Mary, Martha, and Theology

Ah, Mary and Martha. Where would Christian women’s literature be without them? Their tale is so brief, so easily digested, and their relationship with Jesus packaged into a seemingly simple dichotomy: Martha the workaholic, and Mary, the girl who stops to smell the roses. The moral of their story? Don’t be so caught up in working for God that you forget your relationship with God. Short, sweet, to the point.

The trouble is, many of us have bought the idea that “Marthadom” is the best path to “biblical womanhood.” Whether through implication or direct instruction, many women in the church believe that the only way to please God with their femininity is to run themselves ragged in the service of others. Stopping to study the word for longer than the usual thirty minutes in the morning before the kids wake up is simply not an option for the Christian woman. A woman who chooses to pursue a degree in theology is  considered odd at best. A woman who earns a PhD or writes books on theology is even more rare, and could possibly face a bit of opposition from peers or from family. After all, if she’s busy studying the Bible in a formal academic setting, she might not get married, have children, or participate in the church after the usual fashion.

In short, we are told to be Mary, yet expected to be Martha. We often expect Martha of ourselves.

I will not bash the women who have made the sacrifice of service in the house of God. We are to be each others’ servants as members of the Body of Christ. We are supposed to love each other more than we love ourselves (Phil. 2:3). I will not demonize servanthood, not when Jesus washed His disciples’ feet.

But we sell ourselves short when we assume that the serious, intense study of theology is for men only.

I know I have had this thought. If men are supposed to lead, as we’ve been told, and if men are supposed to preach, then women don’t need to study the Bible with great focus. After all, we’re too busy with other things, like making sure the house is clean (which is also very important).

Putting our personal responsibility to know the Scriptures on the shoulders of our leaders, expecting them to spoon the truth into our mouths, is the easy way out. And no Christian is called to the easy way out.

Jesus praised Mary for her hunger for knowledge. Martha was only doing what she had been taught to do–when she was growing up, her brother Lazarus might have gone to the synagogue to learn the Scriptures while she and Mary stayed behind to learn the maintenance of a home. But in His gentle reminder, He told His friend that the “good portion” was available to her as well. He did not bar his female friends from a deep knowledge of truth. The Word belongs to men and women both. We are all welcome at His table to eat and drink the magnificence of the Word.

Yes, work hard at whatever your calling is, and by all means serve your neighbors, but unless you take the time to know God’s Word, to sit at His feet and LEARN about Him, you’ll have no idea what you’re working for.


38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”



  1. Tim · June 14, 2016

    Jesus affirming Mary’s choice must have seemed radical to everyone: theology is for women as much as for men. God wants everyone to know him well. What great news!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Teacherlovesbooks · June 14, 2016

    I am, by nature, a Martha. And sad to say, I have known myself to display some of her complaining spirit. It’s always been an aspiration for me to display more of Mary’s meek, yet eager, intimacy with Christ.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachel Potter · July 26, 2016

    One of my best classes in grad school was “Bible Teaching Methods for Women” (aka Expository Sermon Prep). The teacher started off saying that women preach too, just to a different audience! He treated the other girl and I just like the rest of the class. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary Stromer Hanson · April 6, 2017

    I wrote a MA thesis on Luke 10:38-42, reading carefully in Greek, considering variants, and the cultural background. I found a new story which solves the familiar dilemmas. The cliffnotes version: I do not find Mary to be on the premises on the day of that famous visit; she did not take part in the conversation because she was not present. Martha is in serious turmoil because Mary is gone, she does not know where she is, but Jesus does know. That is why she asks him, “Do you not care that my sister constantly leaves me alone to do the diakovein “deacon’s duties,” tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.” Otherwise, why didn’t Martha just ask Mary herself. Jesus knows where Mary is because she is following him in evangelism in the countryside (Luke 8:2). Jesus replies that Mary has chosen “good” agatha, and it will not be taken from her.
    The new lesson: Mary’s call is to engage in evangelism away from home, and Martha’s is to serve in their hometown. Also, diakonia can be much more than “table service.” See my book, The New Perspective on Mary and Martha (Wipf & Stock 2013).

    Liked by 1 person

    • E.A. Stephens · April 6, 2017

      That is REALLY fascinating; I have never heard that perspective before. I want to read your book now! 😀 Question though–what about verse 39? That seems to have Mary present in the room at the time, but my Spouse is the pro with Biblical languages, not me. 🙂


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