Mutual Submission: The Holy Spirit Works Through Women, Too

ITALY - DECEMBER 24: Mary Magdalene, detail from the stories of Mary Magdalene, fresco, Chapel of the Barons of Cly (ca 1576)
ITALY - DECEMBER 24: Mary Magdalene, detail from the stories of Mary Magdalene, fresco, Chapel of the Barons of Cly (ca 1576), Aosta cathedral, Valle d' Aosta, Italy. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

As we observe Holy Week, we are reminded that women were the ones who stood by the cross and were first to preach the Good News of Christ's resurrection. Throughout the Scriptures, women have played a significant role in contributing to the kingdom of God.

In the 21st century, many who choose to follow Christ continue to question the posture of Jesus toward women. Some more traditional interpretations of Scripture use verses from the Bible to say that women should be in specific roles in relationship to their families and greater society. These interpretations often prevent women from having leadership roles in homes, churches, and/or society at large.

Yet, when we look at the overall trajectory of the New Testament, Jesus was one of the most liberating leaders in his relationship with women. Consider some of the interactions between Jesus and women: Jesus' ministry was funded by women (Luke 8:3); women followed Jesus and the disciples and were responsible for "caring for his needs" (Matthew 27:55); it was a Samaritan woman to whom Jesus first identified Himself as the Messiah and she went back and introduced her whole community to him (John 4); women were the ones who revealed that Jesus had resurrected and was gone from the grave after He had been buried (Matthew 28:5-6); women were present at the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit revealed itself during Pentecost (Acts1:14); and women were called and gifted as evangelists and missionaries in the early church (Romans 16:3).

Despite the many verses that talk about the role of women in both following Jesus and helping to establish the early church, there are verses in the New Testament that have been used to limit the role of women.

One of the most prevalent passages is Ephesians 5:21-33 which begins with the statement "Submit to one another in Christ" (5:21). In the original Greek there is one verb in this entire passage which speaks of mutual submission - the way that both husbands and wives should submit to one another. Nonetheless, this passage has been used to say that women should submit to their husbands (5:22) only - and that as such, women are less than men and their roles should be determined by gender in the context of marriage. But the heart of the passage is about mutual submission - where both men and women are called to lay themselves down for the sake of another.

Rather than looking to the few places in the New Testament where women's roles are seemingly limited, I would encourage a much more thorough study of verses that emphasize - for both men and women - the use of their spiritual gifts. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 speak to both "brothers and sisters" in the Lord. The gifts that are addressed include: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping, guidance, and different kinds of tongues. These gifts are not limited according to gender.