Updated: May 14
This quote scrolled across my Facebook feed the other day and made me smile,
“The fact that I am a woman does not make me a different kind of Christian, but the fact that I am a Christian makes me a different kind of woman.” - Elisabeth Elliot
My own views on women in the Scriptures have gone through some big changes in the last decade, and even more so in the past year. It has been exciting for me to explore and investigate Biblical women. As a person who likes to be certain about what I believe, I can't stop at a surface understanding, I must take it all apart so I can see how it works.
A few weeks ago I wrote the post, The Problem of Eve and the Modern Woman, and I still find myself going back and running through the same thoughts again and again, wondering if I came to the right conclusions. My stance on women within the church is more liberal than some would like, and yet too conservative for others.
Women's Roles in the Early Christian Church
I believe that the Bible (including Paul's letters) shows women serving, being disciples, exercising their spiritual gifts of teaching and prophesying, and even being apostles.
You see these roles by not zeroing in on the “instruction” portions of the Bible but examining the actual flesh and blood women who lived in the first-century and served the early church. My love for “stories” helped balance out my love for “following the rules”, and I think we need to keep both styles hand in hand.
Today I'm taking a look at how Luke treats women in his gospel account. Luke is part one of a two-volume work. The fact that we have John presented in-between Luke and Acts can confuse a reader, but Luke and Acts are written by the same author and are progressing through the same story. Themes that we see introduced in Luke are repeated and expanded upon in Acts, including the way women are portrayed.
Within the first two chapters of Luke, we see strong portrayals of women and their worth and roles in the early church—three stories that are unique to Luke.
Elizabeth is described along with her husband Zacharias as being righteous, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. When she becomes pregnant with John in her old age, she praises God for her blessings. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary, and is the first one to call Jesus, “my Lord”.
Mary is visited by Gabriel, just like Zacharias. Like Zacharias, Mary wonders how this could happen, but unlike Zacharias, she believes and accepts with the amazing statement, “May it be done to me according to your word.” This obedience is echoed thirty-some years later by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. (Luke 22:42)
When Mary visits Elizabeth, she gives a speech full of joy and prophetic language. Several of the phrases are similar to Hannah's speech in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. This may show that Mary knew and held the Scriptures near to her heart. In fact, Mary is three times described as pondering things or treasuring things in her heart. (1:29, 2:19, 2:51) She seems like an introspective young woman.
Though Mary has been given the words of Gabriel, she doesn't fully understand Jesus and his role on earth. (Luke 2:50)
Anna is called a prophetess and went above and beyond in her service to God. She is described as serving night and day with fastings and prayers. She was eighty-four when she beholds the infant Jesus, and when she meets him she gives praise to God and speaks about Jesus to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Right off the start, Luke is including women as equal participants in the gospel story.
He describes both men and women as righteous and devout, believing, and being filled with the Holy Spirit. In Luke we see women in many roles: prophesying, proclaiming, blessing, being healed, contributing, witnessing, anointing, rising from the dead, within parables, speaking to Jesus in a public setting, sitting at Jesus' feet like a disciple, condemning, and part of coming conflicts and trials. Luke also seems to have a strong concern for the plight of widows.
Is Luke's notice of and regard for women radical in the face of their current culture?
What was the status of women in the first century?
Here is a summary of the Greek, Macedonian, Roman, and Jewish women's roles as taken from the Backgrounds of Christianity pages 77-79
“Though the picture of classical Greek women kept in seclusion has been over-drawn, their sphere was definitely the home. The degree of their confinement resulted from the importance of not allowing any suspicion to fall on young girls or wives in order to protect the legitimacy of children. A separate part of the house was designated the “women's quarters” and was off-limits to others. Women managed the household, and in that sphere they were supreme. The description of the place of women in the Pastoral Epistles matches very closely the Greek conception. (note esp. 1 Tim. 5:13; Titus 2:3-5) ... The wife was to bear legitimate children, but she was also trusted with the management of affairs in the husband's absence and in this capacity often carried great influence.”
“Macedonian women had greater independence and importance in public affairs. This coincides with the greater prominence that women held in the Macedonian churches (notice esp. The women associated with the Philippian church—Acts 16:14-15; Phil. 4:2-3).”
“The old Roman ideal was for women to pass from the subjection of father to husband ... Nevertheless, the Roman woman from the first enjoyed a higher status than the Athenian woman. 'Roman history supplies a picture of women attaining gradually more and more liberty, higher legal status, and greater power and influence.' ... Women in the early Roman empire in practice were more prominent than some ancient texts would indicate. Wealth and social position made some women patrons and gave them considerable power and influence apart from the social theory of the time. Many others as well acted with great independence. Women frequently held civic offices. Especially in religion were women prominent, often serving as priestesses and doing so not only in cults of female deities. Women, moreover, were found in a wide variety of occupations. In addition to expected roles—wives, mothers, prostitutes, midwives, wet nurses—they are found as physicians, musicians, artists, winners of athletic events, selling groceries, and in all sorts of manufacturing and commercial activities.”
“Jewish women were not as restricted in public appearance as Greek women, but did not have the freedom of first-century Roman women. The Jewish woman was the mistress of the home, but was not qualified to appear as a witness in court and was exempt from fulfilling religious duties that had to be performed at stated times (because her first duties were to her children and the home and she might not be in the required state of ritual purity) ... The woman's influence in the home was considered greater than the man's.”
Like any point in history, the cultural norm was not always matched in practice. Even in this fairly small geographical area, women had a wide range of acceptable roles.
This variety in culture, and the fact that the Christian church was spreading far from its beginnings in Jerusalem, could explain why we have women filling prominent roles in the church in some Bible verses and being quiet at home in others. After all, Paul was careful not to cause others to stumble because of his moral freedoms—as long as it did not conflict with his spiritual convictions. He seemed to maintain the highest moral standard of the society he was currently in so that no one could speak against the morality of the budding Christian church. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Acts 16:3 compared to Galatians 2:3-5)
Was Luke radical in his inclusion of women?
He definitely spoke of them more often, with more sympathy to widows, and with more varied roles than the other gospels. However, the women in the stories are not outside of the sphere of women's roles in the more liberal parts of society. I don't know if Luke felt like he was pushing boundaries, but he definitely didn't see any need to smother the roles that the women of the early church were playing in the ministry of Jesus and in the growth of the early church. In the book of Acts, he continues to expand the roles that women participate in within the church, and many faithful women are mentioned by name in that book as well.
We need to take the handful of verses that seem to silence women and view them through the lens of the real women who lived and served in the early church—women of faith whom Luke wanted us to remember and emulate.
If you want to explore what daily life was like for women in the New Testament world, make sure you check out my series 'How to Live as a Woman in First-century Israel'!