In an article published today on The Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in Michigan, writes that Jesus was simultaneously pro-woman and complementarian¹. He shares a long and beautiful list of interactions that Jesus had with women throughout his life and ministry, and then points to Jesus’ 12 male disciples as the proof that although women were of equal value to Jesus, he reserved leadership for men and was therefore complementarian (i.e. traditional, hierarchical, or patriarchal). TGC is almost synonymous with complementarianism, posting regularly on God’s design for gender roles, even positioning gender roles as a critical part of the Gospel – generally understood to be the Good News that Jesus came to restore his creation and redeem us to right relationship with God…and to our gender roles for all eternity?
I certainly agree with DeYoung that Jesus’ interactions with women were revolutionary. It is often these same interactions that plant a seed of doubt in the mind of complementarians who come around to an egalitarian² theology. If this is how Jesus treated women at a time when Jewish men daily were thanking God that he did not make them women, why do our churches treat them any differently?
In “Our Pro-Woman, Complementarian Jesus”, DeYoung says,
Out of a cultural background that minimized the dignity of women and even depersonalized them, Jesus boldly affirmed their worth and gladly benefited from their vital ministry. He made the unusual practice of speaking freely to women, and in public no less (John 4:27; 8:10–11; Luke 7:12–13). He also frequently ministered to the needs of hurting women, like Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30–31), the woman bent over for 18 years (Luke 13:10–17), the bleeding woman (Matt. 9:20–22), and the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30).
Jesus not only ministered to women, he allowed women to minister to him. Women anointed Jesus and he warmly received their service (Matt. 26:6–13; Luke 7:36–50). Some women helped Jesus’s ministry financially (Luke 8:2–3), while others offered hospitality (Luke 10:40; John 12:2). A number of women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Salome, Mary and Martha—are mentioned by name in the Gospels, indicating their important place in Jesus’s ministry. Many women were among Jesus’s band of disciples. And perhaps most significantly, women were the first witnesses to the resurrection (Matt. 28:5–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:2–9; John 20:1–2).
DeYoung could elaborate on his mention of John 4 – the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, who Jesus ministered to despite cultural taboos (and even contradictory to the much-followed complementarian “Billy Graham Rule” of never being alone with a woman), who then went into her city as the first missionary, converting many.
He could mention that Jesus submitted, at somewhere around 30 years old, to his mother’s wish that he turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana, his first miracle.
I love that women were the financial backers of Jesus’ ministry. There is no mention in the Bible of any men doing so. Complementarians generally assign finances to the role of males, as a source of power and authority that transcends the domestic duties of women.
At a time when women were not eligible to give witness in a court of law because of their lowly status and questionable ability in the eyes of the patriarchal culture, Jesus first appeared to women at his resurrection. Let that sink in. If women are not to teach men, as complementarians believe that teaching is a form of authority, and women are not to have authority over men, should they have gone back to the 12 grown men and told them, or held the Good News under their hat until Jesus spoke directly to the men who could then spread the Good News to others?
DeYoung goes on to say,
Underlying Jesus’s ministry was the radical assumption that women have enormous value and purpose. The clearest example is his mother Mary, who’s called highly favored in Luke 1:28. Moreover, Jesus used women as illustrations in his teaching, mentioning the queen of the south (Matt. 12:42), the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:26), women at the second coming (Matt. 24:41), and the woman in search of her lost coin (Luke 15:8–10). He held up the persistent widow as an example of prayerfulness (Luke 18:1–5), and the poor widow’s offering as an example of generosity (Luke 21:1–4).
Jesus addressed women tenderly as “daughters of Abraham,” placing them on the same spiritual plane as men (Luke 13:16). His teaching on divorce treated women as persons, not mere property (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), and his instruction about lust protected women from being treated as nothing more than objects of sexual desire (Matt. 5:28). And in a time where female learning was suspect, Jesus made a point to teach women on numerous occasions (Luke 10:38–42; 23:27–31; John 11:20ff).
I would elaborate on the story of Martha and Mary from Luke 10, in which Jesus insisted that Mary sit at his feet alongside his male disciples, learning from him rather than serving them in her subordinate female station–which was inconsistent with what DeYoung calls “God’s original design for role distinctions”. If it was better for Mary to sit at the feet of her teacher, in the posture of a disciple, is it not better for women today to pursue their callings in the Kingdom of God than it is to remain in supportive roles, always deferring to and serving the men?
DeYoung was doing well until this point in his article. While acknowledging that Jesus’ treatment of women was revolutionary in his patriarchal culture, he veers off course with his assertion that Jesus’ selection of an “all-male apostolic leadership” points to complimentarianism.
First of all, if Jesus is being consistent with God’s original design for male and female roles, it is important to point out that gender roles as expressed by complementarian theology were not present in humanity before the Fall.
Complementarians say that because God made Adam first, he intended that Adam would be the leader. But Adam was not made first. The animals were!
When God went to make an ezer kenegdo for Adam, which is often translated “suitable helper”, he was making an equal partner to yoke with Adam. A truer translation renders ezer kenegdo “corresponding strength.” It is not preferable to be unequally yoked in marriage, with one spouse carrying a greater load than the other. In most appearances of the word ezer in the OT, it is referring to God or to a warrior in battle. Certainly not an image of domestic servitude!
When God fashioned Eve out of Adam, he declared that she was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, meaning she was the same. None of this “weaker sex” talk here. Women are made of tough stuff!
And God did not give Adam alone authority over creation. The mandate to be fruitful and multiply and rule the earth was given to both Adam and Eve. We do not see a brokenness in male and female equality and partnership until sin entered the picture.
Second of all, pointing to the fact that the twelve disciples were male does not prove that Jesus would have withheld positions of authority from women for all time. Jesus also chose only Jewish, middle-aged men. Are Gentiles, slaves, and elderly or young people also excluded from church leadership?
There was symbolism behind Jesus choosing his original twelve disciples, pointing to the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel and the coming of their long-awaited Messiah. These twelve were then titled apostles after Jesus ascended to heaven, but others were also later called apostles, including Paul and a woman named Junia. The prophesied Messiah had come, and another prophecy from Joel 2:28 was also fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and landed on all who were gathered together waiting – both men and women – and they all began to prophecy. With God’s Spirit in each of us, there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (Galations 3:28). We are all one in Christ and equally equipped to serve God’s Kingdom.
How is complementarian theology practiced in most churches? When looking for leaders, half of the church is immediately disqualified because of their genitalia. From there leaders are chosen. It boggles the mind to see spiritually mature and qualified women barred from using their gifts for the Kingdom of God, while our culture has progressed to a place where women are able to lead in secular organizations to the great benefit of all!
God became flesh in a patriarchal world where leadership was not accessible to women. But in the early days of the Church women played pivotal roles as leaders. Christianity can be credited with progressing the equality of women throughout culture at large. And so it is ironic and sad that hierarchical Christianity today is a leading force in subjugating women. Complementarianism may seem benign to many who have not examined their life-long assumptions about gender roles, but to those of us who have been exposed to the plight of abused and marginalized women around the world and in our own backyards, we are horrified that the Church is not stepping up to honor women in the same revolutionary way that Jesus did in his day.
¹Wikipedia: “Complementarianism is a theological view held by some in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere…For some Christians whose complementarian view is biblically-prescribed, these separate roles preclude women from specific functions of ministry within the Church. Complementarianism assigns primary leadership roles to men and support roles to women—based on their interpretation of certain biblical passages from a Complementarian perspective. One of its precepts is that while women may assist in the decision-making process, the ultimate authority for the decision is the purview of the male in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches subscribing to this view.”
²Wikipedia: “Christian egalitarianism (derived from the French word égal, meaning equal or level), also known as biblical equality, is a Christian form of egalitarianism. It holds that all human persons are created equally in God’s sight—equal in fundamental worth and moral status. This view does not just apply to gender, but to religion, skin colour and any other differences between individuals. It does not imply that all have equal skills, abilities, interests, or physiological or genetic traits. Christian egalitarianism holds that all people are equal before God and in Christ; have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God; and are called to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender, or race.”
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