Twelve Extraordinary Women
One of the unique features of the Bible is the way it exalts women. Far from ever demeaning or belittling women, Scripture often seems to go out of the way to pay homage to them, to ennoble their roles in society and family, to acknowledge the importance of their influence, and to exalt the virtues of women who were particularly godly examples.
From the very first chapter of the Bible, we are taught that women, like men, bear the stamp of God’s own image (Gen. 1:27; 5:1–2). Women play prominent roles in many key biblical narratives. Wives are seen as venerated partners and cherished companions to their husbands, not merely slaves or pieces of household furniture (Gen. 2:20–24; Prov. 19:14; Eccl. 9:9). At Sinai, God commanded children to honor both father and mother (Ex. 20:12). That was a revolutionary concept in an era when most pagan cultures were dominated by men who ruled their households with an iron fist while women were usually regarded as lesser creatures—mere servants to men.
Of course, the Bible recognizes divinely ordained role distinctions between men and women—many of which are perfectly evident from the circumstances of creation alone. For example, women have a unique and vital role in childbearing and nurturing little ones. Women themselves also have a particular need for support and protection, because physically, they are “weaker vessels” (1 Peter 3:7 NKJV). Scripture establishes the proper order in the family and in the church accordingly, assigning the duties of headship and protection in the home to husbands (Eph. 5:23) and appointing men in the church to the teaching and leadership roles (1 Tim. 2:11–15).
Yet women are by no means marginalized or relegated to any second-class status (Gal. 3:28). On the contrary, Scripture seems to set women apart for special honor (1 Peter 3:7). Husbands are commanded to love their wives sacrificially, as Christ loves the church—even, if necessary, at the cost of their own lives (Eph. 5:25–31). The Bible acknowledges and celebrates the priceless value of a virtuous woman (Prov. 12:4; 31:10; 1 Cor. 11:7). In other words, from cover to cover, the Bible portrays women as extraordinary.
The biblical accounts of the patriarchs always give due distinction to their wives. Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel all loom large in the Genesis account of God’s dealings with their husbands. Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, was both a prophetess and a songwriter—and in Micah 6:4, God Himself honors her alongside her brothers as one of the nation’s leaders during the Exodus. Deborah, also a prophetess, was a judge in Israel prior to the monarchy (Judg. 4:4). Scriptural accounts of family life often put wives in the position of wise counselors to their husbands (Judg. 13:23; 2 Kings 4:8–10). When Solomon became king, he publicly paid homage to his mother, standing when she entered his presence, then bowing to her before he sat on his throne (1 Kings 2:19). Sarah and Rahab are expressly named among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Moses’ mother (Jochebed) is included as well by implication (v. 23). In Proverbs, wisdom is personified as a woman. The New Testament church is likewise represented as a woman, the bride of Christ.
In the social and religious life of Israel and the New Testament church, women were never relegated to the background. They partook with men in all the feasts and public worship of Israel (Deut. 16:14; Neh. 8:2–3). Women were not required to be veiled or silent in the public square, as they are in some Middle Eastern cultures even today (Gen. 12:14; 24:16; 1 Sam. 1:12). Mothers (not merely fathers) shared teaching responsibilities and authority over their children (Prov. 1:8; 6:20). Women could even be landowners in Israel (Num. 27:8; Prov. 31:16). In fact, wives were expected to administer many of the affairs of their own households (Prov. 14:1; 1 Tim. 5:9–10, 14).
All of that stands in sharp contrast to the way other ancient cultures routinely degraded and debased women. Women in pagan societies during biblical times were often treated with little more dignity than animals. Some of the best-known Greek philosophers—considered the brightest minds of their era—taught that women are inferior creatures by nature. Even in the Roman Empire (perhaps the very pinnacle of pre-Christian civilization) women were usually regarded as mere chattel—personal possessions of their husbands or fathers, with hardly any better standing than household slaves. That, once again, was vastly different from the Hebrew (and biblical) concepts of marriage as a joint inheritance, and parenthood as a partnership where both father and mother are to be revered and obeyed by the children (Lev. 19:3).
Pagan religion tended to fuel and encourage the devaluation of women even more. Of course, Greek and Roman mythology had its goddesses (such as Diana and Aphrodite). But don’t imagine for a moment that goddess-worship in any way raised the status of women in society. The opposite was true. Most temples devoted to goddesses were served by sacred prostitutes—priestesses who sold themselves for money, supposing they were performing a religious sacrament. Both the mythology and the practice of pagan religion has usually been overtly demeaning to women. Male pagan deities were capricious and sometimes wantonly misogynistic. Religious ceremonies were often blatantly obscene—including such things as erotic fertility rites, drunken temple orgies, perverted homosexual practices, and, in the very worst cases, even human sacrifices.
Christianity, born in a world where Roman and Hebrew cultures intersected, elevated the status of women to an unprecedented height. Jesus’ disciples included several women (Luke 8:1–3), a practice almost unheard of among the rabbis of His day. Not only that, He encouraged their discipleship by portraying it as something more needful than domestic service (Luke 10:38–42). In fact, Christ’s first recorded explicit disclosure of His own identity as the true Messiah was made to a Samaritan woman (John 4:25–26). He always treated women with the utmost dignity—even women who might otherwise be regarded as outcasts (Matt. 9:20–22; Luke 7:37–50; John 4:7–27). He blessed their children (Luke 18:15–16), raised their dead (Luke 7:12–15), forgave their sins (Luke 7:44–48), and restored their virtue and honor (John 8:4–11). Thus he exalted the position of womanhood itself.
It is no surprise, therefore, that women became prominent in the ministry of the early church (Acts 12:12–15; 1 Cor. 11:11–15). On the day of Pentecost, when the New Testament church was born, women were there with the chief disciples, praying (Acts 1:12–14). Some were renowned for their good deeds (Acts 9:36); others for their hospitality (Acts 12:12; 16:14–15); still others for their understanding of sound doctrine and their spiritual giftedness (Acts 18:26; 21:8–9). John’s second epistle was addressed to a prominent woman in one of the churches under his oversight. Even the apostle Paul, sometimes falsely caricatured by critics of Scripture as a male chauvinist, regularly ministered alongside women (Phil. 4:3). He recognized and applauded their faithfulness and their giftedness (Rom. 16:1–6; 2 Tim. 1:5).
Naturally, as Christianity began to influence Western society, the status of women was dramatically improved. One of the early church fathers, Tertullian, wrote a work titled On the Apparel of Women sometime near the end of the second century. He said pagan women who wore elaborate hair ornaments, immodest clothing, and body decorations had actually been forced by society and fashion to abandon the superior splendor of true femininity. He noted, by way of contrast, that as the church had grown and the gospel had borne fruit, one of the visible results was the rise of a trend toward modesty in women’s dress and a corresponding elevation of the status of women. He acknowledged that pagan men commonly complained, “Ever since she became a Christian, she walks in poorer garb!”1 Christian women even became known as “modesty’s priestesses.”2 But, Tertullian said, as believers who lived under the lordship of Christ, women were spiritually wealthier, more pure, and thus more glorious than the most extravagant women in pagan society. Clothed “with the silk of uprightness, the fine linen of holiness, the purple of modesty,”3 they elevated feminine virtue to an unprecedented height.
Even the pagans recognized that. Chrysostom, perhaps the most eloquent preacher of the fourth century, recorded that one of his teachers, a pagan philosopher named Libanius, once said: “Heavens! what women you Christians have!”4 What prompted Libanius’s outburst was hearing how Chrysostom’s mother had remained chaste for more than two decades since becoming a widow at age twenty. As the influence of Christianity was felt more and more, women were less and less vilified or mistreated as objects for the amusement of men. Instead, women began to be honored for their virtue and faith.
In fact, Christian women converted out of pagan society were automatically freed from a host of demeaning practices. Emancipated from the public debauchery of temples and theaters (where women were systematically dishonored and devalued), they rose to prominence in home and church, where they were honored and admired for feminine virtues like hospitality, ministry to the sick, the care and nurture of their own families, and the loving labor of their hands (Acts 9:39).
After the Roman emperor Constantine was converted in 312 AD, Christianity was granted legal status in Rome and soon became the dominant religion throughout the Empire. One of the measurable early results of this change was a whole new legal status for women. Rome passed laws recognizing the property rights of women. Legislation governing marriage was revised, so that marriage was legally seen as a partnership, rather than a virtual state of servitude for the wife. In the pre-Christian era, Roman men had power to divorce their wives for virtually any cause, or even for no cause at all. New laws made divorce more difficult, while giving women legal rights against husbands who were guilty of infidelity. Philandering husbands, once an accepted part of Roman society, could no longer sin against their wives with impunity.
This has always been the trend. Wherever the gospel has spread, the social, legal, and spiritual status of women has, as a rule, been elevated. When the gospel has been eclipsed (whether by repression, false religion, secularism, humanistic philosophy, or spiritual decay within the church), the status of women has declined accordingly.
Even when secular movements have arisen claiming to be concerned with women’s rights, their efforts have generally been detrimental to the status of women. The feminist movement of our generation, for example, is a case in point. Feminism has devalued and defamed femininity. Natural gender distinctions are usually downplayed, dismissed, despised, or denied. As a result, women are now being sent into combat situations, subjected to grueling physical labor once reserved for men, exposed to all kinds of indignities in the workplace, and otherwise encouraged to act and talk like men. Meanwhile, modern feminists heap scorn on women who want family and household to be their first priorities—disparaging the role of motherhood, the one calling that is most uniquely and exclusively feminine. The whole message of feminist egalitarianism is that there is really nothing extraordinary about women.
That is certainly not the message of Scripture. As we have seen, Scripture honors women as women, and it encourages them to seek honor in a uniquely feminine way (Prov. 31:10–30).
Scripture never discounts the female intellect, downplays the talents and abilities of women, or discourages the right use of women’s spiritual gifts. But whenever the Bible expressly talks about the marks of an excellent woman, the stress is always on feminine virtue. The most significant women in Scripture were influential not because of their careers, but because of their character. The message these women collectively give is not about “gender equality”; it’s about true feminine excellence. And this is always exemplified in moral and spiritual qualities rather than by social standing, wealth, or physical appearance.
According to the apostle Peter, for instance, true feminine beauty is not about external adornment, “arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel”; real beauty is seen instead in “the hidden person of the heart .… the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3–4 NKJV). Paul, likewise, said godliness and good works are the real essence of feminine beauty; not artificial embellishments applied to the outside (1 Tim. 2:9–10). That truth is exemplified to one degree or another by every woman featured in this book.
The faithfulness of these women is their true, lasting legacy. I hope as you meet them in Scripture and get to know more about their lives and characters, they will challenge you, motivate you, encourage you, and inspire you with love for the God whom they trusted and served. May your heart be set ablaze with the very same faith, may your life be characterized by a similar faithfulness, and may your soul be overwhelmed with love for the extraordinary God they worshiped.
John F. MacArthur Jr., Twelve Extraordinary Women: How God Shaped Women of the Bible and What He Wants to Do with You (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2005), xi–xvii.