‘Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women's freedom and equality, but it's certainly not alone in this. Whether it's one of the world's major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It's the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.’
Cath Elliott wrote those words in 2008, but she wasn't the first and doubtless won’t be the last to express such a view. It is a widely-held perspective that Christianity is misogynistic, patriarchal, and oppressive towards women. In a society seemingly recently awoken by the #MeToo movement, that sort of thinking has no place anymore.
But before we declare that ‘Time’s Up’ for Christianity, we should ask whether these accusations of misogyny and oppression are true. And if we want to understand what Christianity is really about then we need to go to the source: Jesus Christ.
First-century Israel was not an easy place for women. Culturally, socially, religiously – all spheres of life were pretty hostile to the female sex. They were seen as less than men in almost every way – education was unavailable, they were unable to provide witness or testimony in court because their word was not considered trustworthy or useful, they were discouraged from public gatherings where they would have to interact with men who weren’t immediate family.
Yet, against this backdrop, Jesus’ treatment of women was startlingly counter-cultural.
No religious teacher of the era would have had women disciples (followers or learners), and yet Jesus did. Throughout the Gospels women are included among his followers and friends: learning from him, travelling with him, and even financially supporting his work.
Some religious leaders of the day would have preferred women to stay in the home, where they couldn't be led astray or lead others astray. In reality, most families needed women to work in the fields and business. But even though women would be present, unrelated men and women were expected to avoid interacting where possible. Various instructions found in religious teachings written around the time of Jesus prohibited men from speaking to or being alone with women.
In contrast we find Jesus, blatantly flouting these conventions. One particularly remarkable occasion can be found in the Gospel of John (4:1–42). Jesus meets and converses with a women he meets at a well. What makes this even more scandalous from the perspective of the society that they were part of, is that this woman is also a Samaritan (a member of a different religious and cultural group who were considered unclean by Jews). Even worse, we discover as their conversation progresses, she is regarded by both Jewish and Samaritan society as immoral (having been married 5 times, and now living with a man to whom she is not married). Yet, despite all of this, Jesus does not ignore her, shun her, or even rebuke her. Rather, he treats her as the intelligent seeker of truth that she is. He engages her in an important conversation which leads her not only to personal faith in him, but also in bringing a message of truth and freedom to many of her neighbours. Society said that she should be ostracised and ignored, but Jesus engaged with her and offered her truth.
Welcoming the outsider
Under the Old Testament law, both men and women were restricted from participating in the religious practices of the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus if they were found to be ceremonially ‘unclean’. This could be for many reasons including touching a dead body or contracting various contagious skin diseases. For women, one reason they might be found ‘unclean’ is if they were experiencing any type of bleeding, particularly that of post-natal bleeding or menstruation. The understanding that the physical touch of one who was bleeding could make the object or person touched also unclean, meant that women who were bleeding were further ostracised from society.
Again, in contrast, Jesus reacts quite surprisingly in an encounter with a woman recounted in the Gospel of Mark (5:24–34). This woman has been bleeding for 12 years. We can only guess at the cause, but we can assume that she was in pain, and weakened from the lack of blood. She had spent all her money on doctors, but only got worse. She would also have been an outsider in her community – unable to participate in religious life, unable even to share chairs or cooking utensils with her friends and family, for fear of passing her uncleanness on to them. In desperation she reaches out in secret to touch the cloak of Jesus as he passes by, hoping she will be healed. She is healed immediately and Jesus notices. He draws attention to her, not to shame or embarrass her, but to initiate public contact with her. He calls a woman who has been ostracised and marginalised, ‘daughter’, and declares that rather than her touch making him unclean, as the society would have assumed, instead, his touch has made her clean. Society said that she was unclean and had to remain at a distance, but Jesus offered her comfort and healing and a way back into the community.
These are just two examples amongst many of the ways that Jesus stood against the attitudes of the society of first-century Israel and Palestine. Reading through the Gospels will show again and again the way that Jesus engaged with women, not as some separate or inferior species, but as living, breathing, thinking, speaking people. People he came not just to teach, but to die for.
And significantly, in a society that wouldn’t even take the word of women in a court of law, the Gospels record female followers with him at his death, as the first to see his empty tomb, and as the first to see him after his resurrection (John 20).
We can list many failings of people who have claimed to represent Jesus Christ. But what we see from Jesus’ life is that he did not come to be served by women, but to serve. Far from desiring to oppress women or perpetuate male power, Jesus came to offer true freedom, equality and life to all people through his death.
Ellie Cook works with students in the North East of Britain and holds a masters degree in theology from Durham University, with a particular research interest in sexual violence and feminist biblical criticism.
 ‘I’m not praying’ by Cath Elliott in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/19/gender.religion)