22 January 2012

Women Disciples of Jesus, Another Thought (Matt 12:46-50)

by Dr Mark Keown

As is well known, an ongoing debate in Christianity is whether women could be disciples at the time of Christ. Much of the debate revolves around the teaching of Paul and especially 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2. Jesus’ teaching and attitude toward women in this regard however, is arguably of more consequence when considering the issue.

While it is clear that none of the twelve apostles were women, I am persuaded more and more that he did include women among his disciples. After all, none of the Twelve were Gentiles or Samaritans either, and so it is a weak argument to say one can’t be a disciple on the basis that Jesus did not choose a woman among the Twelve.

The main threads of argument that persuade me that Jesus endorsed female disciples are these. First, when Mary in Luke 10:38-42 breaks social protocol and does not serve Jesus’ needs with Martha but chooses to take up the position of a disciple at Jesus’ feet listening to his words, Jesus quite radically commends her choice.

Secondly, there are significant women in the ministry of Jesus who are engaged in evangelism. Among these is the Samaritan woman in John 4. Jesus’ engagement with her is astonishing and potentially scandalous considering that he is a rabbi and she a woman, a Samaritan, and an unclean adulteress. On realising that Jesus is Messiah, she tells the good news to her whole town, and the whole place is converted. At no point does Jesus raise a question over her activity on his behalf. Then there is Mary Magdalene who is chosen by Jesus as the first recipient of his resurrection appearances, and sent to preach the good news of the resurrection to the men.

Thirdly, the term “disciple” is inclusive particularly in Luke-Acts Gospel, not only of the Twelve, but of a wider group of Jesus’ followers. This is seen in Luke 10 when another seventy (or seventy two) are commissioned by Jesus for mission. We also see Tabitha specifically labelled a disciple in Acts 9:26 (cf. Acts 11:26). As such, there seems a broader group of Jesus’ followers who are included in the disciples of Jesus. Priscilla in Acts of course springs to mind as a key disciple of Jesus. Interestingly she is not only named before her husband Aquila, but the plural verb in Acts 18:26 indicates that she was an active participant in the teaching of Apollos a budding dynamic preacher. Finally, when Jesus was told about people outside of the Twelve and discipleship group engaging in mission, Jesus attitude was permissive rather than restrictive (see Luke 9:49-50).

The other day I hit on another interesting verse I hadn’t noticed which has potential implications on the female discipleship question. When Jesus’ mum and brothers come looking for him and he is told that they are outside waiting to speak to him, Jesus’ response is most interesting. Jesus replies to the man, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He then points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:46-50). This is intriguing. While it is possible that Jesus was speaking only to male disciples as he pointed and so using “mother” metaphorically, it makes more sense to think that there were women among the disciples who would hear “mother” and understand it. Indeed, it is questionable socially that Jesus would call his disciples “mother” unless women were in actual fact present. The one question mark is why Jesus didn’t use the term “sister” when making the statement. On inspection this objection is unpersuasive as the statement is triggered by the arrival of Jesus mother and brothers, no mention is made of sisters. Likely then, “mother” draws in the female disciples as Jesus addresses the group. Further, “sisters” are mentioned in the latter part of the verse, strengthening this argument. If this is all correct as is likely, then Jesus had female disciples, no doubt including the women who travelled with Jesus mentioned in Luke 8:1-3.

While this is not a conclusive argument, it is arguably another thread in the tapestry of Jesus’ permissive attitude to women endorsing that they indeed were disciples and engaged in ministry from the very genesis of the Christian movement.

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