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No More Holding Back: Emboldening Women to Move Past Barriers, See Their Worth, and Serve God Everywhere
by Kat Armstrong
Learn More | Meet Kat Armstrong
THE MESSAGES HOLDING WOMEN BACK
WOMEN CAN’T BE TRUSTED TO LEARN AND LEAD
But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.
- —2 CORINTHIANS 11:3 NASB
I used to skip church youth group in high school but not to make out with my boyfriend or swipe doughnuts. I was sneaking out so I could slip into Beth Moore’s adult Sunday school class at Houston’s First Baptist Church.
Even though I didn’t know my Sunday school teacher’s influence was growing beyond the walls of our church, I wanted to sit under her teaching. Word on the street was, this very Southern lady with very Southern hair would teach the Bible line by line and her class handouts were filled front and back with dreamy fill-in-the-blanks and footnotes. I started attending alongside a few hundred adults as a brand-new Christian eager to learn more about God. By the time I left for college, the class had grown to almost seven hundred people.
One day after class, I asked Beth what I should read next since I had devoured everything she had suggested in class, and she encouraged me to attend seminary. I had never heard that word before, so Beth explained the concept: graduate school for the Bible. My first question about it was telling. Could women go to seminary? She assured me that of course they could, and that was that. I was going.
I rushed through my back door and huddled up with my parents to report the exciting news. Somehow, at some point, I was going to grad school to study the Bible. Get hyped, y’all!
Shocked and flustered, my dad asked me if girls were allowed to attend those places, and he pointed out my undergraduate degree in accounting must come first.
You see, underneath my newfound passion for studying the Scriptures lurked an unconscious belief—for my parents and myself: women learning about Jesus was unusual, and seminary was no place for ladies. But why? Why was my first question about Bible school, “Can women attend?” And what is it about the concept of female theology students that did not sit right with my dad?
Two chapters into God’s Genesis story of redemption, we find Eve, the first woman, hoodwinked by the serpent. She doesn’t exactly portray us as trustworthy. Since my childhood, I’ve noticed every storybook picture of the fall of mankind placed Eve in the center of the narrative as the one who was easily deceived. Her failures follow her to the New Testament, when Paul used the sin in the Garden to explain why first-century women in Ephesus were not permitted to teach men. Here’s what Paul had to say about it: “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed” (1 Tim. 2:12–14 CSB).
Children’s storybook illustrations and the apostle Paul’s references paint a bleak picture of womanhood as it relates to following God’s instructions. Generations of respected church leaders and theologians influenced by misogyny made it even harder for me to see past Eve’s foolishness and resist taking it on as my own.
Marg Mowczko, a brilliant student of the Scriptures, compiled the following list of misogynistic quotes of early church fathers.
The renowned “Father of Latin Christianity,” Tertullian, wrote:
- And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.
Thomas Aquinas, doctor of the Church, in the thirteenth century, wrote:
- As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.
Martin Luther, a German priest, theologian, and Protestant reformer, wrote:
- For woman seems to be a creature somewhat different from man, in that she has dissimilar members, a varied form and a mind weaker than man. Although Eve was a most excellent and beautiful creature, like unto Adam in reference to the image of God, that is with respect to righteousness, wisdom and salvation, yet she was a woman. For as the sun is more glorious than the moon, though the moon is a most glorious body, so woman, though she was a most beautiful work of God, yet she did not equal the glory of the male creature.
Augustine thought women’s only purpose was to help in childbearing. And now, in more recent years, pastor and bestselling author John Piper admits that, historically speaking, women have usually been understood as “more gullible or deceivable than men and therefore less fit for the doctrinal oversight of the church. This may be true.”
Famous megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was instrumental in cofounding several influential evangelical organizations, including the Resurgence, Acts 29 Network, and the Gospel Coalition. Although his Mars Hill Church has now disbanded, his booklet on church leadership concerning women in ministry emphasizes the widely held belief about women being daughters of Eve based on Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:
- Without blushing, Paul is simply stating that when it comes to leading in the church, women are unfit because they are more gullible and easier to deceive than men. While many irate women have disagreed with his assessment through the years, it does appear from this that such women who fail to trust his instruction and follow his teaching are much like their mother Eve and are well-intended but ill-informed.
If the writings of influential Christian leaders and theologians throughout history have taught that women struggle to overcome being duped, one might assume it’s not wise for women to be students of theology or hold positions of leadership in the workforce or in the church. Based on their interpretations, Eve did not steward her knowledge well, and look where it got us. According to them, it seems the gospel message was not safe with Eve. So that natural next question is, Will it be with us?
Get an entire gender uneasy about loving God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and you will see how our enemy effectively sidelines women. Women are often told we need to be careful with knowledge, as if a universal holy reverence for the words of God is not for all people. I wonder if we are picturing ourselves in a garden, facing a serpent, tempted to be snared like Eve, and disregarding what Jesus redeemed on the cross.
Epic Eden Redo
In light of these misguided and defeating interpretations of Scripture, we may need to remind ourselves that while there are a select few verses that are confusing about the role of women in the Fall and in the church, there are plenty of timeless truths that all agree apply to women: We are image bearers of the one true living God, and we reflect his glory because we were made in his likeness (Gen. 1:26). We were designed to wage war against spiritual forces, to push back the powers of darkness (Eph. 6:10–17). We have been sealed with the Spirit of the almighty God. As a result, we are competent ministers of the gospel (2 Cor. 3:6). We have been called by God into a holy calling, not according to our gender, abilities, or education, but based on God’s grace, an irrevocable calling to be God’s own (2 Tim. 1:9). Matthew tells us we are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14–16). Sister, Paul says we have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3), every spiritual blessing in Christ (Eph. 1:3).
And we probably need to be reminded that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection secured us all an epic Eden redo. John, the beloved disciple, started his gospel with “In the beginning” the same way Genesis does. As a parallel work to Genesis, John’s gospel is like a second Genesis or a second beginning. By the time we get to John 20 and Christ’s resurrection, John has prepared us to see Jesus’s words and actions as a movement of redemption. He wrote:
- On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!” (John 20:1–2 HCSB)
As Peter and John sprinted to the garden tomb to verify Mary’s story, they found the stone rolled away and Jesus’s linens just as she described. Likely distraught by the missing body, both men headed back to the Upper Room to mourn, but Mary stayed at the grave site to cry. Two angels appeared to Mary and asked her why she was sobbing, but they already knew why. Jesus’s body had disappeared, and she didn’t know where to find it. Turning around, she saw Jesus, mistaking him for the owner of the garden. Mary supposed Jesus was the gardener and—I want us to catch this—she was not right, but she wasn’t wrong either. Jesus is the Cosmic Gardener, and he was about to replant humanity in the second garden.
Saying her name, Jesus caught Mary’s attention, and she found her Great Teacher. “‘Don’t cling to Me,’ Jesus told her, ‘for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to My brothers and tell them that I am ascending to My Father and your Father—to My God and your God.’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ And she told them what He had said to her” (John 20:17–18 HCSB).
For anyone like me, assuming a woman’s passion for service is restrained by Eve’s example, look again at John’s gospel, which highlights Mary Magdalene as a model disciple in the resurrection story.
In the first garden, Eve was placed inside it by God’s initiative, and we can assume it was during the day because the lights had already been turned on (Gen. 1). In Mary’s story, she comes from outside the garden by her own initiative, and it is still dark outside.
In the first garden, Eve was created after Adam, but in Mary’s story, she is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus—before Peter, before John. She’s the first. Hashtag it, please.
In the first garden, Eve faced the fruit-producing tree of life and initiated with her rebellion a curse of death for all. And the fruit was available when she reached for it. In the second garden, Mary Magdalene faced a tomb of death, only to find Jesus had initiated the resurrection life for all. And in the grave, there was no body.
In the first garden, the serpent approached Eve with cunning questions that sowed doubt. In the second garden, angels greeted Mary Magdalene and then Jesus himself appeared, all asking compassionate questions that sowed hope.
In the first garden, Eve hid her naked shame from God’s presence before being ousted from Eden. In the second garden, Mary wept without shame in Jesus’s presence, and it was Jesus’s clothes that were missing.
Eve was deceived, but Mary was commissioned.
Eve rebelled, but Mary obeyed.
The contrast, the repurposing, is so vivid, so clear. I can barely make it through either passage without weeping. I am no longer a gullible daughter of Eve, and neither are you. When my concerns about biblical deception arise within me, I stand condemned as I hear my enemy say, “You are just like your mother, Eve.” Instead, I should replay my Savior’s words to Mary: “Go and tell your brothers.” The curse of being easily deceived died when Jesus rose from the dead.
Somebody get my Wonder Woman crown; I’m feeling inspired.
Run Like a Girl
I wonder what Mary looked like, running with the gospel news to the Upper Room. I know she wasn’t rockin’ her Nike Frees; she was wearing dusty sandals. I know she wasn’t sporting her lululemon Wunder Unders with four-way wicking stretch fabric. She had to scoop up many yards of cloth in her arms to sprint. And what kind of undergarments support the undignified movements of a first-century woman running? I know she was not wearing antiperspirant or a no-pull hair tie for her waist-long hair. So she must have arrived at the Upper Room crusty, dusty, dirty, sweaty, stinky, hair-all-a-mess, out of breath, and maybe with tears still staining her face. What a sight.
In her contribution to Vindicating the Vixens, theologian Karla Zazueta reminded me that since Mary Magdalene had been cured of seven demons, likely suffering severely with various mental and physical disabilities before Jesus healed her, she had a reputation for being unhinged. Let that encourage us! Even if our running is undignified and we look crazy for doing it, we still go when Jesus asks us to.
Luke tells us that Mary’s words to the disciples in the Upper Room seemed like nonsense to them (Luke 24:11), and they did not believe her. I totally get that. If I had been present to hear Mary out of breath, maybe still crying and speaking with urgency while knocking on that door, I would be looking to Dr. Luke for a medical diagnosis on the formerly demon-possessed lady. Could this be a weird relapse, Dr. Luke? Don’t open the door, people! Whatever you do, do not open the door! Believing women, trusting their testimony, continues to be an issue for us today. We should open doors, metaphorically speaking, to our sisters. We should believe women.
Although her brothers in the Upper Room did not believe her testimony (Mark 16:11), Mary Magdalene raised her voice for truth. Let her example be a good reminder to us. Even if our brothers or sisters do not believe us, we still go. We tell the truth: he is risen!
What joy it must have brought Christ to redeem her physical and mental handicaps, knowing her future would include moving with speed to communicate the most important message the world has ever heard. Our past does not define our future.
Now, I don’t run unless I am being chased, but I’ve been told by runners that it provides a great space to think. So I wonder what Mary was thinking while she was running. I imagine her processing, I was destined to carry this message. I was healed to take this message. I was delivered to deliver this message.
In 2014, Always produced a Super Bowl commercial called “Run Like a Girl” that currently has more than sixty-six million views on YouTube. To promote their feminine products and win the “epic battle” of young girls’ confidence, they filmed responses to the prompt, “Show me what it looks like to run like a girl, fight like a girl, throw like a girl.” True to life, the adults (and boys) shown at the beginning of the ad pretended to run, fight, and throw with subpar skills. Per the actors’ role-playing, doing something the way a girl does looks stupid, vapid, weak, and silly.
By contrast, the director asked young girls what it means to run like a girl, and without hesitation one child declared it means to “run as fast as you can.” The point of the three-minute ad is this: somewhere along the way, doing something “like a girl” has become a put-down. It is used to humiliate people when it should describe excellence. And I think we do that in Christianity too. Before it became a modern-day criticism, “You run like a girl” could have been an ancient compliment in Jesus’s day for women like Mary Magdalene.
Free to Run
The same year I admitted to my classmates that I was afraid to learn too much about Jesus, Father Juan Solana began construction on a retreat center in Galilee. He wanted to build a respite for Holy Land tourists. Under Father Juan’s leadership, construction workers in Israel unexpectedly uncovered the ancient ruins of Magdala (the town where Mary Magdalene would have been raised). The discovery of the Magdala stone10—the oldest carved stone block depicting the second temple—and a first-century synagogue was an archaeological marvel. As I was digging up the theological weeds of gender bias and the role Eve had played in my life, people were excavating Mary Magdalene’s hometown to uncover something lost.
In 2017 a friend offered to sponsor me on a trip to the Holy Land with a tour called “Women in the Word,” led by Dr. Jackie Roese. Morning Star Tours was offering their first female-only trip to Israel to study women of the Bible, and I was on it. Two days before leaving, Dr. Roese reached out to me to see if I would preach about Mary Magdalene on-site in Magdala. She pointed out I would be preaching in a place where Jesus’s feet walked the earth. My text back was, “Yaaassss! Thank you! Thank you!”
As Israel and the city of Jerusalem prepared for its seventieth Independence Day celebrations, I was preparing a message about my freedom in Christ. Although I rarely cry-talk, I broke down in front of the crowd of women gathered at Magdala to study Mary Magdalene’s life and see the ancient ruins of her town. Struggling even to breathe, let alone speak, I tried to retell my “just stop” story. Repeating my professor’s words to our small band of women, I implored, “Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Keep going, sisters of the faith.”
After my sermon I used my GoPro to film the diggers sifting through rubble at the Magdala excavation site, and I realized that the gifts of women are much like the ruins being unearthed right in front of me. Our gifts and talents, buried for centuries, have always been present, but now we see that elevating women’s voices aligns with the Scriptures. Nothing about our gender hinders us from studying the Scriptures, seeking to know God better, or sharing those truths with others. Nothing about our gender should keep us from following God’s lead in our homes, with our families, or in the workplace. Like Mary Magdalene, we need to go with the gospel into our spheres of influence at a pace so urgent: We. Must. Run. Run like a girl. Because Jesus commissions us to and because he is risen indeed.
Mary does more than just represent that the testimony of a woman can be trusted, that God chooses women for kingdom purposes, and that we, too, can be used by God to go and tell our brothers (and sisters) his good news. Mary Magdalene is Eve’s literary redemption. If Jesus is the second Adam, raised from dust by the power of the Spirit, then Mary Magdalene is the second Eve. Obeying Jesus, Mary fulfilled her mission and was worthy of the truth entrusted to her. The gospel is safe with women.
Nothing will rival her message. Jesus is the news. But we might unleash a generation of women if we teach them that secondary to the message of “Jesus is risen” is this: a woman was the first preacher to literally bring it.
I wish I had been introduced to Mary Magdalene’s noholding-back heroics before the term seminary entered my vernacular. Maybe my first question to Beth Moore would have been “How fast can we run there?” rather than “Can girls go to seminary?” Instead of questioning what races we should enter, what pace we should keep, or what distance is appropriate for our gender, you and I must believe that we are not gullible daughters of Eve but rather commissioned daughters of the King. Sister Mary Magdalene left us a heroine’s legacy.
Let’s follow in her footsteps.
- What have you been taught about Eve as it relates to all women?
- Is that message implied or specific in your church?
- What about Mary Magdalene’s story stands out most to you?
- Metaphorically speaking, what gifts are you uncovering about yourself?
- If Mary Magdalene is the first preacher to literally bring the gospel message, how should that influence our communities of faith?
- How would you describe your faith-life right now? (sitting, standing, walking, running, limping)
- In what area of life you do need one of God’s epic redos?
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