Women in the Teachings of Jesus

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Preface by Joseph Tkach

Conservative and liberal commentators are generally agreed on this: Jesus treated women well—despite the male-dominated culture in which he lived. He treated them respectfully, was sensitive to their needs, used them as good examples of faith, and included them in his ministry in several important ways.

Nevertheless, when it came time to name 12 apostles, Jesus included only men. This fact is an important part of the debate about whether women may lead in the church today. The doctrinal team has prepared the paper below to help us see the example set by Jesus Christ.

Joseph Tkach


Women in the Ministry of Jesus
Part 1

Women are prominent in the story of Jesus—he was born of a woman, had numerous interactions with women, and was seen first by women after his resurrection. Although these incidents do not tell us much about women in leadership, we will survey the Gospels to see 1) what Jesus taught about women, 2) how he interacted with women, and 3) why the apostles were all men.

Jesus' teaching about marriage

As far as the Gospels report, Jesus did not teach on male and female roles.[1] He never explicitly taught women to submit to men, nor did he explicitly say that they were equal in every way.[2]

However, he did teach about marriage. Some religious leaders asked him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (Matt. 19:3). The question concerned the interpretation of Deut. 24:1, which says, "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…" Some rabbis thought that a man could divorce his wife if she displeased him in any way; others thought a man could divorce only if the wife did something indecent.

Jesus responded by quoting Genesis, basically saying that God intended marriage to last for life, and people should not break their vows. Moses allowed divorce, even for "indecency," because the people had hard hearts (Matt. 19:8). Jesus was surprisingly strict: "Anyone who divorces his wife except for marital unfaithfulness[3] and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery" (v. 9 combined with Mark 10:11-12).

In the Jewish world, only men could initiate divorce, and women were at a disadvantage. Jesus was removing this male advantage. Further, he said that men could be guilty of adultery if they married another woman—something the laws of Moses did not say. This response dismayed the disciples, and Jesus responded that celibacy was an honorable option for some (v. 12). As Mark 10:12 makes clear, the prohibition on divorce applies equally to women (Roman law allowed women to initiate divorce).

Tom Schreiner writes, "Jesus upheld the dignity of women by speaking out against divorce, which particularly injured women in the ancient world."[4] James Borland notes, "In his treatment of divorce…Jesus clearly regards women not as property but as persons. They have legitimate rights and should be respected."[5]

Jesus also commented on male-female relations in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, "Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). Again, Jesus was saying that men could commit adultery; although the law of Moses did not prohibit all extramarital affairs, Jesus said it was adultery to even desire another woman, whether she was married or not. Jewish rabbis were well aware of lust, but they usually blamed the women for being seductive. Jesus blamed the man, and the solution to lust is not to restrict women,[6] but for men to restrict their own thoughts (v. 29).

Although this teaching is stated for a male, as rules usually were, we believe that it also applies to females. That is, a woman who looks lustfully at a man has also committed adultery in the heart, and the best solution is not to segregate the sexes but to control the thoughts.

Last, Jesus mentioned that marriage is not applicable to the age to come (Mark 12:25). This does not explicitly say that males and females will be equal, but that is the probable implication.

Women as positive spiritual examples

"Women were employed by Jesus quite freely as illustrations in His teaching," Borland notes.[7] "This is in stark contrast to the rabbis of the day. One looks in vain in their teachings for even one story or sermon illustration that mentions women," Linda Belleville adds.[8] In many of Jesus' illustrations, women are presented as positive role models of faith, which men should follow. For example:

  • Jesus and a womanThe Queen of the south, who was wiser than the first-century Jews (Matt 12:42)
  • The woman mixing yeast into dough (Matt. 13:33), who is presented as an illustration of the way that the kingdom of God works[9]
  • Women working when Christ returns, some of who are ready and others are not (Matt. 24:41)
  • Ten virgins, of whom five were prepared and five were not (Matt 25:1-13)
  • The widow of Zarephath, whom Jesus used as an example of a Gentile that God favored (Luke 4:26)
  • The woman who found the coin she had lost (Luke 15:8-10). In this parable the woman plays the role of God, just as the shepherd did in the preceding parable and the father does in the following parable.[10]
  • A persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), a model for disciples to imitate in prayer
  • The widow giving her two coinsA widow who gave everything she had (Luke 21:1-4).

In Luke 11, an anonymous woman called out, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you" (v. 27). Jesus did not deny that his own mother was blessed, but he said that the real blessing is given to "those who hear the word of God and obey it" (v. 28). A woman's spiritual worth is based on her response to God, not in performing biological functions. Women are saved by faith, not by bearing children.

"Jesus did two important things" for this woman, Borland writes. "He gave her His undivided attention by listening to her comment, and He mildly corrected her and pointed her toward further spiritual understanding…. Jesus does not deny His mother's place of importance, but goes beyond it to a wider spiritual truth."[11]

"Christ never belittled the role of a mother," JoAnn Davidson observes, but he "refused to limit a woman's horizon to nurturing family and cooking."[12]

Jesus made a similar point when people told him that his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him (Matt. 12:47). He replied that the disciples were his real family: "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (vv. 49-50). Spiritual response is more important than biological origin. Jesus expanded the response to include "sister," even though the original comment did not mention sisters; by doing so he implied that women were spiritually on an equal footing with men.

Shortly before Jesus was arrested and killed, a woman[13] anointed him with a large amount of expensive perfume. The disciples grumbled about the expense, but Jesus praised the woman: "She has done a beautiful thing to me…. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Matt. 26:10, 13). What she did is a great illustration for all disciples: unrestrained devotion. Jesus said to the woman who anointed him, "Your faith has saved you" (Luke 7:50), and the fact that this story is preserved in the Gospels means that her faith is an example to us today.

Similarly, a Canaanite woman was praised for having great faith (Matt. 15:28).[14] As a non-Israelite, she had no claim to any favors from him, but she appealed for grace and mercy. Hurley writes, "He shows respect for the faith of this woman and for her argument. He took women seriously."[15]

[1] Stanley Grenz writes, "Jesus gave no explicit teaching on the role of women in the church. In fact, he left no teaching at all concerning women as a class of people…. He treated every woman he met as a person in her own right" (Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry[InterVarsity, 1995], 71).

[2] "Jesus stopped short of ever making any explicit pronouncements about the equality of men and women (even to the extent that Paul does in Galatians 3:28), to say nothing of attempting to overthrow sociocultural conventions on gender roles…. Jesus cannot fairly be co-opted for modern liberationist or egalitarian agendas…. Neither the Gospels nor the book of Acts can prove decisive in answering the question of whether the first generation of Christians in general or Paul in particular reserved any leadership roles for men. For that one must turn to Paul's writings themselves" (Craig Blomberg, "Neither Hierarchicalist Nor Egalitarian: Gender Roles in Paul," in Two Views on Women in Ministry [ed. James R. Beck and Craig L. Blomberg; Zondervan, 2001], 335-37).  

[3] Under Old Testament law, an adulterous wife would have been stoned. 1 Cor. 7 implies that additional exceptions are sometimes appropriate. However, this is not the place to discuss the ethics of divorce and remarriage. Those who want a more detailed discussion of this issue should see two papers on our website. See https://www.gci.org/ethics/divorce  and https://www.gci.org/ethics/divorce2.

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, "Women in Ministry," in Two Views on Women in Ministry (ed. James R. Beck and Craig L. Blomberg; Zondervan, 2001), 185. 

[5] James A. Borland, "Women in the Life and Teachings of Jesus," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem; Crossway, 1991), 115.  

[6] "The approach most often taken by rabbinic Judaism to sexual temptation seems to have been the reduction to a minimum of any sort of contact between the sexes" (James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective [Zondervan, 1981], 64). Hurley's book was an influential scholarly presentation of the conservative position, and has recently been reprinted by Wipf & Stock. Examples of rabbinic teaching:

  • "He that talks much with women brings evil upon himself" (mAb. 1.5; cf. Ned. 20a)

  • "These are the women that may be put away without giving them their dowry: a wife that transgresses the law of Moses and Jewish custom, or if she goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man" (mKet. 7:6).

The social reality was probably that men did not talk with women unless necessary—see the disciples' surprise to find Jesus talking with a woman (John 4:27). In this discussion, we do not want to portray Judaism as bad or backwards—in its attitude toward women, it was average for its time. Greek authors generally had worse attitudes, Latin authors slightly better.  

[7] Borland 117.  

[8] Linda Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church: Three Crucial Questions (Baker, 1999), 48.  

[9] Some scholars interpret the yeast as a bad thing, like tares in the wheat, but most scholars conclude that the parable of the yeast is intended to portray the growth of the kingdom in good ways. 

[10] Jesus cast himself in the role of a female when he compared himself to a mother hen (Matt. 23:37).  

[11] Borland, 116.  

[12] JoAnn Davidson, "Women in Scripture," in Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (ed. Nancy Vyhmeister; Andrews University Press, 1998), 175.  

[13] John 12:3 identifies her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Luke 7 may report a different anointing.  

[14] Jesus' initial reluctance to help the woman had nothing to do with her sex—it was simply that she was a Gentile. Jesus would have known about her faith from the start, but went through the conversation to help the disciples realize that it was right to heal a Gentile. 

[15] Hurley, 85.

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