1. I'm a woman.
2. I'm a woman in ministry – teaching Christian students and sharing the gospel with non-Christian students on a university campus.
3. The Bible says some things about women which appear very countercultural.
4. I should know what these things are and how to address them as a woman, as a Christian and as a woman in ministry, teaching others.
So I've been doing some research on women and the Bible. And I'd like to share a couple of things with you. Perhaps you'll find them surprising or new.
I think the first thing to point out is that the Bible was not written in a cultural vacuum. It was written in a time when patriarchy was the accepted order of the day, and so we should expect to see that influence on the document.
But, even despite a strong emphasis on men, the Bible does not ignore women completely. Nor does it only address women to tell them to be silent and submissive, and nothing else!
In my research, I've actually been quite impressed with the Bible's portrayal of many women. Many more women are recorded in its accounts than one might expect of a document written in its time.
I'm encouraged by the glowing account of the praise-worthy, business-savvy woman of Proverbs 31. I am struck by the admirable faith and obedience of a young Nazarene woman, Mary, contrasted with the disbelief of a respectable Levitical priest, Zechariah, at the beginning of Luke's gospel account. I enjoy seeing biblical women in leadership roles, like Israel's judge, Deborah, or the Paul's acknowledgement of his fellow worker in the gospel – Priscilla. I am comforted that Jesus also made time for women, and they played an important role in supporting his ministry.
I thought I'd share a couple of examples of women we meet in the Bible.
We meet Miriam in chapter 2 of Exodus. She's the younger sister of Aaron and the older sister of Moses.
In fact, it's thanks to Miriam's boldness that her baby brother Moses is able to be reunited with his mother (though ultimately Pharoah's daughter would claim him as her son). If you read the story in Exodus 2, it's a perfect line-up of events that save the life of Israel's future prophet and leader – all carried out by women. Miriam's mother keeps Moses safe; Miriam watches over him; Pharoah's daughter keeps him.
I want to acknowledge that the entire event is orchestrated by the sovereign hand of God. But God chooses the people He uses. And in this instance, He chooses to use Miriam as the link that saves the life of Moses and reunites her grieving mother with her baby son.
Later, Miriam is described as a 'prophetess' who leads women in a song of praise and victory (Exodus 15 verse 20). A later book of prophecy – Micah – notes Miriam as a leader, along with Moses and Aaron.
Of course, Miriam is not perfect. Even men are never portrayed as perfect in the Bible (well…except for one man, of course!). In Numbers 12, it's recorded that she and Aaron challenge Moses' leadership and his special relationship with God. I wonder what has happened to cause this; jealousy? Rivalry? Even God says that she and Aaron should have respected and feared this relationship enough to not speak against it! Miriam is punished by God – as a child is disciplined by a father – and upon Moses' intercession, her suffering lasts just seven days.
Miriam's life was likely not easy. But she enjoyed a special place of leadership alongside her brothers. What this leadership looked like, I don't know. Was it just over the women? Was it simply by virtue of family ties? But a look at her life sees that God was pleased to act through Miriam to save Moses, that God was pleased for her to sing and lead the women in praise and thanksgiving to Him, and she is remembered as an important figure in the life of Israel, still in its infancy as a nation.
Let's turn to the New Testament and meet Martha. Martha lived at a place called Bethany, with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus.
I can strongly identify with Martha's emphasis on hospitality. Not only is it a very important way to honour people in her culture, it's also a way of practically loving people and meeting their needs. Martha and her sister Mary open their home to a very special guest – Jesus.
In Luke's record, Martha has something to learn about priorities, though. While Martha is making all the preparations, her sister sits and listens to Jesus. Perhaps justifiably indignant, Martha calls on Jesus to tell Mary that she should be helping Martha. However, Jesus points Martha from the temporal distraction to what is important; "Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
We don't know Martha's reaction, but I'll bet it was along the lines of shock. Disbelief. How could her Lord be saying such an outrageous thing? Surely fulfilling her womanly role in the home was her highest calling? Yet, Jesus was saying that, even above the noble hospitality role, is sitting as his feet as a disciple –as a male would have the privilege to do. And this opportunity was open to her!
In John's account of Lazarus' resurrection (John 11), we see a change in Martha. This time, in positive contrast to Mary, she acknowledges Jesus' relationship with God, and ability to heal. And she recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the 'Son of God, who is to come into the world.' Martha is no longer distracted by funeral preparations, being host to mourners or even sitting to allow them to comfort her. She finds ultimate comfort in Jesus' healing power; his identity as the Son of God.
There's so much more to say
God has used the lives of these women – Miriam and Martha – and so many more to carry out His purposes for the world. I'm so glad that God preserved the record of so many women in the Bible, and that I can learn from their examples.
While I'm still working out what those more difficult and counter-cultural verses mean, and how they might play out in marriage and ministry, I know, and you can also be sure beyond a doubt that God values women and God will choose to work through women, as well as men. And for now, that is enough for me.
Sarah Urmston is based in Melbourne and shares a 5x7m flat with her husband, Stephen. She works with RMIT Melbourne's Christian Union group as an apprentice, and loves the privilege of sharing Jesus with the students. Since beginning student ministry, her desire – nay – need for coffee has grown exponentially.
Sarah Urmston's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sarah-urmston.html