On “Restrictive” Women’s Roles

A woman. Jesus. The 12. Expensive ointment. Broken alabaster box.  Anointed head. Extravagant sacrifice.



“Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Mark 14:6-8)

I’ve pondered this story, and that phrase, many times over the past couple weeks.

Ability vs. permission

The word could speaks of both ability and permission.

In our traditional assemblies, following Biblical mandates, women seemingly have more restrictions than freedoms.

We are to be silent in the church, learn at home, and not usurp authority over men. In a nutshell…keep your head covered and your mouth shut.


Frankly, I get rather annoyed sometimes. Cooking for potluck and “being good with kids” are not spiritual gifts.

It is easy to focus on the negative. The rules and restrictions. What we aren’t allowed to do.

But then there is this poignant story recorded in both John and Mark. The story of a woman who did what she could.

Beautiful could

If I think the restrictions in our traditional denomination are confining, I must concede they don’t hold a candle to the restrictions placed on a first century, Middle-eastern, unmarried female! She had to be covered and chaperoned. She was virtually invisible and often subservient.

Mary infiltrated this male gathering, and she did what she could. She broke her alabaster jar, and poured the contents, worth almost a year’s wages, over Jesus’ feet and head. She wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.

It was beautiful. Extravagant. Generous. Sacrificial. Prescient. Worshipful.

People didn’t understand her generosity. They called it a waste. But, she did it anyway.

It seemed degrading, but it was beautiful. She did what she could.

Within the bounds of her society, she fully did what she could.

I am so very, very convicted.

Can or can’t

Am I doing what I can, or am I balking against what I can’t?

Even though I can’t vocally pray or share a thought during the meetings, am I doing what I can? Am I worshiping or am I distracted?  Praying silently? Focusing on my Lord? Tracking with the thoughts the brothers are sharing? Giving generously in the offerings? Learning from the sermons?

Even though I can’t preach, am I stewarding well the tasks I’ve been given? Acting with cheerfulness, diligence, humility, and faithfulness? Am I preparing (more than) adequately for Sunday school? Am I putting my all into my casserole for potluck? Am I regularly attending the meetings? Am I spurring on other believers to love and good works? Am I encouraging my husband and sons (and daughters) in their God-given roles? Am I reaching out to the lost? Am I loving my neighbor?

Even though I can’t lead the singing or give out a hymn, am I doing what I can? Am I singing? Am I playing the piano when there is a need?

Even though my public teaching role is limited, am I doing what I can? Am I daily in the Word, reading and studying and applying Scripture to my life? Am I engaging in group Bible studies?

Even though____, am I fully attempting to offer my body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is my spiritual act of worship? (Romans 12:1 NIV)

Maximized could

Jesus lavished praise on this woman. He saw her heart. He knew her ability.

He called her act a beautiful thing. He emphasized that she did what she could.

She did what she was able to do. She did what she was permitted to do.

Reading this story, we’d never assume that this could was a cop out. It wasn’t disparaging or denigrating. Her could maximized all the possibilities of her role, situation and resources.

The could wasn’t said with a sigh, focused on limits.

It was said with authority, focused on opportunity.

This whole story shows what Christ appreciates, values, and sees. He values people and actions that we neglect or marginalize.

I love that this story has been recorded in Scripture for the ages. I love that Jesus decided that this story of a woman would be included in the relatively few stories about women in the Bible. I love that it is a story about a woman who worshiped, and that it is intrinsically tied with the proclamation of the gospel. I love that this story convicts and challenges and encourages my heart, almost 2000 years later.

Sisters, I would remind us that Christ sees our coulds too. He values what we might disparage. He calls them beautiful, and elevates our acts to worship. What an amazing thing!

She has done what she could.

Bernadette Veenstra


  1. Avatar

    This post is very, very interesting. Two points in particular interest me a lot about it – the first is the statement toward the end that Jesus elevates the acts of women (their ‘coulds’) to worship; this statement seems to suggest that their ‘coulds’ aren’t acts of worship in and of themselves, but must be elevated by Jesus in order to be considered worship. Is it the same for men, I wonder? Do men also need Jesus to elevate their acts to worship, or just women? This is such an interesting point that I’ve been mulling over for quite some time.
    The second point that interests me so much about this post is the story that the author chose to back up her main point – that is, that women ought to be reflecting on and actively doing what they can in public worship and service, even if their roles are “restricted” such that they can’t do everything they wish or what they are spiritually gifted to do. The story in question, from Mark 14, in fact, doesn’t help support such an idea at all. The curious thing is that the author seemed to take into consideration some cultural realities of the day (referring to the fact women were covered and chaperoned, etc) yet then goes on to say,: “She did what she was able to do. She did what she was permitted to do,” and, “Within the bounds of her society, she did what she could.” This is simply not the case. In her socio-cultural reality this woman was absolutely not permitted to enter a male-only dinner party and initiate contact with a man she wasn’t related to. Furthermore, John’s telling of this same story (chapter 12) includes the detail of Mary wiping his feet with her hair – absolutely atrocious, scandalous behaviour from a woman at that time; this woman broke every cultural, social, and gender-related rule in the book for that day. Both the context and the original Greek language make it clear that Jesus’ phrase, “She did what she could” doesn’t relate at all to either permission or ability within her restricted role as the author suggested. Rather, it relates to opportunity – the opportunity to do what could be done for Jesus at a particular moment (prior to his death) in contrast to helping the poor which could be done at any time. A more contextually appropriate understanding of “She did what she could” is, “Why are you bothering her? She took the opportunity she had to do this for me. You have many opportunities to serve the poor; there was only one chance to anoint me for burial.” This understanding of the passage is confirmed by John’s record as well: “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” In other words, Jesus accepted as worship this woman’s act and memorialized it not because she restrained her worship within the proper boundaries but because she sacrificially put on display her honour of Jesus which he viewed as a prophetic act pointing forward to his own burial. To see in this story a woman who acted within the bounds and permission of society to do something that actually egregiously breached proper female conduct in the process is to foist a meaning onto a text that is incoherent in an effort to bolster a point that can’t be supported contextually, linguistically, or culturally.
    Interestingly, there’s a similar story told in Luke 7, which is perhaps even more scandalous, given this woman’s status in the community as “a woman who was a sinner.” This woman also breaks into the dinner party, anoints Jesus feet, weeps on them, kisses them, and wipes them with her hair. Again, would the author presume that this woman also “…did what she could within the bounds of her society?” It’s just not a meaning that can be attributed to the text in an way. There are no words to describe how deeply culturally and socially unacceptable this was. Yet she is also greatly honoured by Jesus because of her worship, this time because it came from a heart that “loved much.”
    So, if the author wishes to make the point that women ought to “do what they can” within their “restrictive” roles, I would suggest relying on personal anecdotes and reflections woven within the Brethren’s traditional interpretations of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 as the author has done elsewhere in this post and avoid any story of Jesus interacting with women; he is not a reliable ally in an effort to suggest that women ought only to act within certain restrictions. Jesus goes far beyond the boundaries of his society during his interactions with them and honours, commends, and affirms women who do the same with him and in their worship of him.


    • Bernadette Veenstra

      Bernadette Veenstra


      Again, thank you for all the thought you put into your comment. I had to go back and read my article, to remember what in the world I actually wrote. (It’s been almost a year. Whew! That went fast.)

      I’m not going to exhaustively answer your points. But here are a couple thoughts.

      1) I appreciate your careful exegesis. My goal in this article was more of a devotional thought, to encourage, than 100% accurate exegesis. (Think Charles Spurgeon, though I’m not in his class. =)) It is one application, but not necessarily the interpretation, and certainly not the primary application.

      2) That being said, I think you and I would have a very similar interpretation of the passage. I agree with just about everything you wrote.

      3) On the idea of elevating our every day acts into a worshipful act, I do stand by that thought. And I do not think it applies only to women. When I wash my daughter’s filthy feet after a day of her playing out in the dirt, it is not an act of worship. Not in and of itself. It is only an act of worship as “I present my body as a living sacrifice, and Christ changes that act to holy, acceptable, pleasing to God, my spiritual act of worship.” This is how I view every act in my life. Not to say I’m perfect. But everything gets a deeper value as it is yielded to Christ. Does that make sense? And, of course, that would apply to men too. I’m not talking about the things we’d traditionally call worship, i.e. singing, prayer, giving. I’m talking about the every day things…roofing, caring for our children, doing the mundane tasks we’ve been called to.

      4) I think I understand your final paragraph. Jesus is not the one we would point to about keeping women in their traditional roles? I agree. Jesus places so much value on women. Value that any ancient society, and a whole lot of modern ones don’t.

      5) I do disagree with your final paragraph, in the statement that the “author should rely on personal anecdotes and reflections woven within the Brethren’s traditional interpretations…” Frankly, I could care less what the traditional interpretations are-if tradition is wrong. I’m not beholden to tradition, but to scripture. On a similar note, my personal anecdotes mean nothing, if it contradicts Scripture. Scripture is the authority by which I try to live my life. I do try to dig into what scripture is saying, and if I come up with something radically different from the traditional view, I try to dig into why that is. And consider that I may be wrong. Because there’s a good chance I am. =)

      6) I did write on restrictive roles, and particularly the traditional Plymouth Brethren’s take on women’s roles, because that is the audience we are mostly writing. The Plymouth Brethren. I do realize that many denominations would interpret roles in a much looser way. For ill or nil.

      7) My final thought would be that Jesus said “she has done what she could.” Like I said earlier, I applied that in one way. I’ve also written for my own personal blog another whole article on a different application of that phrase. I have been faced with many physical challenges in the past 2+ years, my own and my daughter’s. It has put a whole new spin on what I “can” do. What I have the capability to do. But there has been a lot of freedom and grace as I seek to do what I can and to leave the rest. It was an eye-opening thing for me, coming from a church back ground of doing-doing-doing is how we please God.

      Obviously, again that is neither the interpretation, nor primary application of that phrase. But, it is how scripture and the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart, and so I shared it with my readers hoping to encourage someone else.

      Wow! This ended up longer than I intended. Thank you for emailing me. Your’s was the first comment we had on that article. Even though it was a year old. It is nice to know that someone is reading, and thinking deeply about what we/I am writing. Thank you. Please continue to read, and to comment. I love a good discussion.


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