Jesus didn’t have favorites, but ... He did play favorites.
At least that’s the impression an uninitiated reader of the Bible could get. In general, Jesus seemed tough on Jewish insiders and soft on heathen outsiders. However, when it came to women—He basically liked them all.
Just think of the Samaritan woman; the foreign woman who begged for the crumbs off the table; the woman caught in the act of adultery; the woman who prostrated herself at His feet, kissing them and washing them with her tears before letting down her hair to dry them; Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary; the women who stood by Him when He was crucified while the men hid; Mary Magdalene, to whom Jesus first appeared after the resurrection. He seemed to be drawn to women’s authenticity, loyalty and openness to God, regardless of their beliefs or nonbeliefs.
What’s interesting is that Jesus not only honored and protected women (a traditional role), He also provided them with a platform from which they could expand their influence (a countercultural role). As scriptural screenwriter-in-chief, the Holy Spirit chose to cast many women in the lead supporting actor role of the Gospel stories. This was because the star of the show (aka Jesus) was quite comfortable working with and alongside women.
It’s a fact that Jesus did not choose a woman to be one of the Twelve, but it’s just as true that He did not choose a man to be the first person to witness and announce His resurrection. It’s also a fact that no women were included in the inner circle of three who were present with Him at Gethsemane and the Transfiguration, but it’s just as true that no women followers bear the shame of having denied Jesus publicly.
How would you feel if you were capable of leading, thinking, guiding, shaping and forming a spiritual community but were denied the opportunity to do so? This experience leads some women to walk away from the Church, Christianity and, in some cases, God.
Many women are discouraged. And while some of them, particularly young women, leave the organized Church only, others walk away from the faith altogether. In fact, in 2010, the Barna Group found that 26 percent of Americans have changed faiths or adopted a significantly different faith view during their lifetimes. Barna released its study just after the author Anne Rice famously renounced Christianity on her Facebook page. According to Barna, Rice “shares a spiritual profile with nearly 60 million other adults nationwide,” most of whom, the research found, are women. Since breaking with the Catholic church, Rice has publicly reaffirmed her commitment to Christ several times; however, Barna’s report notes, “The most common type of spiritual shift was from those who were Christian, Protestant or Catholic in childhood to those who currently report being atheist, agnostic or some other faith. In total, this group represents about one out of every eight adults (12%), a category that might be described as ex-Christians.” Disillusionment with their church and religion was cited as one of the top reasons people gave for leaving their faith.
But for many women (particularly wives and mothers), leaving doesn’t mean walking away; more often it means showing up without being present. Women often do this because they want their husbands and children to grow spiritually. They participate at the minimal levels and give just enough to ensure their families are included, even if the women are not growing themselves. They seem to be masters at finding ways to feed themselves without requiring as much from the place they call church.
There’s a lot of confusion among both men and women about what the Bible does or does not say about the role of women in the Church. Women struggle (often in private), trying to determine whether their church's positions on women’s roles are genuinely God’s ideal or simply a reflection of dogmatic conditioning and cultural bias. The most ardent students of the Bible on both sides tend to be the ones who are most certain their view of the biblical role of women is the correct one.
Given the polarization, it’s dismaying how uninterested Christians seem to be in trying to understand why their brothers and sisters can read the same biblical passages and come to opposite conclusions. We need to learn how to stay in the room with differences and not “break up” over every biblical disagreement.
We need to start a new conversation about women and the Church. At the very least, Christians need to think more honestly about these issues. There is room to grow and new things to discover about how God wants to use women to move His Kingdom forward. That’s why it’s important to to read, ponder and think most deeply about the things that cause disagreement. Not to win but to learn. We need to stop comparing our best with others’ worst. We need to stop criticizing each other and open our own ideas to critique.
My bias is that, just like men, women should have as much influence as they’re capable of exercising in the Church. But my opinion, regardless of how deeply held it may be, doesn’t give me permission to ignore, dismiss or demean those who disagree with me. And it especially doesn’t give me an excuse to be mean. Jesus told us to love one another—not to agree with one another.
Evangelicals are passionate about personal sin—swearing, adultery, gossip, drunkenness, lust, anger and so on. They have significantly less interest in systemic sin—racism, greed, selfishness and repression of women. This low view of systemic sin, this privileged paradigm of power, makes it easy to ignore the way women are treated in Church.
I recall once hearing Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Thomas Friedman put it this way: “Those with power never think about it, but those without power think about it all the time.”