This article is also available in Español here.
An argument often brought up in discussions about women in church leadership is that Jesus’ twelve apostles were all male, and, because there were no females among the Twelve, this means that women cannot be church leaders.
This argument is usually countered with the fact that, as well as no women, there wer also no Gentiles among the Twelve. So, if we genuinely want to use the Twelve as a paradigm of people suitable for church leadership, we should restrict leadership to Jewish men.
I find neither of these arguments useful in discussions on church leadership because they miss a critical point: Jesus’ earthly ministry and the choosing of the Twelve occurred before the church was in existence.
Jesus’ ministry occurred at a vital juncture between the Old Testament and the New Covenant – between “Israel only” and the inclusive, universal Church. The New Covenant had not yet been inaugurated when the Twelve were called. And so, at that time and at that place (Israel), Jesus chose twelve Jewish men to be his first disciples.
The Old Testament, Israel and Patriarchy
There are a few reasons why Jesus chose twelve Jewish men to be his chief disciples. Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry was directed primarily to the Jewish people within Israel (Matt. 15:24), and for Jesus to be recognised as a Rabbi he needed to have at least ten male disciples. With twelve Jewish male disciples, Jesus’ status as a Rabbi was never questioned, even by his critics.
There is an obvious symbolism with the number twelve. Jesus himself makes a connection between the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29-30); and he may have chosen twelve as a way of showing that his message, his ministry, and his New Covenant was for all of Israel. When Judas died, his place was filled to keep the number of the apostles at twelve, but once the New Covenant had been inaugurated, and when the church age began, with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and as more and more Gentiles joined the church, the significance of the Twelve was no longer relevant. The New Testament shows no evidence of any attempt to replace James after his early death (Acts 12:1-2) in order to keep the number of apostles at twelve.
Jesus chose Judas Iscariot to be one of the original Twelve, presumably knowing that Judas would later betray him (John 6:64, 70-71). Since Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve, this makes the argument untenable that Jesus intended these men to be some sort of precedent or paradigm for church leadership. The fact that one of the Twelve never became a church leader is an important point to consider. But there are still other factors to consider in the argument that the all-male Twelve means that women cannot be church leaders.
The Twelve assisted with Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry to the Israelites (Matt. 10:5-6 cf 15:24). It is inconceivable that the Jewish people would have accepted this kind of ministry from Gentiles; and, due to the poor status of women, there would have been considerable difficulties for Jewish people to accept healing and instruction from women. Jesus began his earthly ministry while the Old Covenant was still operative and while the repercussions of the Fall, which included the rule of men over women, were still in effect (cf Gen. 3:16b).
Nevertheless, while there were no women among the Twelve, there may have been Jewish women among the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1ff). Many women accompanied Jesus and the Twelve on missionary trips and supported the men from their own resources (Luke 8:1-3). Many women were among the most faithful of Jesus’ followers and so some, or all(?) of these women, may have been among the Seventy-Two.
The New Covenant, the Church and the Holy Spirit
Once Jesus had fulfilled all the requirements of the Old Testament with his death and resurrection, the old rules and restrictions became obsolete. Jesus commissioned his disciples to make more disciples from every nation (Matt. 28:19 cf Acts 9:36). These other disciples included Gentiles and they included women.
Gilbert Bilezikian has pointed out that:
“The great paradigm shift from old to new covenant did not occur at the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry but at its end (1 Cor. 11:25). History turned upon itself with the death and resurrection of Christ and with the subsequent coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. The first utterance made immediately after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit concerned a radical change in ministry roles. With the apostles at his side, Peter formally proclaimed that, because of the new era inaugurated by the coming of the Spirit, ministries that had been previously restricted were now universally accessible to all believers without distinctions of gender, age, or class.”
Jesus treated women with a degree of dignity, intelligence, camaraderie, and genuine brotherly love that was uncommon in those times. True equality would have to wait for Pentecost, however, when the Holy Spirit was poured out for the first time on all believers regardless of gender.
Apostles, Pastors or Priests?
The Twelve Apostles were all male, but most of these men did not function as local pastors or local church leaders. Most were apostles – itinerant missionaries with a leadership function. The argument that women cannot be pastors of churches because the Twelve Apostles were all male is illogical. Being a pastor and being an apostle is not the same thing.
Having said that, we do have the example of a New Testament woman who was an apostle – Junia (Rom. 16:7). Moreover, the New Testament gives us several examples of women who functioned in various leadership ministries in the early church, including being pastors and leaders of house churches.
Some denominations teach that the Apostles functioned as priests and that subsequent church leaders also function as priests. Under the New Covenant, however, there is only one priest – Jesus Christ our High Priest and Mediator. There is no need for any other mediator between God and his people (1 Tim. 2:5). The New Testament never refers to apostles or any other church leader as priests.
All Christians are agents of Jesus Christ by virtue of his Holy Spirit who lives within us, and we are all members of a royal priesthood. As members of this priesthood we are called to collectively, and individually, proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard.
The fact that the Twelve Apostles were all male cannot be used to bar women from leadership ministries for several reasons. Jesus called the Twelve before the New Covenant had been inaugurated and before the Holy Spirit had come on all believers. He chose the Twelve to help with his ministry to Israel within a certain cultural context. The fact that Judas was one of the Twelve means that Jesus must have chosen at least some of the Twelve for reasons other than church leadership. The “Male Apostle” argument cannot be taken to mean that woman cannot be pastors or evangelists, etc. It might be taken to mean that women cannot be apostles; however, the example of Junia as an apostle makes even this argument untenable. Moreover Jesus never stated that only men could be leaders. Jesus’ only instructions about church leadership are that those who lead in the Christian community should be servants not rulers. The fact that Jesus’ Twelve Apostles were all male is not a valid premise to exclude godly and gifted women from any kind of ministry function or role in the Church.
 The Twelve are only infrequently referred to as apostles in the gospels: “only once in Matthew and Mark, not at all in John, and five times in Luke . . . Many scholars [e.g. W. Schmithals (1969:98-110)] in fact argue that Jesus did not at any time call the twelve ‘apostles’ during his lifetime.” Kevin Giles poses the question, “Did Luke introduce the title ‘apostle’ in his role as editor of the historical sources he used, or was it already there?” Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians by Kevin Giles (Collins Dove, 1989) p. 155, 157.
 “To the present day among orthodox Jews the quorum for a synagogue congregation is ten free men; unless ten such males are present the service cannot begin.” F.F. Bruce
 Tabitha (Dorcas) is a woman specifically identified as a “disciple” (Acts 9:36ff); however Jesus had previously discipled women. Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’ feet – the posture and position of a disciple – listening to his teaching. Jesus said that “few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42 cf 11:27-28).
 New Testament women who were involved in ministry include Priscilla (with her husband Aquila) (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3-5, etc), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (with Philemon and Archippus) (Phlm. 2), “the chosen lady” (2 John 1) and “the chosen sister” (2 John 13), Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Junia (Rom. 16:7), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3), plus others. These New Testament women had significant Christian ministries which may have included house church leadership. Just as there have been good and bad male leaders, there were good and bad female leaders. Sadly, the church in Thyatira was being corrupted by the teachings and false prophecies of a wicked and immoral female leader (Rev. 2:20-24), as was the church in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3-4 cf 2:12). [My series on 1 Timothy 2:12 in Context here.]
 There is no real evidence that Peter was the first leader (bishop) of the church at Rome, or that the ministry of being a “priest” is passed on from minister to minister (known as apostolic succession.) Peter makes no mention, or hint, about apostolic succession in his letters, nor does he ever state that he was the first bishop of Rome.
 Paul refers to his ministry as “priestly” once, but he says this in the context of proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles – to those who do not know him (Rom. 15:16 cf 15:20). Christians should rely primarily on God, and not a person, for their forgiveness, comfort and guidance, etc. I do not believe that church leaders and other Christians are called to represent Christ to people who already know him.
 Kevin Giles makes this point in his excellent study guide Better Together, and adds that this rule is stated seven times in the gospels: Matthew 20:26-28; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43-45; Luke 9:48; 22:27. Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated this rule in John 13:4-20. (Better Together, Acorn Press, 2010, page 8.)
Image is from St Alban’s Psalter and is of Mary Magdalene announcing the resurrection to the disciples.
Apostles in the New Testament Church
Old Testament Priests and New Testament Ministers
Is it only men who can represent Jesus?
Paul’s Qualification for Church Leaders
Are Women Pastors Mentioned in the New Testament?
Kevin Giles on the apostolic ministry of gospel women
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
Jesus had many female followers – many!