New Role for Women in the Early Church
This theme report analyzes how Jesus sent a new revolutionary message laying the
groundwork for the elevation of the social status of women in the early church. The cultural
norm of the day was that women were restricted to subordinate roles in society and the church.
Jesus broke boundaries in his dealing with women and led his disciples to challenge those same
boundaries as they took over leadership of the church.
Luke’s Gospel story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary tells how Jesus was on the side
of recognizing the full personhood of women. Mary’s sitting at Jesus' feet in Luke 10:39 shows
a violation of the social norms of the day. “She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s
feet listening to what he said.”
Lesly Massey states in her book, Women and the New Testament, "of critical importance is
the fact that Jesus would be willing to sit in conversation with women in such a manner, or that
he might have instructed them privately as a rabbi might instruct a promising student. This very
fact, regardless of the spiritual depth of their talk, reveals an attitude toward women which was
uncommon among Jews of Jesus' day and reflective of his revolutionary manner."
Massey asserts that Jesus is rejecting the second-class status of women in his society because
according to the social laws of the day, only men were supposed to sit at the feet of a religious
teacher and listen to his teaching. Women were supposed to stay out of sight and appear only to
wait on the men. Jesus clearly rejects this double standard laying the groundwork for the
elevation of women to a higher status in the new Christian church.
According to the Gospels, the world was changing in 1st century Palestine, Martha and Mary
represented the growing number of people who were responding to Jesus' teachings. Both sisters
attentiveness to Jesus as a guest in their house was not only an act of hospitality, but also a sign
that they sought to understand his teachings. Their attentiveness shows the sisters as part of the
movement as learners.” 1 The take away here is that this story does not show subordination of
women and it shows boundaries being broken.
Another insight on the same story with a focus on Martha is Satoko Yamaguchi’s
Mary and Martha: Women in the World of Jesus, Yamaguchi identifies Martha as
the leader of a house-church, that is, someone who cares for the practicalities needed for Jesus
and his disciples to meet at her home. According to Yamaguchi “the context of the scripture
implies that she frequently welcomed traveling missionaries and gave them food, shelter and
possibly even financial support. In other words, Martha was one of the first church
"administrators" (in Christian parlance, ad-minister is taken to mean "in the service of ministry").
Scholars now recognize that without women such as Martha to provide material support,
the traveling ministry of Jesus and his followers could not have happened as effectively.” 2
Another theologian, Bonnie Thurston in Women in the New Testament says:
“as I read the Gospels, under the reign of God, men and women are intended to work together
in a discipleship of equals”. Thurston cites Constance Parvey’s essay “The Theology and
Leadership of Women In The New Testament” in Religion and Sexism and states that
“The New Testament gives two messages with regard to women. First it presents a theology of
equality in Christ, a vision of equality on the theological level. But in practical parenesis many
New Testament passages support woman’s subordination; that is they present a status quo ethic
on the social level. Part of the power of Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God had to do with
the fact that it ushered in an entirely new mode of human existence. The fact...