The #MeToo movement has shaken the foundations of some of the culture’s most entrenched havens of sexual harassment, abuse and predation. The list of politicians, actors and other notable personalities seems to grow with each passing week.
The movement also raises the deeper issue of human dignity, particularly as it relates to the objectification of women, reducing them to “things” for sexual pleasure, dominated and discarded at will.
Correspondingly, #MeToo seems to have exposed a prejudice toward women within some Christian circles as well. This particular prejudice also objectifies and violates the dignity of women but clothes it in the religious language of “submission”. These prejudices are most easily summed up in the misused citation of the verses from Ephesians 5:22-24:
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of the church, he himself the savior of the body. As the church is subordinate to Christ, so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
We can come to an authentic and accurate understanding of these verses, however, by taking a look at how Jesus actually treated and interacted with the many women in His life.
For the Love of His Mother
The second chapter of John’s Gospel opens with the story of the wedding feast at Cana. John reveals the stunning love and regard that Jesus has for a woman, His mother. Mary tells Jesus that the wedding couple has run out of wine. Jesus responds, saying, “My hour has not yet come” (v. 4). In other words, He is saying, “All of salvation history has a calendar that has been ordained by the Father since the creation of the world, but this is not the moment” (referring to the initiation of His public ministry).
Mary does not speak to Jesus again but turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever He tells you” (v. 5). What happens next is astounding: Jesus turns 30+ gallons of water into the choicest, finest wine. While it is difficult to overstate the magnitude of the miracle itself, Jesus, of His own free will, altered the trajectory of salvation history for the love of a woman!
Give Me a Drink
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well may be one of the most profound, and misunderstood, interactions in the Gospels (John 4:4-42). Historical context unlocks every level of this story. In first century Palestine men did not speak to women in public; Jews despised and had nothing to do with Samaritans; and a rabbi would never, ever teach a woman. In evidence of this, Eliezer Ben Hurcanus, a famous first century rabbi, wrote, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a).
Jesus violated each of these cultural and religious “taboos”: speaking to a woman, speaking to a Samaritan, and teaching a woman. But the Samaritan woman was not just a teaching prop used by Jesus to shatter societal norms. She was a person worthy of Him, a unique and unrepeatable individual with inherent dignity. Still, this woman had been divorced by five men, all of whom had rejected her. The man she currently lived with would not even marry her. Furthermore, she came to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the scorn of the women of her community.
Yet, when Jesus asked her for water, she gave an off-putting comment, in essence, “Who are you to ask me for a drink?” His response was to establish a connection with her, to validate her dignity. He said, “If you knew…and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (v. 10). His words carried the full weight of grace. They mean, “I will not reject you. You are worthy of my time. You are so special that I am willing to give you what I have given to no other – living water!”
A Stone’s Throw
One of the most compelling stories of Jesus’ respect for women in the Gospels is found in John 8:1-11, when the Pharisees placed a woman caught in adultery before Jesus. The significance of this story is typically reduced to the catch-phrase, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (v. 7).
This reductionism misses the depth of the story. By the 8th chapter of John’s Gospel, it is clear that Jesus is in a running battle with the Pharisees. What began with minor skirmishes in the more remote regions of Galilee has escalated into a full-blown battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the very heart of Judaism – Jerusalem and the Temple. It is Jesus who is pressing this battle, confronting the religious establishment, coming onto their “turf” so to speak, forcing them into the open.
The Pharisees decide to use an “adulteress”, the least sympathetic character imaginable, to put an end to Jesus’ influence. Their strategy is to force Him to pronounce judgment on this woman of ill-repute, thereby undercutting His message of compassion and mercy. On the other hand, if He shows her mercy, He will be proven to be unfaithful to the Mosaic Law. The scene in the Temple is a high-stakes confrontation, where the life of a woman suddenly hangs in the balance. Will Jesus save Himself and His ministry (at least for that day)? Or will He save this wretched woman?
Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ citation of the law regarding stoning with a question connected to another Mosaic precept. Deuteronomy 19:15 specifically states that a capital crime requires at least two witnesses and that they must throw the first stones. Jesus thus forces the Pharisees to identify the witnesses and to explain how they happened to “witness” the deed, which will expose the entire plot.
As the Pharisees disperse, Jesus turns His focus to the woman. He has fought for her life, and now He will fight for her heart. Everything about Him says, “You are worth fighting for!” His words of compassion are an invitation to mercy and conversion.
The Great Mystery
St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, adds new meaning to the light that Jesus gave through His interactions with women. In this famous passage about the wife’s “submission” to the husband, submission really means that she is “under his mission.” It does not mean that she is under his domination – let alone his control or manipulation.
The key question becomes, then, what is a husband’s mission? Ephesians 5:25 gives a clear answer, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her…” The husband’s mission, and by extension that of every man, is to lay down his life for his bride, even to the point of death.
Simply put, the authentic Christian understanding of relationships between men and women rests in equal personal dignity while acknowledging their complementarity. Christianity is never an excuse to use, abuse, dominate or manipulate another person.