How might the church #BeBoldForChange this International Women’s Day?

Jesus loves women.

It’s important for Christians to put this statement in the present tense; it’s not just that Jesus treated women with dignity and respect throughout his life — which was perhaps especially shocking when it came to the social status not just of women in Rome, but the women he’s recorded interacting with in the Gospels. Jesus loves women now. The Gospel — the message that Jesus is Lord — is a liberating message for women in our world.

The Bible starts — on its first page — telling us that men and women are created equal under God, with a shared, co-operative role to play in bearing God’s image, ruling, and living fruitful lives in God’s world. Jesus loves women because God loves women. This was what life was meant to look like; what God desires life to look like. That it doesn’t, in the story of the Bible, is because Adam and Eve turned on each other, they stopped co-operating and started backstabbing, blame-shifting, and taking advantage of each other. They stopped being safe for each other, and shame entered into our relationships.

Part of the Bible’s grand story about our humanity is the idea that relationships between men and women have been broken by sin.

Life in this world is not as it should be for women, and the men in the Old Testament are complicit in making life unsafe for the women we meet in those pages. It’s not that women like Sarah (Abraham’s wife), or Rahab, or King David’s wives are totally noble and pure in these stories, but the men in these stories treat the women as objects, the men write the history, and the ‘patriarchy’ in the Old Testament — the fruit of the curse of sin on our relationships in Genesis 3 — is part of what Jesus came to fix.

Jesus loves women. In both his life (and interactions with women), and death and resurrection (and what they achieve for women and create in the church), Jesus offers a path towards bold change for women; bold change away from the status quo of toxic relationships, oppression, and inequality.

Jesus loves women. Here’s three great examples of bold change he offers in three interactions with women in the Gospels.

1. The bleeding woman he calls ‘daughter’

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.”

Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. — Matthew 9:20-22

This woman was, according to the Jewish law, unclean. Jesus should not have been touching her, and to be touched by her — even the edge of his cloak — should have made him unclean. Instead, he restores her dignity. Instead of humiliating her for her boldness — her stepping up to #beboldforchange — Jesus sees her truly — as God made her. He gives her more than dignity, more than healing. He calls her daughter. He restores her.

2. The woman about to be stoned for adultery

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” — John 8:2-11

The way these men were practicing adultery law, and carrying out the penalty without a trial — using her as a pawn in an attempt to trap Jesus — is abominable. Again, Jesus sees this woman and understands her vulnerability. He steps between her and the dangerous men who’ve been pushing and prodding her as they prepare to kill her. You’re meant to ask ‘where is the guilty man’? This is not justice. It’s not equality. It’s not right. So Jesus steps in. He understands her, he treats her with dignity, he prevents the injustice, and then he extends grace to her, and restoration — calling her back to life as she was created to live it under God. A bold step for both Jesus, and the woman.

3. Mary and Martha

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” — Luke 10:38-42

Education is a really big deal, and an incredibly important bold step that women take towards positive change in our world. One of the ways, historically, the patriarchy (or blokes in charge) have maintained power has been to restrict access to education (that still happens in some parts of the world today). Where Martha is, in this story, the typical Israelite woman who is caught up in the housework that comes with hosting Jesus and his friends, and she might expect Jesus to uphold the status quo and to tell Mary, her sister, to jump in to the household jobs, Jesus treats Mary just like the men who sit at his feet to be taught. Another bold step.

The church must love women, because Jesus loves women

If Jesus loves women then the church should also love women. We should be so known for our love for, and celebration of, women that it is clear that the Gospel is great news for women and offers a real and bold change to the way the world treats women.

It’s a tragedy that it doesn’t. It’s a tragedy that speaking out on International Women’s Day, as the church, might be seen as hypocrisy by some, or as tokenism, when it should be the most natural thing in the world. Sadly, and in part because the patriarchy of the Old Testament is an easy human pattern to slip into, the church has not been great at celebrating women. Not many women are recorded as heroes in church history; certainly not when compared to the number of ‘heroes’ we have passed down to us by virtue of being the writers of big books and holding important positions in churches.

As the church, we should want to preach what we practice.

And we need to acknowledge that in some cases, the teaching of the church on gender and the way we’ve sought to apply Biblical principles about gender difference, has led to gender inequality both within Christian community and outside the church. We need to acknowledge that even speaking about, or participating in this day will cause pain for some women who have been victims of our participation in upholding patriarchal structures, in the limiting of women’s ability to participate in various professional fields, in creating cultures where victims of abuse or assault (be it domestic violence or sexual assault, or other crimes where women tend to be unequally represented as victims) are silenced, marginalised or not heard.

The church has, at times, been timid in confronting our own problems with how women are treated within the church.

We’ve lacked imagination and built restrictions around certain roles in order to stay faithful to what the Bible says — and grappling with what the Bible says is a good thing. We need to be prepared to boldly re-imagine how we do things, to challenge status quos that we’ve adopted from the world outside the church — we need to examine where we’re behaving more in line with the cursed pattern of relating in Genesis 3 than the restored pattern of relating that we see modeled by Jesus. We need to be prepared to be bold within the church; but more than that. We need to be bold outside the church.

It may seem odd that I’m writing this as a bloke in a position of authority and privilege within the church; an ‘ordained minister’ — but I’m the son of a dynamic mother, the brother of three brilliant sisters, the husband of an amazing wife, and the father of two daughters who I hope will be more dangerous to the world than the world is to them. I also work with some creative, curious, and very well educated women, and am blown away by the depths of gifting and courage displayed by the women in our church family. I care about this stuff because what diminishes women in our world diminishes all of us. No man, or woman, is an island. I care about this stuff because I care about unleashing the church to make changes outside the church; I want us to live in such a way that it is clear that the Gospel is curse-reversing, patriarchy overthrowing, good news for women. We need bold change. And we need to be bold agents of change.

So what’s this going to look like?

This bold change? Especially in a church like ours where we do believe that God created men and women as equal and different?

Listen to women

The knee jerk response from blokes to something like International Women’s Day is to ask why we need one. To complain about ‘feminism’ and how equality doesn’t ever feel like equality. The problem (in my experience) that we as blokes are often totally unaware of our privilege. We mostly have no idea what it feels like to walk the streets scared we’ll be assaulted, to fear that if a meeting with a woman goes badly we might end up drugged and in a bed somewhere, to know that people are going to ogle us and cat call as we walk past them, to joke about this stuff, and to not listen when we speak up in meetings, or give jobs to less or equally qualified men simply because they have male names (this happens, seriously).

I’m not first a feminist. I’m a follower of Jesus. And following Jesus, at least for me, means listening to what feminists say life in a world broken by the curse of sin feels like. I’m going to be largely unaware of the costs of sin in this area if I’m benefiting from structures set up by sinful people just like me. For more on how the Gospel and feminism go hand in hand, see our talk from two years ago What The Church Gets Wrong About Feminism, But Jesus Makes Right.

Celebrate women

It is a tragedy that we know so little about the women of church history. It might be that our position on church leadership roles has, as a result of a lack of imagination, made male voices more prominent not just in speech within the church gathering, but also in the writing and recording of history.

It’s not just the non-fiction world where women are ignored like this. There are lots of epic stories about male heroes, or stories where the female character is eye candy, a trophy, or a damsel in distress. Even when the female character is the lead character they’ve often been characters in pursuit of a handsome prince to complete their lives. There’s an interesting little thing in the realm of storytelling called the Bechdel Test, which only half of our popular stories pass — to pass the test you need to have two female characters, who talk to each other, about something other than a man.

We should be taking the bold step of promoting women’s voices.

Sharing the story of women in our community who are living exemplary and bold lives that challenge the broken status quo in our world; who show us what it is to live for Jesus, or to live boldly.

In our own church, here at Creek Road, we’ve worked hard (and are committed to continuing this work) at giving women a voice and a presence in the life of our church — on the board, in senior leadership positions on staff, in the room for our series planning and preaching critiques. We’ve also attempted to build a culture of listening, but also of attempting to profile and celebrate women who speak and write about following Jesus (for example, you may not have noticed but our recommended reading for our Image Is Everything series was Hannah Anderson’s Made For More). These aren’t just token efforts, though they still feel small at this stage, and we hope to keep doing this and more.

Outside the church, this might include things as simple as watching women’s sport and creating a market that allows a new generation of ‘role models’ to emerge outside of the world of fiction, creating and supporting art with strong female characters, and reading and sharing the perspectives of women online.

Champion the women pushing for bold change both in and outside the church.

We love the status quo (there’s a thing called ‘status quo bias’). We tend to assume that systems we’ve inherited are good and pure and the best way to do things. Change is uncomfortable. It’s also risky. But we should be prepared to look critically at how we do things in response to the things we hear from the women inside and outside our community about life in this world; and we should be prepared to engage our imaginations to attack the problems we see with a boldness that is prepared to challenge systems, categories, and traditions where they aren’t necessarily in line with what the Bible calls us to do, and especially when they’re not consistent with the example of Jesus.

Part of this will mean looking for examples of women who are already doing this — both inside and outside the church — those who are calling us to keep reforming our practices so they look more like the kingdom of Jesus and less like the fallen kingdoms we men build for ourselves. We do, of course, need to remember that sin has tainted the hearts of men and women, and the answer is not to over-correct. The Bible does say some things about men and women being different, and that some part of this plays out in the functions of the church as we gather, but it is much less prescriptive than some of our traditions and systems allow, and we do have freedom to re-imagine and reform these as we hear the challenge of bold men and women calling for change.

There are lots of issues outside the church where the status quo is harmful to women where we should be prepared to step up and speak for change — domestic violence, sexual assault, economic inequality, education policies (globally), sex trafficking, the sexualisation of women through pornography. And there are bold women speaking out in these areas who we shouldn’t simply listen to, but whose voices we should amplify.

See women like Jesus did.

This is a bold step, and one that challenges some of the status quo issues at the heart of International Women’s Day — not just in Australia, but internationally. Some of these areas outside the church feed the way men see women inside the church too. Our culture can perpetuate a particularly dangerous way of seeing women (arguably one that affects the way women see themselves, not just the way men see them). We’re bombarded images that teach us that women are objects — this isn’t just in pornography or the sex industry, but in advertising, and even in our stories.

We need to cultivate a new way of seeing each other, and this means breaking the hold these images have on our imagination. This will mean changing our practices and challenging the stories we see in the world (including in advertising) and the stories we tell ourselves. We need to do this by noticing, as we read the Gospels, that Jesus models a bold approach to dealing with women that changes our default approach to relationships inside the church, and so challenges the status quo outside the church.

When Jesus deals with women he breaks a pattern common in the Old Testament — he’s not a danger to them. He doesn’t see them as objects or potential sexual conquests. He doesn’t see them as damsels in need of a prince charming. He doesn’t see women as people to be rescued and placed in a tower somewhere, he sees women as potential allies in his kingdom, fellow workers, image bearers who are to be invited to serve alongside their brothers in spreading his rule throughout the world.

Pray for real equality

The curse in Genesis 3 came from God in response to our sin; it’s the fruit of our rejection of him. Restoration of our relationship and our role in God’s world as his image bearers who represent him comes through God, by his Spirit, as we follow Jesus. One way to tackle inequality, and to commit ourselves to tackling inequality, is to turn to God in prayer. It’s a bold step to acknowledge that we actually won’t be the solution to the problems around us, but that Jesus is, and our job is to follow his example.

Here’s a prayer this International Women’s Day.

Father,

Thanks that you made us — women and men — to be equal. Thanks that we were made to bear your image in your world, and to share in that task, to share in the mission of spreading your goodness throughout the world. We’re sorry that we follow the pattern of life together that humans have been living since the beginning — the pattern on turning on each other, rather than co-operating with each other, the pattern of blaming the other, of hurting one another, and of abusing one another.

We’re particularly sorry for the way the church has been complicit in this — that at times, while seeking to be obedient, we’ve behaved in ways that are more like Adam and Eve than like Jesus.

We’re sorry that we have failed to give women honour and dignity within your church, and that we’ve failed to see and fight against inequality outside the church. Help us to follow the example of Jesus and to see women truly; to see evil in this world clearly, and to step in for the sake of women who are vulnerable, abused, or suffering from the inequality created by our sin. Open our eyes to the ways our sinful hearts lead us to do the wrong thing as individuals — the ways that make us part of this inequality, but also open our eyes to the ways the cultures and systems of this world are set up to make sin in this area happen more often. Help us to imagine bold solutions — Jesus type solutions — to these issues we see in our lives and our world, and to act by following our king.

Thanks for the bold, courageous and gifted women in our lives. For our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, church family, colleagues and friends. Help us to love them well, and celebrate their contributions to our world, particularly help us to honour the ways they honour you. Help us be bold, so that our women, and our daughters, are not endangered by the world, but dangerous to it.

In Jesus name,

Amen.

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