s treatment of women contrasts so strongly with that of its founder.
My research inspired and enabled me to write my new book. In it, I show how a combination of insights from evolutionary biology and feminism highlight the revolutionary attitude of Jesus toward women in a new way that illuminates the way forward for women in the Church and society, and can also greatly enrich women’s understanding of his divinity. A highly significant insight into why the Church’s treatment of women contrasts so strongly with that of its founder has emerged from the discovery that religion and politics evolved in tandem. As a result, religions have always supported patriarchal power systems and been used as forces for social control, especially of women. The combination of male-controlled religion and politics also enforced a sexual double standard that demands far higher levels of sexual chastity from women than from men.
The laws and social norms of biblical-era Israel were rigidly patriarchal. Women were treated as an inferior sex, and the double standard was deeply institutionalized in a society that permitted polygamy and concubinage for males, as well as premarital and extramarital sex. Prostitution was legalized to satisfy male needs, though prostitutes themselves were treated as social pariahs. They weren’t allowed to associate with “respectable” daughters and married women who, if they indulged in premarital or extramarital sex, were criminalized and condemned to death.
As is shown in groundbreaking Gospel stories such as Luke’s “A Sinful Woman Forgiven” and John’s “The Woman Taken in Adultery,” Jesus took huge social risks by interacting with and defending women who were marginalized and criminalized. He saved the life of the woman taken in adultery by courageously defending her against the Pharisees. As is made clear in the story of the sinful woman (a lady of the night), he perceived the prostitutes with whom he socialized in the fullness of their dignity and personhood, and his aim in socializing with them was to heal them psychologically as well as spiritually. He also made it clear to the Pharisees by a quote from Genesis that God had intended the same sexual standards to be expected of males as of females. Also, in a culture in which women were neither allowed to leave their homes without being accompanied by a male relative nor to be accepted as disciples by Rabbis, Rabbi Jesus accepted women as his disciples and allowed them to travel with him alongside his male disciples on his mission. His female disciples understood his messiahship and divinity in a way that eluded his male disciples. They stayed by him during his crucifixion while his male disciples lost confidence in him and abandoned him. It is no surprise, therefore, that he appeared first to Mary Magdalene—the leader of his female disciples—after his resurrection, which was the turning point of Christianity. In instructing her to tell the good news of his resurrection to his male disciples, Jesus made her the first preacher of Christianity, the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
The early Church reflected its founders’ treatment of women. Their status was equal to that of men, with whom they shared the same ministries, including supervision of the Eucharist. This situation dramatically regressed when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire and part of the male tribalistic relationship between religion and politics. Unlike in other religions, however, when Christianity became politicized as the state religion of the Roman Empire, women were never segregated from men but allowed into churches on an equal basis. It’s argued by theologians that equal participation by women in church masses and services resulted from Jesus’s revolutionary treatment of them and worked its way outward into secular Christian societies, eventually resulting in the gaining of female secular rights and freedoms. As the #MeToo movement has shown, however, women have a long way to go before gaining rights equal with those of men. An important argument of my book is that, while political feminism can deal with the symptoms of the perennial “battle of the sexes,” only a revolution of grace inspired by the example of Jesus can restore the harmony between the sexes described in Genesis, a harmony that was inextricably linked with the equal dominion over the world given to them by God. For such a revolution of grace to occur, Christian women will have to campaign to regain their early Church status. Contemporary Christian women, guided by feminist theologians, can propel the Church into a new phase of its journey toward God’s kingdom. Increased harmony between the sexes in the Church will impact the public sphere in a way that will be politically liberating for men as well as women and, in doing, so greatly increase social justice for all.
© 2022 by Christian Feminism Today.
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