Eastertide: Women and Men in Transforming Community

“Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said he was alive.” —Luke 24:22-23


Some Women of Our Group Astounded Us

To state the obvious, these verses indicate that women and men together made up the community of Jesus. This might not seem like a big deal to us, but in Jewish culture, the way men and women were together in the community gathered around Jesus was fairly radical.  At that time, men and women were separated by a curtain in the synagogues; women and girls were not taught the Torah, and they served quietly in the background as the menfolk discussed and argued about spiritual matters. Women were not allowed to speak or ask questions in public gatherings, let alone teach or proclaim anything important.

The fact that Jesus appeared first to women at the tomb, interacting with them intimately and substantively about his resurrection, was quite out of the ordinary. He then charged them with announcing the good news to the rest of the disciples, complete with instructions for what they should all do next! That Jesus gave the women instructions for the male disciples was even more unusual—so much so that some scholars have suggested this remarkable and very specific detail serves as historical evidence for the resurrection. No one trying to fabricate a believable resurrection story would have included such a culturally unbelievable detail!

So, what are we to make of this, and who were these women?

Last at the Cross, First at the Tomb

The various Gospel accounts all record the fact that the women were the last ones to linger around the cross and the first to arrive at the tomb where Jesus was buried. They also record the fact that Jesus appeared to them first at the tomb, interacting with them personally and intimately on that resurrection morning and charging them with the responsibility of making the initial proclamation of the good news to the other disciples.

The names of the women are recorded slightly differently in each account. Matthew 28:1-10 mentions Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” Mark 16:1-11 identifies Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Initially Luke is somewhat vague, simply indicating that it was “the women” who, having brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body, found the stone rolled away and encountered “two men in dazzling clothes.” But then later on he makes a point of saying, “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles” (Luke 23:55–24:12).

What is consistent in all four of the Gospels is the fact that these ordinary women were part of the transforming community that followed Jesus closely; they were deeply involved with him both in his life and in the pivotal moments surrounding his death, burial and resurrection.

The First Evangelists

While the rest of the disciples tried to dismiss the women’s excited announcement as idle tales (Luke 24:11), Peter found their report convincing enough to at least check on the veracity of their story. And wouldn’t you know? The good news these women proclaimed was actually true—making them the first Christian evangelists. (The word evangelism literally means “to proclaim the good news.”) They delivered this good news—along with instructions for the rest of the disciples about where and how to meet up with Jesus—with all the clarity and conviction that comes from a real encounter with Christ. 

In Mark’s account, Jesus actually reprimands the male disciples for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed the women who saw him after he had risen. (16:14)

Back to the Future

Jesus’ presence on the earth brought about many different kinds of needed change in our world, and one of the most significant was a transformation in relationships between men and women. Fresh from God, he was remarkably unencumbered by the cultural norms of the day—norms that had been shaped more by sin patterns in the world than by God’s ideal. Even a cursory look at Scripture (especially the Old Testament) reveals disturbing patterns in male-female relationships that were far from God’s original and best plan—a partnership model in which man and woman together would fully reflect the image of God.

When God brought Eve to Adam as the crowning achievement of his creative efforts, Adam’s couldn’t help exclaiming, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken!” (Genesis 2:23). He recognized her immediately as a kindred spirit, capable of being the partner and companion God knew he needed. There didn’t seem to be any sense of hierarchy, just a sense of fulfillment in finally having “a helper as his partner.” In fact, elsewhere in Scripture the same Hebrew word (ezer) is most often used in reference to God himself.  For example, in Exodus 18:4, Jethro names his son Eliezer because “the God of my father was my help (ezer).”  In Psalm 40:17, as in many other places, the Psalmist refers to God as “my help (ezer) and my deliverer.” The word ezer  is translated in other places in Scripture as ”succorer”, “rescuer”, “strength” and “power.”  

Adam and Eve stood shoulder to shoulder and received their instructions to share the responsibility for being fruitful and multiplying, filling the earth, subduing it and ruling together over all living things (Genesis 1:28-29). When God took a step back and surveyed his final creative effort—male and female made in his image—for the first time in the entire creation process he commented that it was “very good” (1:31). This was the complete package!

Trouble in Paradise 

Fairly quickly, however, a problem developed in the perfect world God had created. In addition to the clear mandate to be fruitful and multiply and share dominion over the earth, God had also given specific instructions to Adam (before Eve was created) that they were not to eat of one particular tree that God clearly identified. Both Adam and Even knew of this instruction, and each in their own way chose to disobey God, causing dire consequences for the human race. This was a failure of the partnership God put in place, not the failure of one gender or the other. 

The fallout from this one event included the introduction of sin and guilt, shame and blame, wrongful domination and seduction into male-female relationships. This was in direct contradiction to the oneness, equality and mutuality that characterized God’s best plan for gender relations—as evidenced in creation and reclaimed through the redeeming work of Christ as Paul summarizes it in Galatians 3:28.

In Genesis 3:14-19, God predicts specific ways in which human beings would experience brokenness and pain in various aspects of their existence. There would be particular enmity between Satan and the woman. Women would long for loving relationships with men but would experience wrongful domination instead, and the fruit of their intimacy would be pain in childbearing. Men would experience work to be backbreaking and frustrating as they coaxed the ground to yield its fruit through blood, sweat and tears.

All of these predictions about the various consequences of sin did indeed come true, but it was certainly not God’s prescription for how things should be. In fact, contained within God’s prediction was a promise that there would be One who would come and bring redemption to all facets of human sin and brokenness—including the sin and brokenness between men and women. That One has come, and his name is Jesus. And his presence immediately disrupted sinful patterns in gender relations, initiating new ones that more accurately reflected God’s heart toward women and men in his community.

Beyond the Curse

Every time Jesus interacted with women or helped men and women interact with one another, he modeled new relating patterns that began the process of redeeming all of us from the oppressive effects of the curse on male-female relationships. That is why we see Jesus talking to an immoral woman about theology, worship, the state of her relationships and the state of her soul (John 4). It’s why we see him pointing out to a group of religious leaders that a woman caught in adultery was no more guilty than they were (John 8:1-11), and why we see him receiving Mary’s act of worship as much more meaningful than anything that was going on in the synagogues (John 12:1-8). It’s why some of his best friends were women—indicated by his visits in their homes (Luke 10:38-42), the give-and-take in their conversations (John 11:1-44), and the fact that they were last at the cross and first at the tomb (Mark 15:40-47).

Every interaction Jesus had with those who followed him closely did something to shift the balance and the tone of relationships between men and women among those closest to him. In this very real and tangible way, Christ has redeemed us and is still redeeming us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). 

Planting the New Testament Church—Together 

It is not surprising, then, that after Jesus’ death and resurrection things were just plain different. When the disciples returned to Jerusalem to await the Holy Spirit, they were all together in the upper room, and “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). Again, in Jewish cultural practice it was unheard of that men and women would be together in such an intimate way, but by now these new Christ-followers were more influenced by Jesus than by the surrounding culture! On the day of Pentecost they were still together as tongues of fire rested on each one of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and were speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4).

When Peter got up to preach and explain these events to those who were watching, he pointed out that this was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that when God poured forth his Spirit it would be for everyone. Sons and daughters, men and women would prophesy—that is to say, speak forth the mind of God (Acts 2:16-18). And they did! 

As the early church grew, women worked right alongside men in spreading the gospel and planting churches. In some cases, it was women (such as Lydia in Philippi) who were prime movers in getting churches started by hosting them in their homes. Other women taught theology (Priscilla), served as ministers or deacons (Phoebe), prophesied (Philip’s daughters) and simply worked very hard (see Romans 16:1-16).

First Corinthians 12 put into words what was already in evidence in the early church: to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit (spiritual gift) without regard to gender. This was entirely consistent with Peter’s assertion “that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) and that we are all members of a “royal priesthood,” charged with proclaiming “the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Women and Men in Transforming Community 

When Paul described the oneness and mutuality of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, it was much more than just a theory—it was the way the women and men who were Jesus’ earliest followers were already working together and had worked together from the very beginning. Paul summed up the impact of Jesus’ redeeming presence in the new community this way: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Rather than experiencing these physical characteristics as cause for limitation and discrimination, in the body of Christ we experience something wholly different from what the effects of sin produced.

All of this is to say that oneness, equality and mutuality across lines of race, socioeconomic status and gender are significant aspects of transforming community. In communities gathered around the transforming presence of the Jesus, women and men of different races, ethnic groupings and income levels experience—perhaps for the first time—equal opportunities and invitations to serve, lead and participate in the life of the community. Everywhere you look you see men and women with their sleeves rolled up serving side by side, nurturing children in their faith, in their clerical robes preaching and leading worship, or in the board room discerning together.

Since women and men together fully reflect the image of God, how could it be any other way in the community he has formed through the person and work of the resurrected Christ?


Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series based on the book Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community (InterVaristy Press, 2014) from which this article is adapted.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2021.

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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.
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Convincing, convicting and … counter [my] culture. In the TC7 community, I was moved by similar teachings, by your own example, and by additional readings. Yet here I find myself surrounded by those ‘other’ often angry voices. The change I long to weave into the fabric of my life is thwarted by the company I still keep. Why? A part of me hoped I might be a voice to change the community. But the fact is, unless I discover this new community, I remain silenced. -faithfully frustrated

Thank you for this honest sharing, Randy. “The change I long to weave into the fabric of my life is thwarted by the company I still keep.” That is a very significant admission and it reminds me of the kind of honesty that prompts Jesus to draw near. Let’s listen for what Jesus might have to say to you as the two of you walk this road between the now and not-yet together.

Thank you for laying this out so well, Ruth! In a recent conversation our leadership team had with Mary Lederleitner, author of “Women in God’s Mission”, she said the following that has stayed with me as a man;
“So much can change if guys care”!

Last edited 3 months ago by Reinhold

Ha! Sounds like a great conversation!

Thank you so much for this. It is so freeing to be able to be who I am in community with others.

Thank-you Ruth for reminding us of the role of women in the resurrection story, and the implications for the roles women can and should play in the Christian church today. No one label, including “feminist”, can fully capture the essence of Jesus. But his behavior towards women was revolutionary in all the ways you describe. The Apostle Paul’s writings have been endlessly debated where women are concerned. My own reading of scripture is that Paul’s admonitions re: women leading and speaking were focused on particular problems, and limited to a particular time and place. But in general, following Jesus’ lead, Paul understood the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) to include a mutual partnership between men and women, lost after the Fall, but now restored by the teachings, example, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Gal. 3:28). To overlook this dimension of Easter is to miss a vital piece of the story that animates and defines the church to this day!

Thank you, David. I appreciate your comment about no one label being able to fully capture the essence of who Jesus is. I agree and have never been comfortable reducing Jesus to a one-word label–or reducing each other to one-word labels either, for that matter! 🙂

If we define apostles as being those who had first hand experiences with Jesus these women were in essence apostles as well. This is beautifully written! Thank you for putting all these pieces together.

Hello. I absolutely love the obvious message of the women being the ones to first proclaim His resurrection!
Which I didn’t see before ! I’m 62. Wow.
Which is both exciting and daunting.
I would appreciate thoughts about the teachings on leadership, specifically as we read about in Titus and Timothy regarding things like elders having one wife etc.
As I keep “seeing” afresh ,I want to see not only with enlightened eyes but also accepting-of-all -truths eyes.
Thanks !
Laura

I’m so glad! Nothing like fresh insights this far along on the spiritual journey! For a more thorough discussion of the New Testament passages you are referring to, please see Equal to the Task: Men and Women in Partnership at Work, at Church and at Home; Longing for More: A Woman’s Path to Transformation in Christ (chap. 3); Paul and Gender (Cynthia Westfall); I Suffer Not a Woman (Richard and Catherine Clark Kroeger).

Could there be a hint of feminism here? Some Christians today think Jesus was a feminist. I don’t agree.

Linda, I think this depends on how you define feminism. Certainly, Jesus treated people equally. If you define feminism as equality, then you can say yes, Jesus was for the equal rights of women. If you define it as male bashing, shaming and it’s time for women to step on men; women are better than men, then no, Jesus is not a feminist. The word feminism has a lot of connotations attached to it depending on how it’s defined. We see the same when we use the terms conservative and liberal in our culture. We all seem to have our very own definitions of these words so it makes it difficult to have a conversation about them if we cannot even agree on the definition of the word we are using. So if I stood in a group and said, “Jesus is a feminist,” or “Jesus is not a feminist,” a wild discussion and misunderstandings among one another would ensue? How do you define feminism? We might could agree there are layers of feminism and some we might accept and others not accept?

What we do know is that Jesus’ interaction with women was culturally different. The role they played is truly astounding in the context of the first century. Using a label is so limiting to the discussion of what the text clearly communicates. On a personal note, what I have witnessed in Transforming Community experience is a wonderful partnership between men and woman that is life giving to men and women. I think if you were looking for more clarity from Ruth, I would suggest reading Ruth’s book https://transformingcenter.christianbook.com/longing-more-womans-path-transformation-christ/ruth-barton/9780830835065/pd/835065?event=TCG|1015361

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