Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (the younger) and Joseph, the mother of Zebedee’s sons, Salome, Joanna the wife of Chuza, Susanna, and many other women were recorded to have followed Jesus as he went from village to village to preach – it’s said they had supported him of their own means and provided for his needs. This is not what they were supposed to be doing.
Single women were expected to remain in their father’s household, assisting their mothers in keeping it clean, in preparing food according to the dietary laws of their faith, and waiting for their turn to marry. Once married, a daughter would be expected to leave her father’s household and live in her husband’s house, as a member of her father-in-law’s family. They were not supposed to leave their houses to follow an itinerant rabbi or use their own money to support his ministry.
The disciples weren’t just the twelve, but also more than seventy others (not counting the ones that had turned back at one point.) They were not supposed to follow an itinerant rabbi from village to village, preach and teach, cast out demons, and cure the sick. They were supposed to remain in their father’s houses, build up their own wealth, acquire a wife, start having children, and provide for them.
Jesus, a first-born son, wasn’t supposed to leave his family behind to wander around – he had a duty to continue the family line. To learn the family trade, to marry and have children, to inherit his father’s property, to care for his mother when she was widowed. He would have become a tribal leader, an elder at the gate who judged on matters of the law and represented his family and their tribe. But he didn’t. None of them did what their culture’s gender roles prescribed.
Saul, a Pharisee, was expected to have been married; it was unusual not to be for a man in his line of work. He would build up a reputation, gain power and popularity, and if all went well he would one day become a Rabbi with disciples of his own, just like his teacher Gamaliel. He was not supposed to convert to The Way, wander from one country to the next, preaching, and forsake marriage – but that’s what he did. This same man who wrote the teaching that we now know as gender roles, didn’t live by them. Either he wasn’t a man (as all men are married husbands) or he was a man who just never married and gender role teachings don’t apply to the unmarried.
One of the biggest teachings in the last few decades is Complementarianism, which tells us the gender roles expected of men and women in marriage. Husbands are heads, wives are to submit and it doesn’t apply to singles. It’s really not that much different from the existing cultural belief that men had the decision making power, the final word, the ability to publicly represent the affairs of the whole family and women could only exist through the protection and provision of either their fathers or husbands or sons or else lead a life of prostitution and poverty trying to provide for herself in a world very much opposed to the idea.
In all this, we’ve taken this approach that the same basic structure still applies – there’s just one big difference – our cultures have polar opposite values on the matter. No longer are women expected to marry early and have children young – women can support themselves, work in any number of honorable jobs, and aren’t under any obligation to live in any particular way, shape, ,or form. No longer do men feel that they must marry and have children (one of my co-workers has repeatedly stated that he’s very much opposed to getting married and that he’s quite happy as he is.) Yet Christianity continues to preach tradition for the sake of tradition. It’s message is only for the married and doesn’t apply to singles. It celebrates mothers but doesn’t care to honor women outside of the context of motherhood. It continues to push men into positions of leadership just because they’re men and not necessarily because they are gifted with the talents and skills that lend toward being a leader.
In a Bible where all the major figures, the ones whom we know by name, all of them turned their back on their gender roles and cultural expectations, it seems we’ve come full circle and demanded that all men and all women follow the same gender roles – we celebrate husband and wives, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers but we ignore single men and women who – like Paul – give up everything for the kingdom of God. We pity those who leave the true path behind, the ones whose marriages fail and children die as having had it all and lost it. This is a Christianity that’s gone off message – that forgets that Christ is central to it’s faith, not gender roles.


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