Quite a bit of attention has been given as of late to the role of women in LDS society, and rightfully so. I’ll simply share that as an LDS Father raising three daughters, I can’t help but feel a sense of concern regarding this important matter.
As soon as President Monson made the announcement last October regarding a change in missionary age requirements for young women, I knew immediately how my 18-year-old daughter would respond. Now, as a Mormon Male Feminist, I am very grateful for the fact that she and other LDS women like her have been given the opportunity to make the decision, if they feel so inclined, to serve a full-time mission at almost the same age as young men. As her Dad, however, I feel a strange sense of pride and concern at the prospect of watching my little girl go out into the world to share a message about love, families, and Jesus Christ.
I can’t help it. She’s my little girl, and it makes me nervous. I really hadn’t prepared myself emotionally for this decision (though I’m coming to grips with it). Yet from my perspective, it’s only right that young women have this opportunity, especially when we consider the role of women in early Christianity. According to the Gospels, the first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were all women.
Luke specifically identifies the first witnesses of Christ as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women” (Luke 24:10). And interestingly, we actually read that the male Apostles initially rejected their testimony: “And their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (v. 11). Like all of us, the Apostles were clearly products of their time, and women were treated in 1st century Judaism the same way women have been treated throughout most of human history, as second-class citizens at best.
Much has been made over the fact that in early Jewish society, a woman’s witness or testimony was often held suspect. The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus seems to capture the spirit of the age through the statement: “From women let no evidence be accepted, because of the levity and temerity of their sex” (Ant. 4.219). So the fact that women were the first witnesses of Jesus in a culture so dominated by male “superiority” and wisdom seems significant.
But then again, when Jesus is placed in the historical context of his time period, Jesus comes across as quite the male feminist himself. Every time we see Christ in the Gospels, Jesus is talking with women, and actually taking them seriously, even when they are possessed with devils, committing acts of adultery, suffering with “issues of blood,” or living with men who are not their husbands. And Jesus does this at what would seem to be, at least to some extent, considerable personal risk.
Although dated, the following assessment by Joachim Jeremias in the classic book Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus still captures the general sentiment:
“A woman was expected to remain unobserved in public. There is a recorded saying of one of the oldest scribes we know, Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem (c. 150 BC): ‘Talk not much with womankind’, to which was added, ‘They said this of a man’s own wife; how much more of his fellow’s wife!’ (M. Ab. i.5). Rules of propriety forbade a man to be alone with a woman (M. Kidd. iv. 12; b. Kidd 8Ia; John 4.27), to look at a married woman, or even to give her a greeting (b. Kidd. 70a-b). It was disgraceful for a scholar to speak with a woman in the street (b. Ber. 43b Bar.). A woman who conversed with everyone in the street, could, like the woman who worked at her spinning in the street, be divorced without the payment prescribed in the marriage settlement. It was considered preferable for a woman, and especially an unmarried girl, in general not to go out at all.” (p. 360).
Taking this perspective into consideration during Family Home Evening, my wife Carolyn best summed it up with these words, “So I love how Jesus was such a rebel!” Rebel or not, he certainly comes across as a male feminist.
In fact, every time Jesus uses the title “woman” in the Gospel of John, he directly links the title with a revelation concerning his role as Savior. In John 2, Jesus uses the title “woman” and then immediately begins to speak about the “hour” of his atonement. Jesus does the same thing the next time he uses the title in John 4:21. In John 8:10-11, Jesus uses the title “woman” and then immediately teaches the woman caught in adultery of his power to forgive sin because of his hour.
In John 19:26, Jesus uses the title “woman” in reference to Mary and then immediately invites her to stand as a witness of his suffering on the cross. Then finally, in John 20, Jesus uses the title “woman” prior to revealing himself as the resurrected Christ. This can’t be a mere coincidence! When it comes to Jesus’ power to heal and to save the human soul, there is a direct link between “woman” and “witness” in the Gospel of John, and it reminds us as readers of the fact that women serve as the first witnesses of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Yet perhaps no story in the New Testament places as great an emphasis upon women as John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well. Speaking personally, what I find interesting in John’s account is the grammar in Jesus’ invitation for the Samaritan woman to come and partake of the living water he has to offer. In his invitation, Jesus presents two opposite imperatives (command forms), “go” and “come”: “Go, call thy husband, and come hither” (“call” is also an imperative).
As we would expect, the first command is a singular imperative. Jesus asked the woman to “go,” to depart, and get her husband. He then gives her the third imperative “come,” and as readers, we expect that Jesus would use a plural imperative since the subject of the command is in fact the woman and her husband.
However, in the original Greek, Jesus’ invitation to “come hither” is in fact a singular imperative elthe. Technically, to be grammatically correct, the plural subject should have received a plural imperative, elthete. By specifically using a singular imperative when he invited the woman and her husband to “come hither,” Jesus placed special emphasis on the value of the Samaritan woman as an individual; as a woman. Hence, even she, a woman of lesser spiritual and social status, was invited to come unto him and partake of living water.
So where does all of this leave us today as Latter-day Saints in terms of recent movements in our culture such as “Pants to Church” or “Let Women Pray in General Conference”? I don’t know. All I can say is that as an LDS Father of three girls, I’m very grateful that we as a people are having these discussions. They’re important. They really are. No matter where you or I stand on the specifics, as Christians we must be deeply concerned about the way women are treated and made to feel in our respective culture(s).
Speaking personally, I’m grateful that my 18-year-old daughter has been given an opportunity to turn in her papers and accept a full-time call to serve. It’s what she wants to do, and as her Dad, I am proud of her. Deeply. Based upon what we witness regarding women in the New Testament, she’s part of an extraordinary movement that has been taking place for quite some time.