Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. As I reflected on this, I was reminded of my own challenges for equal acceptance within society and the church as well as the, often overwhelming obstacles that other women have faced and still face in the battle for freedom.
What Do You Think Of Mary Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene has become one of my favourite New Testament figures. She is also one of the most misused and abused a fitting symbol for women throughout the ages who are still misused abused and blamed. Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most dedicated followers. She was present at his crucifixion and the first to see Jesus after his resurrection. Yet what most of us believe when we think of Mary Magdalene is a “fact” for which there is no evidence. She is remembered as a prostitute rather than as the faithful first bearer of the Good News, whom some would elevate the level of apostle.
Why do we so easily believe this? Part of it is because there are so many Marys mentioned in the New Testament that it is confusing. However, though her prominence in the story of Jesus probably began to deteriorate shortly after her death, the transformation to penitent prostitute was only sealed on Sept. 14, 1591, when Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily in Rome that pronounced that Mary Magdalene, Luke’s unnamed sinner, and Mary of Bethany were, indeed, the same person. And it is easier for a male dominated church to accept a prostitute than a female leader.
We easily forget or ignore the fact that other women too played a prominent part in the leadership of the early church. Sadly as Christianity became more mainstream it also became more patriarchal and the roles of women as disciples, elders and leaders (some even say as apostles) was quickly overlooked or reinterpreted.
We Like to Keep Women In Their Place
We still like to think the worst of women and want them to “keep their place”. Like most women in leadership, I am quite familiar with this. As a young doctor, I was told it was wrong for me as a single woman to earn more than a married man, and I was, on several occasions, refused positions of leadership just because of my gender. Even now, I often feel that when I walk into a gathering of male leaders I may as well be a fly on the wall. I feel as though I have to shout make myself heard.
Yet compared to many women, I have enjoyed amazing acceptance. I still remember the heartfelt cry of one Cambodian refugee I worked with years ago. She told me “My hope is that one day my daughters will have the same freedom you do.”
The church is often at the forefront of abuse and discrimination towards women. When Sarah Bessey started a Twitter conversation using the hashtag, #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear in 2017, it took off in a way few expected and the conversation rippled round social media for months even before the #MeToo movement took root. Women shared stories of rape, abuse, and sexism in the church and how the bible was used to justify these things and keep them quiet. Men blamed women for not submitting to their husbands or leaders or just for wearing provocative clothing. “They deserved to be raped”, some said.
More recently, we have all watched the furore in the Southern Baptist church as Beth Moore spoke out about sexism in the church, as well as the often very heated discussions about whether David raped Bathsheba. In his Christianity Today article: Why It Is Easier to Accept David as A Murderer Rather Than A Rapist, Kyle Worley states: We don’t want David to be a rapist. We actually find it easier to stomach him being a murderer of a man than an abuser of a woman. This kind of an attitude seems to pervade both the church and our society in so many ways.
The discussion about pregnancy and health insurance here in the U.S. was the final straw for me. So many inequalities still separate women from men in almost every country in the world and it seems to me that our present political environment exacerbates it. Prior to the Affordable Care Act women often paid more than men for the same health care coverage but health insurance for pregnancy, labor, delivery, and newborn baby care became mandatory in 2014 under Obama’s plan. That could soon change, however, and when women are at their most vulnerable, they could once more be made to suffer financial hardships. It’s not as bad as when masters could impregnate their servants and then throw them out onto the streets but it seems to have some of the same flavor to me.
What Is Your Response?
As you can tell, this is an issue that is very upsetting for me and I pray that you will forgive me. However, I believe that Jesus brings the freedom of equality to all persons and where we see inequality we all need to speak out. As Galatians 3:28 says, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Biblical scholars have told me that this was one of the creedal texts of the early church, so why do we not believe it? The gender gap is still very obvious not just in our world, but in God’s family.
Prayerfully consider your own response firstly to Mary Magdalene and Bathsheba, then to women in your life. Are there misconceptions in your views of them? Are there ways in which you discriminate against women by not treating them as equals? How would God have you respond.