When I think of feminists I tend to think of people like Kate Sheppard who campaigned tirelessly to get women the right to vote in New Zealand or Susan B Anthony who worked on countless campaigns to bring equal rights to both women and African American people in the United States.
However, today I want to talk about a surprising feminist who changed the way women are viewed and treated in countries all over the world – that feminist is none other than Jesus Christ.
Women’s rights in history
In the Roman Empire in the first century, both Roman and Jewish women had very little rights. Roman women were not allowed to own property, control their own finances, participate in politics, or even vote. Essentially Roman women were considered the property of first their father, then their husband.
Jewish women did not fare much better as they had minimal property rights, needed provision and protection provided by men, and could be divorced for any reason but could not divorce their husbands – not that they’d be likely to want to as they wouldn’t be able to fend for themselves.
Josephus, a Jewish historian, says in his major work – Antiquities of the Jews - “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex”.
It was into that context that Jesus was born and grew up, yet he did not go along with the cultural norms when it came to his treatment of women; the way he treated women was completely counter-cultural.
Jesus’ treatment of women
Jesus taught and interacted with women as well as men, he publicly engaged with them and spent time with them alongside men. His care and compassion for women as well as men is shown through many stories in the gospels.
Jesus heals women, eats with women, comforts women, teaches women – he certainly does not see them as second class citizens who are not worthy of his time or attention!
Even more amazingly it is to women whom Jesus first appears to after his resurrection and it is those women whom he charges with telling the disciples that he has risen just as he said he would! Jesus clearly valued the testimony of women!
Women have been valued by God since the beginning of time – starting of at creation where men and women were created in the image of God but the way God wanted his people to treat one another became distorted and instead of those in authority loving and serving those who submitted to them they abused that power.
One such example is when Jesus is asked about divorce and says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew chapter 19, verses 8-9).
Jesus is telling them that they need to be committed to the wife they married and that they shouldn’t divorce for whatever reason they felt like– as was the cultural practice at the time.
Women in the Early Church
Jesus’ treatment of and teaching about women profoundly effected how the early church treated women.
In Ephesians chapter 5, verses 25 and 28-29, Paul outlines the selfless love husbands should have for their wives, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.
He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church.”
Men are charged with having the same selfless, sacrificial, whole-hearted love for their wives as Jesus shows to his church!
Another shockingly counter-cultural idea was that both spouses belonged to each other as opposed to just the wife belonging to the husband – this is expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 7, verse 4,“The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.”
The idea that a woman would have claim to her husband’s body was unheard of but Paul – informed by God’s values – states that both spouses belong to each other equally.
Following in Jesus’ feminist footsteps
Wherever Christianity spread so did the ideas of equality, often imperfectly but in such an important and world changing way that much of the world has been shaped to seek after and pursue equal rights for women, as well as for people of all ethnicities and social classes.
This type of equality was not brought about by “smashing the patriarchy”, but instead by lifting women up to the position God had for them all along and inspiring men to model the loving and servant-hearted leadership that Jesus himself modelled during his life and death.
When I think of the kind of feminist I want to be I think of those who tirelessly campaign for the good of others seeking to bring out the best in people and bring out their God given potential – people like Kate Sheppard, Susan B Anthony, and most importantly – Jesus!
Jessica McPherson lives with her best friend and husband, Eoin and their family of rescue animals in Christchurch. She loves reading, writing, photography and scrap-booking but most of all sharing God’s love and truth with a hurting world. Jessica is particularly passionate about encouraging children and building them up in gospel truth.