The popularity of The Da Vinci Code has forced Christians to realize that their beliefs are open to challenge. As a result, many Christians are interested in subjects that used to draw yawns. A few years ago, no one wanted to hear about the Gnostic Gospels and why we reject them, for example.
One issue raised by The Da Vinci Code is Jesus’ relationship to women. We can easily surmise that the Mary Magdalene nonsense of The Da Vinci Code is bogus, but what was Jesus’ real attitude toward women?
On the one hand, He established the church by training her basic leaders, the apostles. Only men were chosen as apostles, and the concept of male leadership in the church is consistent throughout Scripture: the Old Testament priests had to be male (according to Moses) and Paul teaches that church leaders who teach doctrine or Bible to men must be male, as must elders (1 Tim. 2:9-15, 3:1-2).
On the other hand, God used prophetesses as a channel of divine communication (e.g., Miriam, Deborah, in the Old Testament and the daughters of Philip in the New), and both men and women were encouraged to prophesy in the early church (1 Cor. 11:3-11).
Most of us understand that the reasons for these restrictions on leadership have nothing to do with competence or ability. Most of us know strong, capable godly women who have mastered the Word, as well as not-so-godly Christian men who have not. Nor are these restrictions justified on the basis of ancient culture (and thus no longer relevant). Instead, they are anchored to the order of creation and the events of mankind’s fall into sin (see 1 Tim. 2:9-15), past events that do not change (as does culture). The leadership of men in the home or in the church rises or falls together since they are mandated with similar justification. However, it takes quite a stretch to translate this concept into the political or work world.
Jesus’ high regard for women
Just because Jesus did not appoint women to positions of leadership does not mean that He did not hold women in high regard. In fact, the Jews had a long heritage of respecting womanhood. The Pharisees are often given a bum rap for thanking God daily that they were not born women. But what is typically left out of the discussion is why they were thankful for this.
Jewish women were not required to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for the three festival seasons, as were men. Since many women would be pregnant or caring for young children, such a demand could have created a serious hardship. The Old Testament Law allowed women to make the trip (and many did, including Mary when Jesus was a boy of 12), but did not require them to do so. The Pharisees were glad they were men so they could better observe the Law without exemption and thus obey more mitzvot (commands). Neither they nor Jesus looked down upon women.
We read about some important women in the Kingdom of God in Luke 8:1-3 (NIV):
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Please note the crucial ministry these women embraced. Some of these women had been demonized and delivered. Others were independently wealthy. Amazingly, these women helped finance Jesus’ ministry. Ponder that. Most Christians are unaware of this almost invisible group of supporters. Since the entire Jewish culture was bent on encouraging Jewish men to leave their vocations for a while to follow a rabbi—and thus “enter the Kingdom of Heaven”—it was probably not unusual for wealthy Jewesses to help finance such missions. When traveling, the women would caravan together with the other women and make a separate camp. Presumably, many of these women probably followed Jesus for brief times.
When Yeshua addressed the crowds, these women took in His teaching. They probably counseled women and children, baptized female converts, and, in a sense, were the forerunners of the office of deaconesses. We do not know this as a fact, but it would fit the scenario well.
Although fictitious stories about Jesus being involved with or married to Mary Magdalene are popular right now, not only was Jesus never romantically involved with any woman, but also His closest friends were two sisters and a brother, Mary (not Magdalene), Martha, and Lazarus. This Mary was the woman who sat at Jesus feet while her sister Martha fussed in the kitchen.
Mary of Bethany was the only disciple who really seemed to comprehend that Jesus was actually going to die. Although earlier an immoral woman (possibly Mary Magdalene) had expressed repentance by anointing Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany prepared Christ for burial by anointing His head with perfume (Matt. 26:6-13) the day before His crucifixion. She was the only one of the disciples—male or female—who really knew how to listen. She was the only believer who comprehended what was about to happen. Ponder that as well.
Women and the Kingdom
Women have always played a prominent role in the Kingdom of God. Sarah certainly influenced Abraham, Deborah served as a reluctant judge (“like a mother to Israel,” Judg. 5:7) and military strategist, and it appears that Aquila would not have been very aggressive without the initiative of his wife, Priscilla (who is usually mentioned first) in Acts 18:18-28.
Jesus’ view toward women—and the view of the original church He established—is neither the put-down view we inherited from medieval culture nor the feminist perspective. The biblical perspective is more like, “we’re in this together.” God created both man and woman in His image (Gen. 1:27), and we are more alike than different. Since the genders are different in other areas, it is like comparing apples and oranges.
In the Kingdom of God, men’s influence may seem more overt, but women may have had as much or even more influence. How can you measure the invisible Kingdom of God?
Perhaps the best summary was written in 1 Corinthians 11:11, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.”