The First Great New Testament Theologian was a Woman

“You know, there have never been any great women theologians.”

The speaker was my favorite seminary professor, and his words stung me. His statement, which was so disparaging and deflating, quickly morphed into a challenge I couldn’t ignore.

The stake my professor drove into the ground that day triggered a quest that changed my life and shapes my entire ministry. The importance of theology for women became the focus of my first book—When Life & Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference. That book is a manifesto for the female theologian, and by that I mean, not just a select few women, but all of us. In it I drive my own stake in the ground by making the case that “the first great New Testament theologian was a woman.”

Professors need to be careful about what they say to female seminary students. “You know, there have never been any great women theologians.” Click To Tweet

Mary the Rabbinical Student

Naturally my search for a great woman theologian started with Mary of Bethany—the Bible’s quintessential “thinking woman.”

My first task was to free her from the effects of generations of the habitual downsizing of women in the Bible. Her three-part story suffers from long-held negative assumptions about women that for generations have held us back and proven costly to the whole church.

Mary’s choice to sit at the feet of Rabbi Jesus identifies her as a rabbinical student (Luke 10:38-42). Her sister Martha’s objections juxtapose Mary’s behavior with the culturally assumed “proper place” for women in her day—the domestic sphere. Jesus defied all expectations when, instead of sending Mary scurrying back to the kitchen, he defended her in the strongest possible terms:

“There is really only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it—and I won’t take it away from her” (Matthew 38:42, emphasis added).

Mary’s growing theology—what she believed about Jesus—was put to the fiercest test in the death of her brother Lazarus. His death was an outcome Jesus easily could have prevented, but shockingly chose not too. The awkward meeting between the tardy Jesus and a weeping Mary was punctuated by her bewildered theological words,

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).

In her blinding grief over the death of her brother and Jesus’ failure to come, Mary, like everyone else, reached for her theology. As I often remind myself, “The moment the word ‘why?’ crosses your lips, you are doing theology.”

Jesus took Mary to a deeper level of trust through her dark night of the soul. Theology isn’t academic. Theology is life and the fuel that feeds our faith when our world collapses in on us and we are struggling to trust God. Mary learned through struggle that no matter how dark things got or how depressed she felt, the safest course of action was always to trust him.

She would live out this deeper theology in a radically bold new way when time was running out for Jesus.

Mary on Mission

It happened at a feast to honor Jesus. His enemies’ plot to kill him was coming together, but his male disciples were in denial of the terrible events Jesus told them were coming. Mary entered the room clasping an alabaster jar. That jar contained the secret of her mission: twelve ounces of pure nard. Nard was what the ancients used to pour on a corpse. It was the aroma of death, and everyone in the room knew it.

In a room full of men, Mary approached Jesus and anointed his body with the nard. Against a wave of criticism, led by Judas Iscariot, Jesus not only defended her actions, he interpreted their meaning.

“Leave her alone. . . . It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).

Against the common notion that Mary didn’t understand the significance of her actions, Matthew’s account brings clarity. He records Jesus expressing what her actions meant to him and linking them to the gospel.

“She has done a beautiful thing to me. . . . When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:10, 12-13).

If done in ignorance, Mary’s anointing was highly offensive and a terrible act of unbelief—a symbolic act of surrender to his enemies. But to Jesus, her actions expressed an unbending solidarity with his mission and to his gospel.

No one knows how much she understood about Jesus’ mission, but it is clear that she understood enough and knew him well enough to become his only disciple to say “Yes” to the cross.

And for a brief moment, Jesus’ isolation was broken. An ezer-warrior was standing with him in the battle. And we are witnessing a breathtaking example of the Creator’s words in Genesis that “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Was the first great New Testament theologian a woman? I rest my case. Was the first great New Testament theologian a woman? @carolynezer Click To Tweet

Not “Trying to Do Women a Favor”

When the Synergy Women’s Network passed the baton to Missio Alliance, and Missio leadership launched SheLeads, the men of Missio weren’t trying to do women a favor. They were and still are acknowledging that they need their sisters in Christ—their theology, gifts, and leadership—if they hope to become the men God created them to be and to do what he is calling them to do. They’re convinced they personally and the Body of Christ corporately are strongest when men and women serve God together. If the Creator’s declaration was true for Jesus, it is no less true for his sons today: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

Saturday, October 28, Missio Alliance will host the second annual SheLeads Summit for both women and men in Pasadena, California. If you can’t make it to Pasadena, you can watch SheLeads live-streamed in several different cities around the country or online for small groups or in the privacy of your own home.

To learn more and register, go here.

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