Sometimes you hear that Christianity has done a lot to oppress women. People will look at certain Bible stories and point out that the Bible mentions slavery, plural marriages, selling daughters, and rape. What they fail to notice is that the Bible in some sections describes the culture of the day, not an idealized society. And the fact of the matter is that no one has ever done more to improve the situation of women (and children) than Jesus Christ.
The Old Testament world was definitely a man’s world, but that was not unique to the Jewish nation. In most primitive cultures, women were viewed as property, to be owned by their father until ownership could be transferred (usually in exchange for some loot) to a husband.
Even in our modern world, there are places where women are not allowed out of the house except in the company of a male family member. In many parts of the world, then as now, it was forbidden to educate girls.
Jesus came into a world that was already stacked against females, but He did some pretty radical things.
When teaching His male disciples at the home of Lazarus in Bethany, Lazarus’s two sisters had very different reactions. Martha seized upon the traditional role: she started to cook for the men. Mary, on the other hand, lingered with the men to hear Jesus teach. In those days, Jewish women were not permitted to sit and learn with the men; in fact, in some synagogues today women and men sit apart. Martha was pained at her sister’s presumption, but Jesus defended Mary and wanted her to say, adding that what she had chosen to do was “the better part,” that is, the more excellent thing.
But educating women was not the end of what Jesus did. When He traveled to the little town at Sychar, He took time to speak to a disreputable woman who was drawing water from a well. She was the first person who officially heard from Jesus that He was the Messiah, and she ran off to tell her friends. (This made her the first evangelist.) A man condescending to speak to a woman was so unheard of at the time, the woman even asked Jesus why He would be talking to her. But it was to this unlikely female that Jesus revealed His mission first.
Again, this was a radical break with tradition-Jesus was talking to women about spiritual things. At a time when women who suffered from gynecological disorders were not supposed to go about in public society, Jesus commented when one reached out to touch His robe. His disciples might have feared a rebuke, but instead Jesus stopped to heal the person known only to Scripture as “the woman with the issue of blood.”
Sometimes children were included in the crowds that followed Jesus. In those days, children were generally considered fit only to work or be silent. The disciples, rooted in the culture of their day, asked Jesus if they should get the kids crowding around to leave. But Jesus spoke up and said that even the little children should be welcomed to Him.
The apostle Paul is sometimes characterized as being a misogynist, but he actually carried on the radical break with tradition regarding women that Jesus started. In fact, it was Paul who wrote the most pro-female verse in the Bible when he stated that among Christians, there was no status difference at all between males and females. Paul taught women, breaking with the Jewish traditions in which he was raised. In fact, when he came to Philippi on the Eastern fringe of Europe, he preached to a women’s prayer meeting and attracted the convert Lydia, a Macedonian business woman, who later helped to support the early church.
Scripture says Lydia opened her home as the first church in Europe; tradition says that she opened her home to Luke and supported him while he wrote the Gospel according to Luke. Scripture never rebukes Lydia for running a very successful business.
In fact, when Paul writes his now-famous letter the Romans, that is, the church in Rome, he entrusts it not to a man but to a woman to deliver. Paul even writes about another woman, crediting her with having taught him much.
Much has been made about Paul’s writings that women are to keep silent in church (a better word for silent here might be “orderly”-apparently some of Paul’s early female converts were a rowdy crew). Paul also writes that in the church, women are not to teach or hold authority over men, but Paul later writes that women are to teach other women and he admits he has learned from females. What Paul really meant was that women should not be in doctrinal authority over men in the church.
Paul was not writing that women were less than men (he wrote the opposite-that gender no longer counted in terms of human value), but rather that there were gender roles in church and also in marriage. It’s important to keep in mind that these are roles, not classes or distinctions of what is “better” or “higher.” The idea is that men are different than women and our masculine or feminine nature equips us better for particular tasks.
And in terms of evangelizing, preaching the Gospel, and doing good works, women were clearly to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men. The first evangelist is arguably the woman at the well. The very first individual who saw the risen Jesus Christ was a woman–Mary Magdalene–and she was commanded to go and tell others. The merchant Lydia contributed handsomely to funding missionary journeys that planted some of the world’s first churches and indirectly cared for the poor and needy.
Christianity changed the world. In the early church, it was taught (following what Jesus and Paul said) that women and children were not chattel but humans with dignity and value. It opposed the “setting out” of unwanted infants to the elements. (There are stories in ancient Rome of Christians who went out in rowboats to rescue the undesired newborns tossed into the river.) It educated females and accorded them unheard of liberties in terms of being spiritually equal to men.
The early church also opposed the easy divorces possible in many pagan or ancient societies which could leave women penniless and abandoned. The Bible teaches that poor women and children are to be among the very first groups of people that the church should help.
Much of what women have achieved legally and socially today has been the result of Christian influence. In any state where Christianity is a dominant religious force, women and children enjoy the most rights and freedom. That is not the case with many other religions.