The Turning Point For Women
By David Feddes
Imagine growing up as a girl, knowing that when you get to be twelve or thirteen years old, your father might sell you to an older man who wants a young girl for a wife. You might feel too young to be married. You might not like the man who is about to become your husband. But your wishes don’t count. The law gives your father the right to do with you whatever he wants. He pays no attention to your wishes and sells you to the highest bidder.
And that’s just the beginning. Once you’re married, you become your husband’s property. He has the power of life and death over you. The law gives him the right to strike and punish you if you don’t please him. In some circumstances, he even has the right to kill you, with no penalty under the law.
If you have children, they belong to your husband, not to you. He has absolute, life-and-death authority over any children you have together. If he severely beats them or kills them, that is his right under the law. The man of the house has absolute authority; he answers to no other authority for how he treats his wife and children.
If you have an adulterous relationship with a man, your husband has the right to kill you. Meanwhile, your husband can be as adulterous as he likes. He can go to one of the local temples and enjoy orgies with various male and female prostitutes as part of religious ceremonies. For you as a wife, adultery could mean death, but your husband can sleep with prostitutes or parade around in public with a mistress (or several mistresses).
In fact, a mistress or prostitute has more freedom to appear in public without a veil than a married woman. Wives are to remain hidden. If your husband has guests to your home for dinner, you are expected to stay in another room. You are not allowed to share the meal or to have conversation with any male guests. If you ever leave your house and go out in public without a veil, your husband has the right to divorce you on the spot.
If your husband divorces you for any reason, the children are his. He has plenty of slaves to care for them, so they can get along without you. Under the law, if you are a wife and mother, you have no right to custody or guardianship of your children. The children belong totally to your husband. So does all the property in your household. It is under your husband’s absolute control while he lives, and if he dies, you cannot inherit his property. Only a male can inherit property.
This scenario isn’t just imaginary. This is what life was really like for many girls and women in the Roman Empire, and classical Greece was similar in some ways.
Of course, if you were born a female, you might not become a teenager or adult at all. In those cultures many female babies didn’t live more than a few hours. Girls had such a low standing that many parents didn’t want one. If a baby girl was born, it was common to abandon her to freeze or starve or be eaten by wild animals. How many girl babies were killed? It must have been millions. Living males outnumbered females by 30 percent.
Some Romans did value women—as they might value any other productive piece of property. Some Greek and Roman men thought a woman who produced strong, high-quality children was valuable property, so valuable that she ought to be shared with friends. If a man had enough children of his own, why not loan his wife to a friend so that the friend could also have a fine crop of children? A good wife was like good soil. If she produced enough of a crop for one man, shouldn’t she be loaned to another man as soil to raise a first-rate crop of kids for him?
It was not a good time to be a woman.
The Turning Point
Then along came some people who had a different view of women and marriage. They didn’t kill girl babies; they cherished them. They didn’t approve of men having mistresses and prostitutes; they insisted that a man and wife be faithful to each other for life. They didn’t give men the right to kill their wives; they instructed men to sacrifice themselves for their wives. They didn’t authorize men to do anything they wanted to women and children; they told husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them, and they told fathers not to embitter or exasperate children but to encourage them. They didn’t prevent women from showing their faces in public. They didn’t withhold teaching from girls. They thought the most important things in life should be taught not just to boys and men but also to girls and women. These people were called Christians.
A fierce critic of Christianity, an intellectual named Celsus, ridiculed Christianity because it attracted so many women. In the opinion of Celsus and many like him, any religion that appealed to women must be bad. But the church of Christ kept affirming women, and this honoring of women turned out to be a blessing not only for women but for men as well. Men found out that a loving, faithful relationship with one woman is far better than the pagan, promiscuous approach. Men found more joy in a godly, intelligent wife than in a doormat whose talents were stifled and whose personality was stunted. In fact, many Christian women demonstrated such talent, character, and courage that a pagan was moved to exclaim in grudging admiration, “What women these Christians have!”
An expert on ancient Rome says that “the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity [brought] a great change in women’s status.” For a thousand years Roman law upheld patria potestas, the absolute authority of a man over his wife and children, including the power of life and death. But shortly after Christianity gained acceptance in the Roman Empire, this thousand-year-old standard was repealed. Men no longer had the right to harm or kill wives and children. Women gained the right to have property and to have custody of children.
As Christianity gained ground, it became less and less common for fathers to give child brides to older men. Rather than girls getting married at age 12, most Christian women married later. Rather than being compelled to marry whomever their father sold them to, young women from Christian families had far more choice in whom they would marry. Parents could still be involved in matchmaking in various ways, but Christian girls were less likely to be forced to marry men against their will. As one researcher puts it, “Everywhere progress in free choice of a spouse accompanied progress in the spread of Christianity.”
In light of all this, another scholar declares bluntly, “The birth of Jesus was the turning point in the history of women.” This isn’t just a matter of ancient history. Even in today’s world, there are cultures with little Christian influence in which parents get money by selling young girls to older men who want child brides. The girls have no right to say no to a man if he was selected by her father. Some cultures still order women to wear veils in public and refuse to educate girls. The Taliban’s treatment of women in Afghanistan may have struck some outside observers as odd, but it’s been far too common in many cultures in many parts of the world. For many women the situation is now different, thanks in large part to the powerful effect of Jesus and his message in the Bible.
A woman from a non-Christian religion once exclaimed to a Christian, “Surely your Bible was written by a woman!” When the Christian asked her why she said this, the woman replied, “Because the Bible says so many kind things for women. Our teachers never refer to us except in reproach.” Well, the Bible wasn’t written by a woman, but the Bible’s author was and is the Lord who created women, as well as men, in his image, who paid with his own blood to purchase women for himself, and who loves women with a vast, immeasurable love. The Bible is indeed good news for women, because the Bible reveals Jesus and his love. Nowadays some radical feminists claim that the Christian faith oppresses women, but the truth is that Jesus and his followers uplifted women and family life more than any other influence in history.
Friend of Women
Jesus, the Son of God, was born among the Jewish people. God had dealt with the Jews in a special way and had revealed great truths to them, including the fact that God created both male and female in his image. The Jews had received God’s law, a law that prohibited adultery, that defended the rights of widows and children, that praised a wife of noble character as a priceless gift from God. Even so, by the time Jesus was born, some Jewish religious leaders had a much lower view of women than of men.
One rabbinical teaching said, “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than committed to a woman … If a man teaches his daughter the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery.” But Jesus taught God’s law to women. Once, Jesus was a guest at the home of a man named Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha was busy doing “women’s work” as a hostess, but Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him teaching God’s truth. Martha objected and asked Jesus to order Mary back to the kitchen to help. But Jesus said that Mary’s choice was better. It was good for a woman to be a friend of Jesus and to educated in God’s truth (Luke 10:38-42).
Another saying of the rabbis declared, “He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself” (Aboth 1:5). “One is not so much as to greet a woman” (Berakhoth 43b). But Jesus rejected such thinking. Jesus sat down at a public well and asked a woman for a drink. She was surprised that Jesus spoke with her, but he continued. He spoke to her of true worship, of her own sin, and of salvation and new life in him. The Bible says that Jesus’ disciples were “surprised to find him talking with a woman” (John 4:27). But they got used to such things after a while. Jesus made it a common practice to preach to crowds that included women as well as men, to engage women in personal conversation and teaching, and to show them his love.
Jesus treated every woman he met with love, not lust. He cared about who they were as persons, not what their bodies looked like. He taught his followers that adultery is wrong, that lust is a form of adultery, and a man who divorces a woman on a whim and marries someone else is guilty of adultery.
Jesus treated women with respect. In the Old Testament, God taught that male and female were created in God’s image, and Jesus restored the dignity of women as image-bearers of God. While most other teachers would not instruct women, Jesus gladly taught them and engaged them in discussion. He was even willing to make them partners in his work. A number of women, grateful for his friendship and help, provided financial support and other assistance to Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:1-3).
These women were drawn to Jesus, and not just because they liked his general attitude toward women. They followed Jesus because he helped them personally and gave them a new future. Jesus wasn’t just the turning point for women in world history. He was also the turning point for many individual women in their personal struggles. Some were healed of terrible diseases. Some were saved from demons. Some were taken from prostitution and degradation to a brand new way of holy, healthy living. Such women found that Jesus would rather give a woman a new future than condemn her for her past.
Jesus’ treatment of women differed from the rabbis of his time in so many ways. Many rabbis refused to teach women and also refused to allow women to testify as witnesses in court. They didn’t think a woman’s word could be counted on. But when Jesus died and rose from the dead, the first people he told were women. He made women the first witnesses to his resurrection, and these women carried the good news to Jesus’ other disciples, even before Jesus himself appeared to those disciples.
Why was the spread of Christianity the turning point for women in the Roman Empire and in other parts of the world? Not because Christians are naturally such fine people. In fact, some Christians and church leaders were at times too influenced by the anti-women views of the world around them. All too often, they failed to follow Christ in this regard. But the Lord kept prodding his people on, changing them and changing cultures through them. Jesus made it clear that women are created in God’s image, that women are bought by his blood and filled with his Holy Spirit, that women are to be baptized and share in the Lord’s Supper along with men, that women are valued participants in God’s mission.
Christ was a blessing for women, and women were powerful in spreading the faith. In the early years of Christianity, many churches met in homes and benefited from the hospitality of godly women. Christian women led others to Christ through their words and example. They did not serve as official preachers of doctrine in worship gatherings, but they could speak and prophesy in worship if they did so with proper decorum. They helped the church grow through personal evangelism, and they also contributed to the rapid growth of Christianity by rejecting abortion and infanticide and raising large families of godly, well-taught children. Christian fathers and mothers didn’t dump girl babies, which added even more women and thriving families, enabling Christianity to grow faster than baby-killing paganism.
In short, Jesus was the best news women ever heard, the best friend women could have, and Christian women responded by doing much to make the church stronger and larger.
Defender of Widows
Christianity has been a tremendous help not only to girls, wives, and mothers, but also to widows. Jesus himself helped widows and rebuked religious leaders who mistreated widows (Mark 12:40). Jesus’ brother James said in the Bible, “Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after … widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
By contrast, widows have often been neglected or exploited in non-Christian settings. In fact, some religions and cultures have deliberately killed widows. Among many Hindu people throughout the centuries, if a man died, it was quite common to burn his widow in the same bonfire as her husband’s dead body (a practice known as suttee). When widow burning became illegal in India, thanks in large to part to Christian efforts, some complained that “the foundations of Hindu society would be shaken if widows were not burned alive.” One Hindu saying declared, “If her husband is happy, she should be happy; if he is sad, she should be sad; and if he is dead, she should also die.” Killing widows occurred not just in India but was also practiced among some American Indians, among the Maori of New Zealand, and in pre-Christian cultures of China, Africa, Scandinavia, and Finland. Eskimo tribes didn’t burn widows; they got rid of old people with ice instead of fire. They would set the elderly adrift on ice floes floating to sea, where they would freeze, starve, or drown.
Christian treatment of widows has been totally different. 88 times, the Bible speaks of widows, usually in connection with God’s love and care for them and his wrath against those who harm them. The Bible says, “A defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:5). Polycarp, a Christian leader a century after Jesus, preached, “Let not the widows be neglected. Be thou, after the Lord, their protector and friend.”
Rather than saying a widow should die if her husband dies, the Bible encourages younger widows to remarry and build a new life. Rather than letting widows perish in poverty, Scripture instructs Christian relatives of a widow to care for her. If the widow had no relatives to help, church offerings must be set aside to help her. Even then, Christian widows are not seen merely as victims in need of help but as valuable workers.
In 1 Timothy 5, the Bible describes a plan for the church to provide for widows and says that each of these widows ought to have a significant role in church work and be known for “helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” As the church helps the widow, the widow helps the church. This is the beautiful balance of the Christian way: helping a person in need and at the same time giving that person responsibility to be a blessing to others. This makes the widow a person of dignity, not just an object of pity.
It’s wonderful for a woman to have a husband and children. But even if her husband is dead and her children no longer need her, a woman is still precious. A woman’s value is not based only on her relationship to a husband and children but on her relationship to the Lord. The Bible leaves no doubt about the beauty and dignity of being a wife and mother, but the Bible also leaves no doubt about the beauty and dignity of serving Christ as a widow or as a single woman.
Jesus once said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He wasn’t just talking about men and boys. He was also talking about women and girls.
Beware of anyone who claims to offer women a better life apart from Jesus. History confirms what Jesus said abundant life comes from him. If you want abundant life, don’t think that just any religion and culture will do. You need Jesus Christ and the cultural direction of his Word, the Bible. Don’t assume all religions and cultures are equally good for women. Some religions and cultures have authorized men to sell their daughters to the highest bidder. Some have authorized men to beat their wives and kill their children. Some have authorized the killing of widows. Some have authorized genital mutilation of girls. Some have taught a double standard in which husbands are expected to be sexual adventurers and wives are expected to be pure. But Christ provides a better way. Christ is the turning point. Faith in Christ turns people and cultures away from such harmful attitudes and behaviors. Faith in Christ turns us toward abundant life.
Jesus is good news for women. Jesus came to give abundant life to women. He didn’t do this by making women less feminine and more masculine, or by turning women against men, as some non-Christian activists try to do. Jesus did it by loving women, honoring their feminine nature, and utilizing their talents. Jesus did it by forgiving women’s sins, healing their hurts, filling them with his Holy Spirit, unleashing their potential, and granting them eternal life. Jesus did it by instructing husbands to be faithful and loving toward their wives and by renewing God’s pattern for family life. Jesus did it by making every member of his church of equal value, whether male or female, married or single.
And what Jesus has done in the past, he continues to do. Still today, Christ remains good news for women. Still today, he gives eternal life to those who believe in him. Still today, Jesus makes life on this earth better for women, for their families, and for entire cultures. Believe in him, bless his name, and “forget not all his benefits” (Psalm 103:2).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.