Women: First Class Citizens
The debate has been raging for years. Are women equal to men, or are they second class citizens? For Christians, the answers to these questions of equality lie in the work and person of Jesus Christ, as evidenced both in his life and in the witness of the Church. The theological significance of the Incarnation cannot be overstated. The entirety of Christian belief hangs on the confession that God the Son became human in Jesus of Nazareth. The basis of salvation is that within Jesus human nature and the divine nature are definitively united. It is the very person of Christ Jesus who is the world’s salvation. For both women and men, the humanity of God provides freedom to be truly human—to reflect the imago Dei in the world.
Curiously, debates swarm around the significance of Christ’s gender, with some asserting that his maleness expresses God’s preference or God’s nature. This idea has little basis, especially as it is viewed through church history. As Gregory of Nazianzus argued for union concerning the Incarnation, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed, but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.” To imply that what Christ primarily assumed was maleness is to insist that women have not been saved. To say that Christ’s gender is itself revelatory about the nature of God is to say that God is male. Both of these are direct contradictions to the scriptural witness, the mosaic which insists that God is neither male nor female, that female and male equally reflect the image of God and that all of humanity is redeemed in Christ Jesus.
The fact that Jesus of Nazareth was male is secondary to the fact that he was human. That he has a gender at all is merely requisite to being human. His masculinity reveals the embodied particularity, the limitedness necessary to true humanity. What Christ assumed in the Incarnation is humanness; therefore, it is humanness itself that has been saved, reflected equally in either gender. The apostle Paul saw the universal nature of redemption and asserts boldly, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29, NRSV, emphasis added). Because salvation is not particular to a gender, then surely it is the humanity of God that imbues salvation not the maleness of Jesus. Redemption emphasizes the equality of all persons.
Sadly, women during the time of Jesus were marginalized. They had a degree of invisibility in society, but Jesus took the time to call them by name and make them vital instruments in the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ life affirmed that redemption was for all, regardless of gender. Women were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee and were key participants in the resurrection story. Jesus’ interaction with women was consistently a break in the social pattern of his time and would lead to a radical change in the early church. A woman’s purpose and identity in society could and would morph after an encounter with Christ. A few examples of his interactions with women include his interaction with Mary Magdalene and the woman in the resurrection story and his relationship with the sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany.
Mary Magdalene and, as specified in the Gospel of Matthew, “the other Mary” (Matt. 28:1, NRSV), see a messenger of the Lord. The guards who were present at this event froze in fear, but to the women the angel spoke those precious words, “Do not be afraid” (Matt. 28: 5, NRSV), and told them their commission of passing the news of Jesus’ resurrection and his going to Galilee. The story continues, these women are the first to meet Jesus after death and they did not hesitate at who he was but dropped to his feet in worship. Jesus again redirected their purpose to going ahead of him to Galilee to tell the men of what they had witnessed during their journey to the tomb. This is an example of Christ the Lord redirecting the role of the women to bearing the Good News and being the first to truly act out the Great Commission.
Mary and Martha reacted differently to hosting the Christ. Mary sat at his feet listening while Martha did the necessary tasks. Martha demonstrated the presumption that women needed to help with the tasks while the men conversed, but Christ rebuked her by saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41b-42. NRSV). Mary was encouraged by Jesus Christ to listen and learn within a group of men. What a redemptive story to woman's intelligence as well as purpose in the mission of God!
Various Christians throughout the centuries dared to be counterculture by championing the equality of the genders. In this way, they followed in the footsteps of their Savior. In the fourth-century, the Cappadocian Fathers elevated the status of women to a place of equality with men. For these male theologians, the equality of men and women was rooted in deep theological reflection. The Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, also had strong Christian women in their lives. These women, like Macrina, lived out their faith without restriction. They were leaders, regardless of whether the institutional church at the time gave them official positions of authority or not.
John Wesley also came to affirm the equality of men and women by allowing women to preach and teach. Upon seeing the Holy Spirit’s work through women, Wesley changed his theological view regarding female ministers. The evidence of God’s work through these women could not be denied, and so Wesley began to accept women as ministers of the Gospel. As Wesleyans, the Church of the Nazarene looks not only to Scripture, but also to reason, tradition, and experience to affirm the equality of men and women. While the whole of the Christian tradition often degraded women, treating them as second class citizens, there were theologians from the early days of Christianity who affirmed the equality of men and women.
Wesley himself also set a precedence regarding experience and equality. He showed that we cannot deny the work of God, as evidenced by the Fruit of the Spirit. I have seen the Fruit of the Spirit in so many women’s lives, as they lead and minister. It is undeniable that God’s love is working through women who have been given opportunities to lead. This is just an added confirmation that women are vital to the Kingdom of God, and not as subordinate helpers to men, but as redemptive co-agents in the world.
And now it is our job to carry forth the message of equality. For, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).
 Gregory of Nazianzus, To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.iv.ii.iii.html
Emily Burke | Pastor & Seminarian
Katie Donaldson | Minister & Seminarian
Megan Krebs | Associate Pastor and Seminarian