Thursday, 7 April 2016

Female status in the west and its debt to Christ

Jesus Christ has had a huge and growing effect on history, as described in Who is this man? By John Ortberg. He grew from  humble beginnings in Galilee  to  inspire the lives of billions and transform societies  2000 years later in a variety of ways and His influence continues to  grow. 

The historian’s view of an individual’s greatness is ‘what did he leave to grow?’ Did  he start men to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first.

The incarnation of our Creator into humanity not surprisingly had numerous profound effects, including the infusion of the divine into situations of suffering and sin, something requiring deep prayer and meditation to comprehend but  God chooses to make spontaneously available in many cases.  Even though only partially understood and sometimes wrongly portrayed by the powerful institutions, both secular and clerical, Christ has transformed the world to a degree which makes Christian society more humane, free, democratic  and technologically advanced than any other (look around the world today and tell me you don't agree, bearing in mind that most non-Christian nations, such as India and China, have been  influenced by the west in modern times).

One of the many unique contributions of Jesus Christ to human progress was the effect on the place of women in society and how he overturned tens of thousands of years of entrenched exploitation of females worldwide. Here I will list just a few points:

Image result for imago dei virgin maryThe Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Hundreds of virgin births occur in nature every year. The divine  birth of Jesus from the virgin Mary has theological significance, signalling that God had not favoured any biological blood line for His entry into humanity. It also illustrates the essential complementarity  between the gender roles which God chose for his incarnation.  He could have just appeared out of nowhere, like an angel, but to be fully human He had to go through all the stages of life from visceral birth to  physical death and interact fully with both genders.

The Samaritan woman at the well.   Jesus’s  longest recorded conversation with one person was with a woman, a Samaritan (a sect despised by the Jews) who had been married 5 times.  It was a conversation about her relationship to God and  ‘many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.’  It was to her that Christ gave this eternally powerful statement:  But whosoever drinketh of the water I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14)

Women followers.  Jesus travelled from place to place spreading the gospel.  Following him were the 12 disciples, Mary Magdalene, Joanna wife of Chuza from Herod’s court, who was the manager of Herod’s household,  Suzanna and a host of others (see Matthew 27:55, Luke 8:1-3).  Joanna used her comparative wealth to help in spreading the word. This was unprecedented and must have raised many an eyebrow. Respectable women and unmarried girls were expected to remain at home, out of sight.

Healing and resurrection of women. Jesus healed a woman who for 12 years had been sick with a flow of blood and, uniquely, without a word having been spoken beforehand.  She just touched his cloak from behind while being surrounded by  a crowd and the healing power flowed into her.   Later that day  he resurrected the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of a synagogue, having been called to his house.  (see Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:22-42, Luke 8:41-55.)

Martha and Mary. Jesus  was invited into the house of Martha , Mary and Lazarus of Bethany. While Martha prepared food Mary sat listening to Jesus. Martha resented this but was rebuked by Jesus who made clear to her the importance of spiritual values. This, I believe, would have been unusual, given the general status of females at that time.  He could have chosen to say this to a man but he was here to relate to and influence humanity, not just men; and humanity involved male and female in complimentary roles and equal before God.  It also emphasized that the woman’s role was not confined to domestic duties, important though these are. (See Luke 10:38-42.)

Gathering to anoint Christ's body.  The Bible relates that on the morning after the Sabbath, as early as they could possibly come without breaking the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the lesser and Joses (also called "the other Mary"), Salome the wife of Zebedee, and Mary the mother of the apostles James and John,  came with spices to anoint His body and prepare it for burial.(See Mark 16:1-2.)

The discovery of the empty tomb . The gospels record that the empty tomb was discovered by  Mary Magdalene of Magdala and other women, and it was to her  that an angel first announced the Resurrection, something which no one was expecting and was probably the most cosmically significant event since beings with the imago deo had  appeared on earth.   Not surprisingly Mary  initially met with disbelief  from the male disciples, who had dispersed and become demoralized as their belief in him as the Messiah ebbed away on witnessing his ignominious death. (See  Matthew 28:1-10;  Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8.)

Women in the book of Acts.  There are numerous cases of single or married women preaching or teaching the gospel, or being healed or resurrected by one of the disciples. Paul’s first European convert was Lydia (Acts 16:40), who was used by God to house him and Timotheus.  Also in Acts 9:36-42 Dorcas full of good works, died and was raised by the Lord through Peter.  For a detailed listing of women's contributions to the spreading of Christianity in the first century see

fn photo fn clayton 1891
Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern heallthcare
Women through history. As the influence of Christ spread, however imperfectly,  throughout the world  women played an increasingly important role in history, whether as nuns in convents or  mystics [e.g. St Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897); St Julian of Norwich (1342-1416)] or major forces for good in society. Dozens could be listed. FlorenceNightingale’s (1820-1910) God- inspired initiatives in the Crimean War were an essential precursor to the nursing vocation and the founding of the NHS in the UK following WW2. She also pioneered the application of statistical techniques and is said to have invented the pie chart.   And innumerable social reformers and founders of charities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have been women. The Quaker Elizabeth Fry, for instance, was responsible for the Prison Act of 1823, while William Wilberforce was campaigning to outlaw slavery for the first time in
Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa followed a vision from Christ
Dame Cicely Saunders
Cicily Saunders
history. The blessed Mother Teresa (1910-1997) worked in Calcutta  as a nun and a missionary. She left a privileged upbringing after a vision from Christ. Dame Cicily Saunders (1918-2005) founded the world's first hospice in 1967 after being inspired to do so by God.Thousands of hospices to care for the dying now exist worldwide.She pioneered new kinds of palliative care and set a pattern of spiritual support for people in their last days.

 The move to win votes for women in England in the early 20th century was driven and sustained by Christian inspiration, as indicated by this text from Questia

The appropriation of religion for the militant political campaign took a variety of forms. The suffragettes adopted symbolic Christian figures as well as the structure and tactics of other contemporary Christian organizations, particularly the Salvation Army. They infused their rhetoric, in both their autobiographical accounts and their novels, with the language of Christian theology and the Bible.

This had a profound and lasting effect on the whole culture and social structure of the western world.

 Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harper Lee were  Christ-inspired novelists that helped major shifts in the spiritual state of the USA, leading to the civil rights reforms. They have also taken on roles of national leadership, as did Joan of Arc.

Compare the treatment and status of women in Roman times with nowadays:  the Law of Romulus allowed routine killing of female fetuses and infants, resulting in  a gender ratio of 140 males to 100 females. Temple prostitution was widespread. Sex slavery and  child molestation were standard, default practices in most places most of the time, and even today are only regarded as wrong in societies with a Christian heritage or after recent Christian  influence.  

Wives and daughters of emperors in the Roman and other civilizations managed to maneuver themselves into positions of power, as did the males, or to exert influence behind the scenes, or even to become monarchs themselves. But this was exceptional. The push for recognition of females in society outside the home only really began in the last two centuries or so as the gospel became accessible through the printing of the Holy Bible and a growing level of literacy. Ironically, this influence even continued in Soviet Russia after it became an atheist dictatorship.

 In India gender exploitation is being slowly removed by conversion from Hinduism or Islam to Christianity. Within countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and China  there is a growing western feminist influence which traces back to Christianity in the west from the nineteenth century.

(My personal view is that the Holy Spirit is working through all races, religions and cultures and will eventually bring them together in Christ, even when cultural and ritual practices are retained. The world will then be in peace except for those who knowingly and deliberately reject Him. What happens next nobody can know.)

I am not an academic and became confirmed in Christ only a few years ago in my sixth decade. However,  the more I look at history the more apparent it becomes that the unique role of women in western society and their growing role in other parts of the world, even today, owe a great debt to the life, teaching and resurrection of  Jesus the Christ.