Some of the places I love the most in the Holy Land are the churches dedicated to women. My favorite is the Duc In Altum in Magdala on the shore of Galilee. It is a lovely Catholic chapel overlooking the Galilee and dedicated to the women of the New Testament. In one room is a particularly magnificent painting of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’s robe, and this may be my favorite place in all the Holy Land. I can’t think of a place more suited for pondering on what it means to be a daughter of God.
I find the treatment of women in the New Testament deeply empowering, even more when one considers it in context with the society of the time. One of the heritages of Hellenization was a deeply imposed misogyny, and though there is evidence of a certain degree of egalitarianism in earliest Israel, by the time of Jesus, Jewish society generally reflected much of the attitudes toward women commonly found in the Hellenized world.
With some exceptions, the vast majority of women in 1st century Palestine were largely denied education, work, and any kind of leadership role in religious or political life. Put in this context many of the stories of women in the New Testament have powerfully radical messages. Stories like that of Elizabeth understanding and witnessing to truths that her husband, a man and priest, did not yet comprehend. Of the prophet Anna who was the first person to actively and publicly proselytize that Jesus was the Messiah. Of the Samaritan woman who openly and evangelically accepted Christ’s teachings while the Jewish Priest Nicodemus hid his belief in shame. Of the unnamed woman who seemed to be the only person who understood that Jesus had to die and anointed him in preparation for it. Of Martha who was doing exactly what she should have been doing according to societal norms, but who needed to be taught a new way of life for a new kingdom, a kingdom unlike any that had been seen before. A kingdom where women were to sit at the table and engage with the things of God. A kingdom where women did not quietly serve in the background while men took care of the Lord’s work, but where women were taught directly by Christ himself and then set out with that knowledge to actively participate in revealing and building the world which God had personally shown them.
This inclusivity was paramount to the early Christian message. As proof of the reality that Christ’s teachings were being fulfilled and his kingdom was being ushered in Peter quoted Joel, saying “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” The female disciples who took on important, dynamic, and prophetic roles within the Christian community would have almost certainly been considered a threat to the social orders in which they lived. But to the early Christians they served as evidence that God’s kingdom was come, and that the glory of it was defined, not by hierarchical posturing and power consolidation, but by sweeping and profound egalitarianism. The power of God did not trickle down in increments or in pyramidal benefits packages but was to be given generously to all who sought in faith. Women imbued with spiritual gifts were the sign that what Christ taught was true, and that the spirit, the very power of God, was being spread on a grand scale into the hearts and minds of all who sought it. Full fellowship within the circle of God was made available to all. Women had a seat at God’s table.
Unfortunately, much of that momentum wore off quickly. As early as the accredited writings of Paul we find vacillation between firm support of women’s leadership roles and spiritual gifts, to insistence that women should not even be allowed to speak in church. The conundrum of what to do with women continued to perplex the followers of Christ through the ages. Because of the heroines of the Bible women couldn’t simply be dismissed, but there was still a troubling tendency to try and force Jesus’ teachings into a more socially palatable version. In the case of women this version took on different forms depending on the current social mores, but one consistent theme was that women were seldom viewed as being vital participants so much as having supporting roles defined by how they affected the men around them. Women were temptresses or obligations or angels, each of these characterizations being deeply imbued with meaning, but none of them referencing something fully human. At worst women were distractions, if not demons, who prevented men from fully actualizing their potential. At best, they were the angels of paintings and poems who hovered, limp and silent but ever cheerful, around the active participants of the story. They served, not as meaningful contributors to events, but as evidence to the importance and grandeur of those in the foreground. They were to look pretty and make sure everyone felt good. And the closest they would ever get to the table was to decorate it.
But we are not only heirs of misguided social constructs. We are the heirs of a Mother in Heaven. Our Mother God who, with our Father, created the plan of salvation. Created the universe. Created us. A woman suffused with power and glory and wisdom. We are the heirs of Deborah and Huldah, of Mary and Hannah, of Eve and Junia, of Emmaline and Eliza. Women who, if they were angels, were not the angels of artwork, but of scripture. People infused with knowledge and a testimony of God because they worked and suffered for it. Who taught with power and authority and boldness and who deeply and fully lived in the world in which they served. Women chosen by God to preach to those in need of preaching, to correct those in need of correction, and to teach those in need of truth. Women who were not pieces of art, but revealers of heaven.
The prophesy in Joel is still being fulfilled today. The kingdom of God is still being built and one of the signs of that kingdom is still that women will be imbued with the powers of God. We can be those women. We should be those women. One thing that I’ve learned from gardening is that to nurture means to know what a seed is, what it can grow into, and how to get it there. Women are nurturers to the seeds, the creation, the children, of God. In our different ways and with our different gifts, personalities, and opportunities we are imbued together with the power and wisdom of God to help grow our Heavenly Parents’ creation into what it is meant to become. Now, as much as ever, the world needs the nurturing power of women to boldly inform social norms, testimony, and legislation. At a time when we see families being torn apart by brutal wars and brutal policies, when suicide is on the rise, when the cries of the disenfranchised are ignored as mere nuisance, women are a necessary and integral force for facilitating the courageous compassion, mercy, and wisdom needed in both attitudes and laws. We have something to say. We have something to give. We are daughters of God. And now is the time for us to reveal to the world, and perhaps to ourselves, just what that means.
I whole-heartedly agree, but you don’t need my validation.
There is a trope (archetype, really) in modern literature, including cinema, called “the manic pixie dream girl.” Like the trope of “the magic negro,” it gives a character whose sole purpose in a narrative is to lead the man-child to self-actualization.
Based on your essay, it would seem such tropes are much older, but still grew out of the Greco-Roman role established for women, as our Greco-Roman heritage preserved the role of slave for the cultural/racial “other.”
Part of the challenge for supposedly Christian nations will be to continue to shed the Greco-Roman thinking, to grow beyond it. Dialectal thinking as one influence from Asia may help, but Asia has its own inheritances of suppression of women.
Powerful post. It reminds me that we often think of dispensations monolithically, even though we recognize that in they past they’ve ultimately shifted, fallen into apostasy, and lost their original shape and work. The Book of Mormon helps us to recognize a different understanding—that a dispensation can ebb and flow, wax and wane multiple times. I can envision our God in the early days of the Restoration—knowing what happened with the role of women in the New Testament era you describe, knowing the massive undertow of the greater cultural forces of the deeply misogynistic 19th & 20th centuries—determining a sort of lodestone that would ultimately prevail and help steer our dispensation aright. We’ve wavered, and at times I’ve wondered if we haven’t been guilty of saying “We have enough!” and so losing that which God gave us. But I believe the lodestone revelation of our Heavenly Mother will ultimately lead us to embrace the vision you articulate here.
“Women of God can never be like women of the world. The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.”
– Margaret D. Nadauld, “The Joy of Womanhood”
Love it, thanks for your words
Beautiful, Mary. I love how you re purposed the concept of nurturing. Thank you.
I don’t have much to say, except that I love your posts. Keep them coming!
“a troubling tendency to try and force Jesus’ teachings into a more socially palatable version.”
An ever-present tendency, I think, and a good reminder for me.