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Women in the Ministry of Jesus - January 18

The Ministry of Jesus and Women

Jesus is God living as a human being. He is the true image of God in a fallen world. Consequently, how he treats women is a significant revelation of how God intends for women to serve God in a fallen world. As he forms a community of disciples, women are included, but they are not appointed to the circle of the Twelve. Though Jesus treats women in significantly elevated ways above the culture in which he lives, he still does not select one as an apostle. Why? Would that have been just too much for his culture or was it an expression of a principle of male headship within the new community of believers?

There is a socio-historical research problem associated with the status and dignity of women in first century Judaism. Much of what is written about the status of women is derived from the Platonist Philo of Alexandria, the Pharisee Josephus and the Talmudic rabbinic writings which are much later than the first century. The contrasts drawn below reflect the distinction between Jesus and that particular understanding of Judaism. However, there is evidence that this was not the uniform view of women in the first century. There is evidence that some synagogues were not only founded by women but ruled by women as elders. There is evidence that women could divorce their husbands in some circumstances. Consequently, the situation is ambiguous in the first century and the rabbinic perspectives may only have become the dominant ones after the destruction of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that this rabbinic perspective was present in first century Palestine though it is uncertain whether it was as dominant as it later became.

I. Jesus Serves Women.

A. General Perspectives.

1. Jesus permitted himself to touch and to be touched by women. Contrary to rabbinic practice, he freely associated with women.

2. In contrast with the rabbis, who avoided using women as illustrations and mentioning them in their teaching, Jesus spoke about women and used them in his illustrations. For example, he used the experiences of widows (Luke 18:1-8; Matthew 12:41-44) in his teaching. Indeed, women are often set in favorable contrast with men as spiritual people.

3. Also in contrast to many rabbis, Jesus taught women and included them in his circle of disciples.

4. Jesus treated women as persons with respect and spiritual dignity. He did not regard them as inferior or lacking the image of God (Matthew 19:3-4). He applied ethics equally to men and women, including his discussions of divorce.

5. Jesus’ ministered to women as well as men (e.g., Luke 8:40-56).

B. Women in the Ministry of Jesus.

1. Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42): Women are called to be disciples and sit at the feet of Jesus. "To sit at the feet of" someone is a technical term for disciple (cf. Acts 22:2). Both Mary and Martha’s roles are valued, but Mary is commended for her interest in learning. Martha is not condemned but Jesus affirms Mary’s right to choose discipleship (learning, education) over homemaking. He does not oppose Martha, but blesses Mary’s choice as a good one. The priority is the "one thing" over against the "many things." Every woman must first be a disciple before she is a servant. Discipleship has first priority, just as it does in the lives of men. Priorities are reorganized in the kingdom of God.

2. The Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42). Jesus showed compassion to a divorced Samaritan woman. Responding with faith, the women went into the village and bore witness that Jesus was the Messiah to all in the city. The disciples were surprised to find Jesus speaking to woman (John 4:27).

3. Women Traveled with Jesus (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49). These women “followed” Jesus and ministered to him out of their own resources. Notice the different social classes that traveled with Jesus. Mary, the sinner who was cleansed of demons, would have represented a low class in Palestinian culture, but Joanna was the wife of Herod's estate manager. The text not only signals an inclusiveness of women, but also all kinds of women are included.

4. The Blessedness of Women (Luke 11:27-28). The blessedness of women is not fundamentally motherhood though it is a blessing. Rather, it is relationship with God. A woman finds her greatest blessing through discipleship rather than motherhood.

5. Women at the Tomb (Matthew 28:8-10; John 20:17-18). Women were the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus even though rabbinic tradition regarded the testimony of women as unreliable.

II. Why No Female Apostles?

A. Egalitarian Understanding.

1. Some argue that it was a function of practical strategy and cultural accommodation. Israel would not have listened to female apostles. Social conditions would not have permitted such a radical move on the part of Jesus.

2. If the absence of females among the apostles is an argument for the exclusion of women from leadership, then the absence of Gentiles or slaves among the apostles is an argument for their exclusion from leadership. Perhaps masculinity and Jewishness are continued at the beginning simply to provide continuity between the old and new covenants (e.g., Twelve tribes and Twelve apostles).

3. Some point out that Junia is called an apostle in Romans 16:7. In any event, the apostolate as the Twelve had a unique, temporary and foundational function in the beginning of the church.

B. Complementarian Understanding.

1. Apostles functioned as the central leaders of the early Christian movement. Consequently, spiritual authority was focused in them and they were appointed as authoritative guides for the church. Given male headship, such a role could only belong to males.

2. Jesus did not abide by fallen social conventions. Jesus was a radical in relation to social and cultural conventions. It would seem this is one place where Jesus could have reversed social conventions and pressed for the liberation of women. Jesus transgressed social barriers and conventions on many occasions which raises the question of why he did not do so in this particular instance. Indeed, many believe—as evidenced above—that Jesus was a radical reformer of widely-held attitudes toward women, but still did not appoint any female apostles. It seems out of character for Jesus to stop short of his ethical ideal for the sake of the cultural accommodation.

3. The choice of male apostles was intentional, even when women were availalbe for such a role. When it came time to replace Judas in Acts 1, the qualifications included that the person was male. Acts 1:21 literally reads: "which of these males (aner which specifically means male rather than anthropos which means humankind) that have accompanied us..." Women were present in that small group of 120--women that had followed him in his ministry. But only males were chosen to serve as apostles.

III. Is it Significant that the Word became Enfleshed as a Male (John 1:1, 14)?

A. Some Complementarians argue that the maleness of Jesus embodies the principle of male spiritual leadership or “headship.” His human nature was not generic, but male. He accomplished his messianic work through roles that were in the Old Testament exclusively male: priest and Davidic king.

B. However, Egalitarians regard the gender of Jesus as insignificant.

1. The maleness of Jesus may simply be a concession to the culture in which Jesus lived. A female Messiah would never have been accepted even though there was precedent for female prophetesses.

2. The significant point about Jesus is that he is true human or authentic human rather than specifically male as opposed to female. He lived his human life as a male, but it is his humanity that is important rather than his masculinity.

Questions for Discussion

1. What impresses you the most about Jesus’ treatment of women in contrast to the culture in which he lived?

2. Which encounter with a woman is most significant to you? Why? How does it connect with you? What does it reveal about Jesus’ understanding of women?

3. Which makes more sense to you—the egalitarian or complementarian explanation for the exclusion of females from the Twelve? Why?

4. Do you think the fact that the Word became flesh as a male is theologically significant? Why or why not?


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