Soon afterward Jesus began a tour of the nearby towns and villages, preaching and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom of God. He took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases. Among them were Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s business manager; Susanna; and many others who were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and his disciples. Luke 8:1-3 NLT
Jesus lived at a time when the status of women in society was not equal to the status of men. The disciples he chose were all men, but Luke the doctor is careful to record that he had many female followers. Why did he not choose “disciples” from among these women? What was it that attracted them to him enough for them to follow him from town to town supporting him with their finances and their service? What kind of relationship existed between Jesus and the women he met?
The first thing that I notice from this passage is that “he took his twelve disciples with him, along with some women.” I do not get from this an impression of Jesus wandering through the towns of Galilee with a whole lot of male and female “hangers on.” Jesus’ actions seem more intentional, more planned than that. He took his disciples and some women. The word “took” suggests to me that Jesus chose these people, men and women, to come with him. The men he took were the followers he had designated apostles. As such they would become the future leaders of the Christian movement. The women he took were just as much his followers, but they had not been given the role of apostle.
This differentiation, with men given leadership roles, and women apparently left with support roles, causes all sorts of trouble for the modern reader in the age of feminism. Was Jesus establishing a norm here? Was he implying by his actions that leaders, his closest friends and followers, should be men and not women? Was he saying that women should only ever be servants, that leadership is male? There appears to be a certain group of Christians today who believe so.
But I find this hard to accept, because of two things: first, because of Jesus’ obvious high regard for women, and second because of how he thought about leadership, as being a servant role (which comes out later in his teaching).
Jesus’ high regard for women
In the chapter before this we read of how Jesus praised a prostituted woman as a model of faith for the Pharisees. The confronting thing here is that she was a prostitute. How could he lift up such a sinful person as an example to be followed?
The fact that she was a woman reflects more about the nature of society at the time than his opinion of women: then as now women were in many cases more exploited than men. Prostitution was a business that existed only because there was a demand. That demand was from men, and it was surely the demand that was the greater sin. People in a position of weakness and subservience are generally the suppliers of such demands, not primarily because of their sinfulness primarily but because of their need, their desperation. Few women (or men) choose prostitution as a career out of preference or passion. They are forced into it out of need, or exploitation. When Jesus lifted this woman up he was lifting her up as one who was oppressed and needy. He never denied that she was a sinner, but he saw her “sin” in a completely different light to the Pharisees.
And her sin was not that she was a woman. She was oppressed and needy because she was a woman, and that had led her into behaviour that was wrong. But that wrong behaviour was more the result of the sinfulness of men than the sinfulness of women. It was not because she was morally inferior, even if she was socially and economically oppressed in that patriarchal society. Jesus could not have treated her the way he did if he believed women were naturally inferior. His treatment of her indicates to me that Jesus had a very high view of women, including those who had found themselves trapped in the tragedy of prostitution.
Why not female apostles?
So if Jesus had such a high view of women, why didn’t he choose his apostles, and therefore the leaders of the early church, from among the “fairer sex”?
I believe that what is depicted here is simply a reflection of the society and culture Jesus lived in, which appears to have been a patriarchal rather than matriarchal society. Jesus was born into a particular historical and cultural context, and though he challenged people to think in unconventional ways, in this particular area, he followed the social conventions of the time.
But only to a certain extent. I suspect that having women at all – from varying levels of society – among his followers was somewhat unexpected, even slightly scandalous, at the time. And Luke makes sure to include this fact in his written account. He wanted it recorded for posterity that Jesus accepted women, as much as men, as his followers.
But then, as now, the relationship between men and women, especially in younger people, was complicated by sexuality, a reality of which Jesus was acutely aware. Jesus was a man, and as such a close relationship with a woman, or with a group of women, was not possible in that cultural and historical context. Even today close relationships between men and women are by nature different, and in some cases more difficult, to close relationships between people of the same sex. Close relationships between people of opposite genders are complicated by sexuality, so it was best that Jesus’ closest relationships were with men, to avoid such complications.
However, that Jesus was a male does not mean that God is male, though he is described as a father and the male pronoun is used in references to him. My understanding is that God is as much female as he is male, since both males and females are created in his image. Everything that is conventionally female comes from the nature and character of God, just as everything that is males does. God could have just as easily chosen Jesus to be a female, in which case the apostles would doubtless have been women. But it would have been hard for a female Jesus and female apostles to do what Jesus and his apostles did because of the way society was structured at that time and in that place.
God’s choice of Jesus being incarnated as a man – and he had to choose one or the other – has had all sorts of unfortunate results for how subsequent generations of believers have viewed the roles of men and women. In our cultural and historical context I can imagine that God could make Jesus a woman and achieve his purposes, but that was not as easy for when and where the historical Jesus came into the world. But I believe that we have to be careful not to draw wrong conclusions about the nature of men and women based on the historical social context of the Bible. It is a mistake to believe that God is male because Jesus was, as it is a mistake to believe that leadership is male, because the first apostles were.
Jesus and the status quo
It is clear from the Biblical records that Jesus challenged the normal view of women in his society, by ministering to them and loving them, indeed, by interacting with women in general in much the same way he interacted with men, even if he did not choose women to be his apostles. But he did not challenge the status quo of gender roles in society any more than he challenged other social structures, such as social inequality between the rich and the poor. He may have sowed the seed of the idea that all people are created equal, but he did not state it unequivocally, nor did he challenge people to defy the status quo and rebel against social norms, any more than he challenged his followers to rise and take up arms against their Roman oppressors.
Jesus loved people and people – both men and women – loved him. His love was not of a sexual or romantic nature. He loved people the way a father loves his children. The message of the Kingdom was as relevant and attractive to women as to men. Jesus healed and delivered women of their demons as often as he did men. To Jesus, people were neither male nor female, they were simply people. In short Jesus treated men and women the same, and so should we.