There comes a time in our lives as Christians in which we have to take a step back from our theology and traditions and make sure we are loving and supporting each other as siblings in Christ. New Testament figures, Martha and Mary of Bethany, were no exception to this rule. Most of us who grew up in the Church know the Bible story well, but let’s take a look at the passage from a different focal point.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV)
Martha often gets a bad rap, but I admire Martha. She chose to submit to tradition. The text does not tell us if she liked cooking, doing dishes, and serving men, but if we pay close attention we can see that Martha was a faithful woman. She chose duty. She chose to love God in the flesh and others through service. Martha chose what she believed to be righteousness before the Lord Jesus Christ and the people around her. She chose to love the best way she knew how.
Mary is often praised among evangelical feminists because we relate to her. Truth be told, most of us would rather not do dishes or bake bread. We would rather buck the system if it means we get to be part of the system. Sometimes we are quick to put down Martha, but I have known too many “Marthas” to allow myself to go down that road.
In my experience, the “Marthas” of the world are selfless servants who have a compassionate heart for both people and God. They are the “mommas” of the world – the ones us “Marys” go to when we need a lap to cry on, a homemade cinnamon bun and a hot cup of tea. The truth is that “Marys” need “Marthas” and “Marthas” need “Marys.”
“Marthas” need “Marys” to help them let go of duty every once in awhile, take a break, stop serving everyone else, chase some personal dreams and sit at the feet of Jesus.
We often hear the biblical words, “iron sharpens iron,” but we rarely take the time to read the rest of the passage.
Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored. Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another (Proverbs 27:17-19 NRSV).
The truth is that there is tension between the “Marthas” and the “Marys” in the Church. We struggle to accept each other as we are and sometimes we even find ourselves a bit insecure around the other.Click To Tweet
New Testament scholar, Dr. N.T. Wright puts it like this:
That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions…. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so.
It is easier for “Marys” to get along with other “Marys” and for “Marthas” to get along with other “Marthas,” but when we let go of our friends who have opposing views and personalities, we let go of our greatest sharpening tools.
I have noticed that many “Marthas” are drawn to complementarian doctrine (those who believe women are to submit to a man’s authority in the home and church) and many “Marys” are drawn to egalitarian doctrine (those who believe women and men are to submit equally to one another in the home and church).
This is concerning to me, because it makes me think that maybe we are choosing and even formulating our theology based on our personalities, rather than allowing our theology to shape and sharpen our Christian character. It is tempting for Christian women to let go of friends whom they don’t relate to theologically, but I believe this to be a mistake.
Both egalitarian theology and complementarian theology are flawed to some degree because they were both formulated by human beings. Both believe they are being faithful to the Scriptures and both have a high view of the Bible. It is good to challenge each other, because our ultimate goal as Christians should be to find and stand on the truth of God’s Holy Word.
I like how the Apostle Paul puts it,
“Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much (1 Corinthians 8:2 NLT).”
The “Marys” of the Church have been sitting at the feet of Jesus for a long time and many of their hearts are burning with a message. They sense a calling to preach to both men and women. They have the giftings to lead all of God’s people, despite gender or age bracket. They want to be free to “break the rules” of cultural and religious tradition and do what Jesus has put in their hearts to do. There seems to be liberty in the Bible for “Marys” to take after Judge Deborah (Judges 4), Apostle Junia (Romans 16:7), or Deacon Phoebe (Romans 16:1).
Dr. Wright also notes concerning the “Mary and Martha narrative,”
No doubt, is part at least of the reason why we find so many women in positions of leadership, initiative and responsibility in the early church; I used to think Romans 16 was the most boring chapter in the letter, and now, as I study the names and think about them, I am struck by how powerfully they indicate the way in which the teaching both of Jesus and of Paul was being worked out in practice.
The “Marys” in the Evangelical Church today need both the support and sharpening of the “Marthas.” Women who are pursuing Christian leadership need affirmation from the traditionalists. They need to be encouraged to chase their callings even if their callings seem to be unconventional and make some Christians feel uncomfortable.
The “Marthas” of the Church may be quite comfortable with assisting men, keeping their homes, raising their babies, hosting parties, leading women’s Bible studies and basking in traditional female roles, but they too need support, sharpening, and acceptance. The “Marys” of the Church should learn to honor their sisters for holding fast to the traditional roles they feel God has called them to.
It is OK to be a “Martha” and it is OK to be a “Mary.” We don’t have to compromise Scripture to make room for all of us.Click To Tweet
Perhaps society and the Church has told women who to be for too long and it is time to be exactly who we are meant to be. There is freedom in Christ to love and serve as we were meant to love and serve. Gender roles are sometimes confusing and put us into ill-fitting boxes. It is even OK if a woman does not fit into the “Mary” or the “Martha” box.
My challenge to church leaders is to encourage women to find themselves and be true to who God designed them to be. Women are full image-bearers of God and we are complex creatures. We do not fit into a “one size fits all” dress and some of us prefer to wear leggings and boots over dresses anyways.
“Biblical womanhood” cannot be simplified or generalized because not one woman is simply or generally created. We were each born to shine in our own way, and only the author of life can define our individual purposes.
Let us spur one another on, let go of judgements and insecurities, and trust that we are all doing our very best to follow Jesus’ unique plan for each of our lives.