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.
You go, girl!
Thanks, Christine! It’s good to be reminded of things you believe are so but aren’t. Let Mary Magdalene take her rightful place.
Thank you for this. It made me cry a bit, especially the bit about women in the US having to pay for pregnancy care. We do take a lot of our free health care for granted in the UK
But also it made me think of the face of a young woman who’s lecture I was watching online today. I’m studying via distance learning, an MA in Celtic studies and am on the module “Women in the Middle Ages”. The lecture I watch today was about how the church viewed women. The face of the young woman giving the lecture became more and more distorted with anger as she read the passages from the bible that were, and are still, used to encourage women’s subjugation to men. How does one reach people like her and let them know that God loves them and sees them as equal when the church misuses passages like it does?
Thank you for the article X
It is hard and I have certainly become angry in the past at the injustice of it all and the hurts that so many women carry. Loving them when we are able and standing up for justice ourselves is about the best that we can do.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I also saw the sculpture of Mary Magdelene, second third of 14th century. Marble with polychrome remains in the Chapel of the Cemetery of Barcelona Spain cathedral but I never know her story. Thank you so much for sharing this. God bless you! You are the best.
“And, once again against the common perceptions of our age, the fresh evaluation of the role of women, though it came ultimately from Jesus himself, was mediated not least through Paul—the Paul who listed several women among his colleagues and fellow workers (including one “apostle”), who saw early on that in the Messiah’s family there was ultimately no “male and female,” and who entrusted Phoebe with the responsibility of delivering and almost certainly expounding the letter to the Romans.” (From “Paul” by N T Wright)
The church has been very slow to recognise that the first Paul appointed a woman to the first preaching teaching role in delivering and explaining his letter to a group of churches he had never visited.
Thanks Christine for referring to Mary to again emphasize that we, as a society and church, still have a way to go on the journey to realise the kingdom.
Your welcome Rodney. This is one area in which the church seems to learn and unlearn the lessons on regular basis
Going back into history is a challenge since we are twentyfirst century humans, but I would like to suggest that neither Jesus nor Mary Magdalene were of Jewish origin and that when the Jewish Constantine rewrote the Bible to suit his male ego after becoming a Christian he assumed this was a male oriented world. He was wrong.
This is an interesting perspective. I would like see what evidence you have for your assertion,