She Doesn’t Look Like Jesus
Paper Trail is a new monthly feature, profiling a story originally published in Issue One of MAGNIFY. You can order the print issue in our online shop.
She doesn’t look like Jesus… Why? Because she is a woman.
I spent most of last year living in Paris, primarily in the quartier around the Saint-Paul metro – The Marais. Coincidentally, Paul was becoming my favourite guy in the Bible at this time (after Jesus, of course). In fact, Paul was probably my first Christian friend, with the stories of his ministry in Acts playing a huge part in my Christian walk. Shame he lived over a thousand years ago.
However, I had only just discovered my faith when I arrived in Paris, and as I read more parts of the Bible apparently written by Paul, I began to feel somewhat uncomfortable. Why? Because I’m a girl. Paul and I fell out when I stumbled across a certain passage in 1 Timothy. I felt like he’d told me to ‘shut up and make babies’. He writes:
‘A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing – if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.’ (1 Timothy 2 vv.11-15 NIV) Ouch. Our friendship was knocked back centuries. Could I really be friends with a man who didn’t seem to respect me or my intelligence, and limited my purpose to child production? I’m only 21 and definitely no baby-making machine. I decided to look to history for answers.
As we are all aware, women have only very recently been officially recognised as equals with men, and even this progress isn’t universal. Consequently, many have suggested that the apparent misogyny in Paul’s writing is a product of the Greco- Roman culture in which it was written. Philosophers from Plato to Aristotle rationalised women’s inferiority, with the latter asserting that women could never be citizens. Even within Jewish culture, men often thanked God that they did not belong to the fairer sex. It was inconceivable for women to participate actively in public life, be it in religious or political affairs.
Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t quite cut it. Surely divine inspiration means that whoever wrote these passages should have had the ability to see beyond their context? The early church was already culturally subversive; why couldn’t it be so about women’s roles too?
The issue proved a stumbling block to my faith. Did being a Christian mean I had to accept such statements and move on? I couldn’t do it, until God gave me a nudge, reminding me of what ‘being a Christian’ actually meant – following Jesus Christ.
Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene. The Samaritan woman. Martha and Mary. There were a whole lot of women in Jesus’ life. Women were the first to witness His resurrection, and the first to spread this amazing news. In fact Jesus often associated with quite controversial women: one of his ancestors, Rahab, is widely believed to have been a prostitute (Joshua 6:25); His mother seemingly got pregnant before she was married; Mary Magdalene was certainly a woman of questionable reputation, having been cleansed of ‘seven demons’ by Jesus (Luke 8:2); and the Samaritan woman? Well, with her five husbands and current boyfriend (John 4:18), she was most definitely a man-eater.
The example of Jesus completely goes against His cultural context. His relationships with the women in His life reveal his divine ability to cut through the prejudices of His world. So why were none of the disciples women? I can’t answer that definitively. All I can do is imagine the rumours that would have circulated if Jesus and His disciples spent every night with a posse of women. People talk. And let’s not forget that the disciples were all human too. What’s to say they wouldn’t be as tempted as we are today? The fact that Jesus Himself chose to spend so much time with these women, often on
His own, despite their bad reputations, proves His own supreme confidence and faith, resisting the social pressures that His contemporaries faced.
So I’ve established that Jesus leans more towards the side of the feminist. Now back to Paul, whose voice we hear throughout the New Testament. Was he an ardent sexist or feminist champion?
Believe it or not, Paul might have held some quasi-feminist ideals, at least for his era. In his New Testament writings, he encouraged women to be taught alongside men; to enter into the church as equals and individuals. Everybody, whether they were slaves, men or women, became equal once they were a new creation in Christ. Further, many of these passages need to be read in the context of the larger ideas presented in his letters. For example, when he says women should be silent, he is writing a letter to the Corinthians and is actually addressing a particular complaint that had been made about certain women interrupting the preaching. Elsewhere in his writings, women are encouraged to speak and are praised for their active role within the church. Since women were at this point far less educated than men, he did not want them to speak in ignorance, but instead receive the same teaching as men in order to engage with them as equals.
Steve Tomkins, a writer on church history and religious satire, ends his article The Trouble with St Paul with the declaration that: ‘Paul’s attitude to women was an influence for liberation and dignity. If his instructions sound repressive when transplanted into the modern West, it is because we are 2000 years further down a path that he had been forging for 20. Those who are truest to his values today are not those who try to turn the clock back, but those who continue in the direction that he led in.’
Christianity is a work in progress, and will remain so until Christ returns. We’ve got to keep Paul as a friend, because together we’re still building the kingdom. Sexism is still a powerful force in our society – I felt it personally when I was forced to leave an internship at a prestigious art gallery in Paris. What kept me going was knowing that Jesus was the only man I had to please, whose words speak to our hearts instead of focussing on our bodies; a rare find. He does not want us to simply accept what the world tells us we should be. Rather, the Bible urges, ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.’ (Romans 12:2 NIV) It encourages us to test social norms, to challenge perceptions and dominant ways of thinking by looking for what God intended first, transforming our minds to bring our flawed world closer to perfection. When discouraged by the struggle women have had to gain even nominal equality – a far from perfect situation – the woman of Proverbs 31 can fill us with hope and an urge to persevere.
‘Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future.’ (Proverbs 31:25 NASB)
WORDS BY Yosola Olorunshola
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jelani Pomell