Part Two: The Example Set by Jesus Himself

The following is the second in a seven-part series.

It is a remarkable fact that Jesus chose only men to be apostles. If He had intended women to serve in the apostolic ministry someday as bishops and priests, wouldn't He have signalled this intention by choosing at least one woman to join the Twelve?

Some theologians have argued that as a Jew of first-century Palestine, Jesus probably just accepted the customary subordination of women in the ancient culture in which He lived. The idea that Jesus was bound by His ancient culture on any significant matter of faith or morals, however, is nearly impossible to square with the orthodox Christian faith. After all, Jesus was (and is) the divine Son of God incarnate, "Emmanuel" (God with us), the Word made flesh, living a fully human life in our midst. How could God incarnate, "the way, and the truth, and the life" for all humanity (Jn 14:6), be bound by His ancient culture and compelled into accepting anything false that was pertinent to His mission?

In fact, to be precise, He actually chose, from all eternity, the particular time, place, and culture in which He would share our lot and dwell among us. Furthermore, Israel was not just any ancient society. They were God's chosen people, whose culture the Lord had been fashioning for many centuries to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah. I am certainly not arguing that the coming of the Son of God to earth as a Jew of first-century Palestine implies His endorsement of every aspect of that religious culture, but it does at least imply that Jesus was not the unwitting victim of any of the blind spots of His people's social and religious life. If He accepted many of the customs and beliefs of His people, it can only be because He chose from all eternity to do so.

Other theologians argue that Jesus did not choose any women to be part of the apostolic band at that time merely for practical reasons are of no relevance today. They point out, for example, that Christ's initial mission was almost exclusively to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and that nobody would have listened to female apostles in that culture. Moreover, women would not have had the freedom to travel around Palestine preaching and teaching in those days as the apostles often were called upon to do (e.g., see Matthew, chapter 10). Perhaps Jesus was constrained by these social barriers and had no choice but to adhere to them so as not to jeopardize or weaken the overall mission of His fledgling Church. Pope St. John Paul II, however, called this perspective into question in His apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity of Women, 1988), section 26:

In calling only men to be his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time. Consequently, the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ's way of acting. "Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men" (Mt 22:16).

In short, we can hardly believe that the same Jesus who broke through the social conventions of His day by eating and drinking with tax collectors and prostitutes, healing on the Sabbath, touching and healing lepers, speaking to and befriending Samaritan women, and welcoming women as members of His travelling group of disciples, would really have been such a coward as to appease the social prejudices of His day on the matter of women in the apostolic ministry. If He had intended to call women to the pastoral leadership ministry of His Church someday, surely He would have seized the chance boldly to challenge the social prejudices among the Jews of His day against women in positions of religious leadership. He would have raised at least one woman to the rank of "apostle." But He never did.

Some commentators claim that originally the Twelve were meant to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, and since all of the heads of the ancient tribes of Israel were male, the symbolism would not have been effective if Jesus had placed a female apostle among the Twelve. But the apostles were surely meant to symbolize the twelve tribes of the New Israel, the Church, and what better way to dethrone the old, patriarchal order of the Jewish religion than to put a matriarch among the Twelve!

As for the argument that no one would have listened to a female apostle in Palestine in those days: Perhaps, indeed, she would have been mocked, derided, and persecuted, a sign of contradiction. But were not all the apostles called to challenge their ancient culture in various ways with Jesus' message, and to take up their cross and follow Him? To be a sign of contradiction and an object of persecution, St. Paul says, was a badge of honor for an apostle (2 Cor 4:1-18). In short, although Jesus, the Son of God (whose human nature was anointed by the Holy Spirit and "full of grace and truth," Jn 1:14), certainly did not share in the prejudices against women of His time. Still, He did not choose a woman to join the apostolic college - not because He was a coward or a compromiser, surely, but because for some reason it was not part of His plan for the apostolic ministry of His Church.

Even if it was merely for reasons of pastoral strategy, in the particular culture in which He lived, that Jesus did not choose any female apostles, what about after His Resurrection? If women were meant to participate in the Apostolic Ministry someday as bishops and priests, why did the risen Christ still not designate any women to join the apostolic band - not even when He told His disciples to extend their mission beyond Israel, to the ends of the earth, to the end of time (Mt 28:20; Acts 1:8), and not even when He called James the Just and (after His Ascension) Saul of Tarsus to join the apostolic ministry? No female members of the apostolic college, not one - not even after His Resurrection, when He commissioned His apostles to lead the mission of the Church to all nations, and all cultures!

Some commentators argue that there is evidence of female apostles in the New Testament. In Romans 16:7, St. Paul writes: "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me."

Some say that "Junias" could be the name of a woman, denoting a female "apostle," and, indeed, that some of the early Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom, read the text that way. Nevertheless, the name is ambiguous: Junias also could be derived from the masculine form "Junianus," just as, in the New Testament, "Silvanus" became shortened to "Silas" (Acts 15:40; 18:5). Moreover, none of the early Fathers of the Church who believed that this "Junias" was a female attributed to her any official, pastoral leadership role. Nor is it at all likely that St. Paul would have mentioned her in Romans as an apostle equal in rank to himself, or to James the Just, or to the Twelve, given the strict ban on women preaching and teaching in the Eucharistic assembly that St. Paul upheld in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 (Scripture passages that we will discuss in the next two articles in this web series).

The word "apostle," after all, like so many terms among the earliest Christians, could be used in a generic rather than a hierarchical sense (like the word "deacon," which was an official role in the Christian community, but also simply meant "servant," and could be used in that more general way as well). In other words, someone could be called an "apostle" when all that was meant was that he or she was a missionary or an evangelist - not that they were members of the apostolic college, the formal leadership group of the universal Church.

It is said that Jesus did not choose any Gentiles to be apostles either, and Gentiles were eventually allowed to become bishops and priests. So why not women? During our Lord's sojourn on earth, however, there were few, if any, Gentile converts and followers of Jesus - in part because Jesus largely restricted His mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Mt 10:5-6). He did not really open up the mission to the Gentiles until after His Resurrection, and just before His Ascension (Acts 1:8; although He treated the Gentiles He met prior to that with wisdom and love, e.g. Mt 8:5-13 and 15:21-28, and prophesied the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles: Mt 8:10-11 and Mk 13:10). Besides, He taught His disciples after His Resurrection for 40 days, a body of instruction of which we only have brief summary statements in the New Testament (Mt 28:18-20 and Acts 1:3-8). Evidently He gave them at that time more extensive instructions about the mission and life of the Church, which included not only the command to extend the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles, but perhaps also the inclusion of Gentiles in the pastoral leadership ministry of the Church - which may be why the apostles later showed no hesitation in appointing devout Gentiles to these ministerial roles.

However, there were any number of devout and capable female disciples whom our Lord might have chosen to be apostles, even before His Ascension - for example, St. Mary Magdalen, SS. Martha and Mary of Bethany, and above all the Blessed Virgin Mary. If any woman would have been an ideal bishop, surely it would have been her, the "Queen of the Apostles" as tradition has it, literally the Queen Mother of the Kingdom of the Messiah. But by our Lord's will, she, too, was not chosen to join the apostolic leadership ministry of the Church.

Again, this is all the more remarkable because Jesus broke with the social conventions of the Jews of His day by treating women as equal to men in every other respect: He welcomed them as disciples and friends, and even as travelling companions on His Galilean and Judean missionary journeys. But when the time came to institute the apostolic ministry, He chose only men: 12 at first to represent the 12 tribes and foundation stones of the New Israel, the Church, and then, later, additional men such as St. James the Just and St. Paul, when the Risen Lord began to extend the apostolic mission to all nations, even to the ends of the earth.

Jesus does not explain in the Gospels why He reserved the apostolic ministry to men. But the simple fact is that He did. And as we have seen, the best explanation for that fact is that He did so freely and intentionally, not because He was somehow bound by the limitations of ancient Jewish culture, or conforming to social prejudices against women in His day. To ordain women to the apostolic ministry today in our culture, therefore, would surely violate the example set for us by Jesus Himself.
Next Time: The Precepts of St. Paul

Follow the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2019


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