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Did Jesus have women as disciples?

Are women to be excluded from church leadership because Jesus’ 12 disciples were men?

Believe it or not, in 2013 there are still churches that believe this, who use it as an argument against the ordination of women or even allowing a woman to teach or lead. John Piper  and many other complementarian pastors argue that women cannot be pastors because the 12 disciples were men.

But Jesus did have women who were disciples, who not only traveled with him (a scandalous thing in the Ancient World) but seemed to act as patrons for Jesus. Patrons were upper class men or women who provided financial and social advocacy for people of lower classes. The patronage system in Roman culture was part of its stratified society. Could it be that is what Mary, Joanna and Susanna provided?

Luke 8 opens with a description of Jesus and his followers:

After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:1-3)

How would three women, in that culture, be able to support at least 13 men, “out of their own means”? In Roman culture, there were upper class and lower class citizens. A wealthy patroness (such as Joanna, who came from Herod’s household) would be of a higher social rank than working class people such as fishermen, or carpenters.

Scholar Jilian Spriggs writes:

“A Personal Patron would help people of a lower status through gifts of money, invitations to dinners, help in lawsuits or other protection. This patronage could continue over several generations of a family. Clients would show public deference to their patron…

Wealthy patrons would often give financial support to authors and poets, who would in turn acknowledge and commend their patron in their literature. Although patrons were normally men, wealthy upper-class women could become both public, and occasionally personal patrons, who would even have male clients.”

Typically, patrons or patronesses would receive their clients (beneficiaries) in their homes. But these women broke with social convention and traveled with Jesus and his other followers. We don’t know much about them, other than that they were generous, and had enough means to support Jesus financially.

Jesus could have snapped his fingers and provided for his disciples. After all, he got a coin from the mouth of a fish, and turned a few loaves and fish into a feast for thousands. So why did he accept the financial patronage of women?

What if Jesus wanted them to be able to engage fully in ministry, to use the gifts and resources he’d given them. He invited everyone to the table, to be a part of his ministry. Rich and poor, men and women. And maybe, to just mess with the prevailing culture of his day which did not value women. He didn’t just accept women, he elevated them. And he chose the path of humility, putting himself in a position of needing to receive charity or grace from these women.

While Luke’s gospel often takes the rich to task, and quotes Jesus as stating his mission here on earth included proclaiming good news to the poor, he acknowledges the role of the wealthy, and of women, in building the Kingdom of God.

What does this have to do with us today? Perhaps we need to remember that women were fully engaged in Jesus’ ministry, were invited to use their gifts to further the Kingdom, not from a distance but in the thick of things. My question is, if Jesus was so radically inclusive, why is the church today not following His example?

 

Another thoughtful post on this topic: http://simplychurch.com/why-didnt-jesus-have-female-disciples/

 

3 Comments

  1. Spriggs’ explanation of patronage and your suggestions on why Jesus would accept charity from these wealthy women are really helpful, Keri. He invited them to join his ministry by doing what they could with the resources God had given them. The only time I remember reading of rich men supporting Jesus with their wealth was when Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’ house for dinner and when Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus in his tomb. It looks to me like the women did more to support the ministry than men did.

    Tim

    P.S. There seems to be a theme on this for me. I had a guest post go up just yesterday at The Junia Project on not restricting women in their roles in ministry in the kingdom of god.

  2. I saw your article at The Junia Project–great job. Yes, I think we tend to gloss over the role of these women, who were of higher social status than the disciples, according to their world’s reckoning. They didn’t come to do the dishes, they came to equip the ministry. They were, in some ways, like a board of directors, yes? Scandalous thoughts, I suppose. I’m just curious about them.

    • I think Board of Directors is the right analogy, Keri.

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