Historian Tom Holland stopped believing in the Bible as a boy. He was far more attracted to Greek and Roman gods than to the crucified hero of the Christian faith. But after years of research, Holland has concluded in his book Dominion that even secular Westerners are deeply shaped by Christianity. In particular, he argues, people on all sides of today’s debates about gender and sexuality depend on Christian ideas:
That every human being possessed an equal dignity was not remotely a self-evident truth. A Roman would have laughed at it. To campaign against discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality, however, was to depend on large numbers of people sharing in a common assumption: that everyone possessed an inherent worth. The origins of this principle . . . lay not in the French Revolution, nor in the Declaration of Independence, nor in the Enlightenment, but in the Bible.
In Greco–Roman thinking, men were superior to women and sex was a way to prove it. “As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually were to the Roman man,” Holland wrote. “To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior.”
In Rome, “men no more hesitated to use slaves and prostitutes to relieve themselves of their sexual needs than they did to use the side of a road as a toilet.” The idea that every woman had the right to choose what happened to her body was laughable.
People on all sides of today’s debates about gender and sexuality depend on Christian ideas.
Christianity threw out this model. Rather than being seen as inferior to men, women were equally made in God’s image. Rather than being free to use slaves and prostitutes (of either sex), men were expected to be faithful to one wife, or to live in celibate singleness.
The scenario described in The Handmaid’s Tale—a man sleeping with an enslaved woman—is one of the exact things Christianity outlawed. The Christian husband was to love his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). The relative weakness of her body was not a license for domination, but a reason to show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).
While Roman families often married off their prepubescent daughters, Christian women could marry later. A woman whose husband had died was affirmed in remaining single, but also free to marry any man she wished, so long as he belonged to the Lord (1 Cor. 7:39–40).
No wonder Christianity was so attractive to women. Jesus had changed everything.
Jesus’s Shocking Relationships with Women
If we could read the Gospels through first-century eyes, Jesus’s treatment of women would knock us to our knees. His longest recorded conversation with any individual was with a Samaritan woman of ill repute (John 4:7–30), and this wasn’t an isolated incident. Jesus repeatedly welcomed women his contemporaries despised.
One time, he was dining at a Pharisee’s house when a “sinful woman” gatecrashed. She wept on Jesus’s feet, wiped them with her hair, and kissed them. The Pharisee was appalled: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). But Jesus turned the tables on his host and affirmed this woman as an example of love (Luke 7:36–50). He welcomed women despised as sexual sinners. He also welcomed women deemed unclean.
One day, Jesus was on his way to heal a 12-year-old girl when a woman who had suffered 12 years of menstrual bleeding figured that if she could just touch the fringe of his clothes she’d be made well. She was right. But Jesus didn’t just move on. He had her come forward from the crowd and commended her faith (Luke 8:43–48).
When Jesus finally reached the sick 12 year old, she was dead. But it wasn’t too late. Speaking Aramaic, their shared mother tongue, Jesus said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise,” and she got up (Mark 5:41). Whether little girls or prostitutes, whether despised foreigners or women made unclean by menstrual blood. Whether they were married or single, sick (Matt. 8:14–16) or disabled (Luke 13:10–16), Jesus made time for women and treated them with care and respect.
In Luke’s Gospel, women are often compared with men, and where there is a contrast, the women come out looking better. In all four Gospels, women witness Jesus’s resurrection first—although the testimony of women wouldn’t have been seen as convincing at that time.
Jesus made time for women and treated them with care and respect.
We gain an intimate glimpse of Jesus’s relationships with women in his friendship with two sisters. We first meet Mary and Martha in Luke, when Jesus is at their house. Martha is busy serving. Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet, learning with the disciples. Martha complains and asks Jesus to tell Mary she should be serving, too.
But Jesus responds: “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). In a culture in which women were expected to serve, not to learn, Jesus affirms Mary’s learning from him. But far from dismissing Martha, John tells another story in which Jesus has a stunning conversation with her after her brother Lazarus has died.
In fact, it seems that Jesus let Lazarus die partly so that he could have this conversation with Martha—whom he loved (John 11:5)—in which he uttered world-changing words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).
Martha did. So have countless women since.
This is adapted from Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed (TGC, 2021),available for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including The Secular Creed, Trevin Wax’s The Multi-Directional Leader, and Ivan Mesa’s Before You Lose Your Faith. Learn more.
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary in London. She is a regular writer for The Gospel Coalition and author of Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion(Crossway, 2019). You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram, or her website.