The other day, I was in a conversation about the reason why only men could be priests and that was that the Twelve and Paul were men who were specially commissioned. I pointed out that the Twelve and Paul were Jewish, mostly from the Galilee and had distinctive accents. If one was to take their gender as a commandment, then one should be consistent and agree that their ethnicity is a vital component of what it takes to be a priest or pastor. I was told “that’s now how this works.”
Here’s something we usually over-look though. Jesus was a rabbi who had talmidim; a teacher who had students that we know as disciples. Scripture tells us that Jesus didn’t have just twelve disciples (talmidim), he had more disciples than John had (John 4:1), John 6:66 tells us that many of Jesus’ disciples deserted him because of a hard teaching, Luke 10 is the story of when Jesus sent out seventy-two disciples out ahead of him and when they returned they reported that even the demons submitted to them in Jesus’ name; there’s no knowing how many of these groups were women or if both grows were made up of just men – though Jesus was a really popular teacher, it’s likely that women were among them. Included in the talmidim was another group of followers: the women (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40-41, Luke 8:1-3 .)
Women could be talmidim, too. Many women followed Jesus, among them were:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James and Joseph
- The mother of Zebedee’s sons
- Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household
- And many others, supporting Jesus of their own means. (Think Proverbs 31 women who are also Christ-followers.)
It’s important to understand that in Jesus day, gender segregation was normal. An example of it existed even in Herod’s Temple, there was a court of the Gentiles, beyond which only Jews could go. There was also a court of the Women beyond which only men could go. Jesus’ early church met in Solomon’s Colonnade, which was located in the court of the Women. Soon the church grew too large and would be hosted in the homes of individual members. Aquila and Priscilla hosted a church in their house, Nympha hosted a church in her house, Acts 12 tells us that after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, he went to house of Mary, the mother of John, also called Mark where many had gathered and were praying for him. Rhoda recognized his voice and ran to tell the others that Peter was at the door. Paul also met with the brothers and sisters at Lydia’s house. 2nd John was also written to a lady elder in charge of the church that met with her. We need to understand that hospitality was one of the ancient world’s most important virtues. Hebrews 13:2 reminded them: ” Do not forget to show hospitality tostrangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hospitality was so very important that men and women had specific duties as hosts and hostesses. A rule preventing women from speaking or interacting with men would limit their ability to be a proper hostess. Can you imagine how Esther’s banquets would have turned out if Esther herself were not permitted to speak a work in the presence of her two guests? What about the story of Mary and Martha if neither could speak? By choosing to sit at Jesus’ feet, Mary was sitting alongside her fellow talmidim, learning from Jesus. Jesus told Martha that she had chosen the better thing.
In Jesus’ day, a minimum of ten men was considered a minyan – the minimum number of people needed in order to have an official congregation for preaching, teaching, etc. particularly in synogogues. By calling twelve disciples, Jesus could always be sure that no matter how many other disciples he had or sent out, he would have more than enough with him at all times so that he could teach in any synogogue he happened to come across in his travels. It’s true that women weren’t forbidden from reading the sacred scrolls, however, it was considered disrespectful for the women to be capable of reading and to suggest that the men could not read the sacred scrolls. It was not unusual for women to come to listen to teachers, it was even encouraged if they had the time. But that was the limit of what was typically allowed. Jesus once noted where ‘two or three are gathered’ God is there. I don’t think he meant it as it takes two or three men for God to officially be present a church in order for it to be valid. I think women are included.
So here’s the thing – by saying that only men can be priests because Jesus chose only the Twelve (and Paul) and commissioned them means that we’re selectively ignoring the culture in question – of the rabbi / talmidim relationship. We’ve had to point out that Matthias, Judas’ replacement wasn’t exactly called like the rest. That Paul didn’t meet Jesus until after his death and Resurrection, and didn’t spent a few years on the road with him – learning from him. We would have to invalidate the life and experiences of Matthias’ fellow second-tier followers of Jesus – like the seventy-two and the women. Sure, the seventy-two were commissioned, but we can’t be sure that they were all men … if women were indeed among them, then they would have no reason not to prevent women from being priests or pastors. We can see from the history of the early church, that men and women had a complementary leadership structure. Clement and Grapte both were to be given a copy of a letter so that Clement could teach the men and their families and Grapte could teach the widows and the orphans. The Order of the Widows was listed as sitting among the clergy with the presbyters and deacons and other leaders. An imperial governor once had two deaconesses brought to him for questioning. In fact, one could say that early Christianity flourished in part due to the active leadership role women provided the fledgling church. Jesus said that anyone who obeyed him could be his talmidim, and his talmidim became the leaders of his church, so it seems to me that women being leaders in church is the natural result of Jesus’ teachings.