On Jesus’ Choosing Twelve Males

I know that many of you wake up on Fridays eager for the weekly Karl Barth post. I hate to put you off another day, but today I have something a bit more pressing to take care of.

Yesterday, I posted the first of two responses I wanted to make to John Piper’s description of Christianity as a “masculine” religion. Rachel Held Evans has issued the summons for replies, and I think this is an important moment to inject a more biblically sound reading of gender issues in the church. Thanks, Rachel, for stirring us to positive response.

Today’s issue has to do with the significance of Jesus’ choosing of twelve men to be his disciples. This is one of several issues I take up in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?.

The story within which this selection of the twelve is embedded leads us to draw a very different point from Piper’s.

Jesus chooses twelve men. These twelve Jesus specially commissions. Jesus came preaching, casting out demons, and healing. The disciples are sent to preach and heal and cast out demons.

Jesus comes proclaiming and inaugurating the reign of God, and these men are sent out to participate in that coming. When Jesus feeds the 5,000, he hands the bread to them. They are the chosen. They are the insiders.

In contrast (let’s stick to Mark’s Gospel here), the women in the story are marginal. There are small handfuls of nameless women. They touch Jesus’ robe, they ask for healing for their daughters, they throw a few coins in a box in the temple, they anoint Jesus’ head with oil.

So while the women are coming in and going out, acting on faith and finding praise for their faith, it’s the boys who are getting it done!

Getting it done, that is, right up until the great, transitional moment in the story.

“Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ.” Ok, so far so good. Then, Jesus begins to tell them what this title entails: “The Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die. Then he’ll be raised.”

Peter rebukes Jesus. Jesus rebukes him back: “Get behind me Satan.”

What happens then?

Move on to ch. 9, and the disciples who had been empowered to exorcise are unable to cast out a demon. The disciples who had been given the charge to proclaim cannot overcome the mute-making spirit.

Later that same chapter Jesus again predicts his death. The disciples’ reaction? They walk along debating with each other about who is going to be greatest in God’s coming kingdom.

We begin to see what they don’t get about Jesus’ ministry: the cross turns the economy of the world on its head. They have a standard of greatness that entails a certain kind of leadership and power, but Jesus wants to transform their ideas. He wants them to see greatness in the cross and the child.

As if Mark, or Jesus, thought we might miss the point, we get the whole thing a third time.

Jesus predicts his death, and this time the subsequent response of the disciples is James’ and John’s request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand. Again, Jesus has to combat not merely the request, but the wrongheaded assumption about what greatness in the kingdom of God looks like:

Jesus called them over and said, “ You know that the ones who are considered the rulers by the Gentiles show off their authority over them and their high-ranking officials order them around. But that’s not the way it will be with you. Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all, for the Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people.” (Mark 10:42-44, CEB)

In the story, the disciples do not understand what is entailed in leading the people of God. They think it is about greatness and power rather than service and death.

And so, we have the group represented by Peter. The rock. Is being “the rock” a good thing? In Mark, the rocky soil indicates plants that spring up well, but fall away when danger or persecution arise on account of the word. Mark repeats the language of “falling away” when the disciples scatter, leaving Jesus to die alone.

The Twelve were committed to Jesus, and happy with him–but only as one who came with power. They had no faith in their calling to participate in his way of death. They did not have eyes to see that the ministry of Jesus turned the economy of the world on its head.

Shall we return to the women now?

How are we to assess these women who, in the narrative world, are outsiders, on the margins?

Unlike the disciples who are rebuked for being of little faith, Jesus commends these women as having great faith: “Daughter, go in peace, your faith has made you well.”

Moreover, there is one episode where Jesus ties a human inseparably to the gospel story. It is the episode of the woman who pours out oil over Jesus’ head. This looks to be a royal anointing! But when Jesus defends her he says, “Leave her alone, she has prepared my body beforehand for burial.”

The act of anointing prepares Jesus for burial: Messiahship and death are held together, and here is the only person in the whole story to get it. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

What does it mean to live at the margins, to be unnamed? How does this compare with being the twelve, the dudes, the insiders?

According to the economy of the world, with its measures of greatness, to be the twelve is to be exemplary, in the place to lead, to exclude others from leadership, to stand close to Jesus and guard the gates of who else can draw near.

And to the extent that we look to Jesus’ selection of them, and the apparent marginalization of the women, as paradigmatic for male leadership in the church, we show ourselves to be people whose minds have not yet been transformed by the very story to which we are appealing.

It is only by agreeing with the disciples’ way of assessing the world that we can see their “insider status” as a true insider status, to be replicated by other men in church history.

Jesus offers another way: You guys don’t get it! It’s the rulers of the Gentiles who lord authority over people. It shall not be so among you.

There is another way. It is the way of the cross.

There is another way. It is the way of the “marginalized” in the worlds eyes lying closest to Jesus in faith and understanding.

Are we really supposed to hold up as our model the “Satan” who denied the gospel of the crucified Christ, and claim that Peter is paradigmatic of the place of men as insiders and faithful leaders in the church?

Or should we not seek out the one who did the good deed for Jesus, holding together Messiah and death from her place at the margins? Should we not seek out the one who sought out Jesus merely to touch the fringe of his garment and learn from her what it means to walk in faith?

The irony of appealing to the boys as insiders is that in so doing we show ourselves to be adopting the boys’ understanding of power, privilege, and leadership in the kingdom.

And this view is roundly rebuked by Jesus in words of dissuasion and the work of the cross.

33 thoughts on “On Jesus’ Choosing Twelve Males”

  1. I’m with you on this all the way with one statement and question…you point out the lack of faith of the men and the fact that they abandoned Jesus…did not, however, those same men (along with I’m sure many women) come back and become pillars of the 1st century church with most dying as martyrs of the faith? It seems like this side of the debate is bordering on vilifying the 12 just as much as some would marginalize the women of the day…eh…just throwin it out there…swing away…:)

  2. Debating whether or not I should hold my tongue…

    OK, in brief: Mark’s outsiders are not only women like the woman of Mark 5, but also blind Bartimaeus who was healed and “followed” Jesus “on the way” of discipleship. Further, the women who remain watching from a distance at the end of Mark 15 are the same who, at the command to go tell the disciples “and Peter” that they will see Jesus in Galilee, say “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16.8), and there the Gospel stops (in my opinion). I think Mark’s point is to show that every one fails (even Christ in his cry of dereliction?), that God alone is faithful, not us. He raises the reader’s hopes at the end that maybe one character group — here, the women watching from distance — will prove faithful. And then they too fail, like Peter, like the male disciples. God remains faithful in raising Christ from the dead. That’s good news; I find it very Lutheran. And that’s a compliment.

    But what that has to do with ordination (and of course as a Catholic I have a different understanding of ordination and ministry than Protestants would) I don’t know. It feels to me like bringing Deborah into the discussion of women’s ordination; We’ve got St Joan of Arc, but she wasn’t a priest. Often people assume that ordained ministry (in either Catholic or Protestant traditions) involves power, but you can still have ordained ministry, priesthood, episcopacy, in which the ministers of whatever sort or level are understood as servants, as Jesus instructs the Twelve, the first bishops and priests in my tradition, in the precise passage you’ve quoted above. Obviously many priests and bishops have failed to be the servant leaders they’re called to be, of course.

    I think in these debates about ordination — whether women’s ordination, homosexual ordination — we spend too much time talking about sex, gender, and hermeneutics, and not nearly enough time talking about ordination in any substantive, theological way. That’s perhaps the place to begin.

    1. Leroy, I wouldn’t disagree with you about the fuller engagement of the characters in Mark. It’s not a “boys are bad, girls are good” story. In response to the most obviously central insiders, and the most obviously marginal (not even named) outsiders, the appeal to the 12 as establishing a gender paradigm for leading the church is wrongheaded.

      On talking about ordination in a substantive, theological way… well.. you’re probably not going to get a ton of help here. ;-)

      Thanks for chiming in!

  3. So what I’m wondering is what Kirk might do with the Weeden-Kelber thesis.

    As for St Peter, he was crucified upside down for his faith. I know. I’ve seen his remains.:)

      1. I’ve never been impressed ever since I encountered it. Part of it has to do with the low degree of probability of the accuracy of any of our speculative reconstructions behind a Gospel text (Paul’s letters are a different matter). Part of it is that the young man (neaniskos), who represents the divine perspective (he’s clothed in white, sitting on the right side, etc.), declares the effective rehabilitation of the disciples, and specifically Peter. If Mark’s writing to write off the Twelve, he does a poor job of it. Better, I think, to see Mark doing what I suggested above: making everyone fail so that God alone can justify.

        If one wants to go behind the text, I’d suggest starting with the Model Author/implied author, and using that as an index for the empirical author. Looking at a few things in the text, I’d situate Mark in Rome (pace Marcus, always with me is it pace Marcus), and then the theme of human failure fits pretty well, as it’d be comforting to Roman Christians who chickened out in the face of the lions. But again, that’s speculative.

  4. Interesting argument although you have not dealt with the fact that Christ chose 12 men. So they didn’t “get” what Christ was teaching. Point taken. This fact has really nothing to say about why he chose 12 men.

    1. Has much more to do with 12 tribes of Israel being redefined as those who are now followers of Jesus and very little to do with their gender.

    2. Even if Jesus had chosen women among the twelve it would not have been recorded, such is the depth of belief that women are inferior. That even today in the Catholic church only those with a Y chromosome are entitled to facilitate the most fundamental sacrament is a sin of pride (entitlement and the gluttony of power) and shows that the church still doesn’t “get it.” Access to the grace of God through Jesus’ sacrifice is meant for us all.

  5. Can you comment on what comes after the gospels as pertaining to the twelve, et al. It seems to me that one cannot take the part (Mark’s record) w/o the rest of the story – Acts. So during the initial phase of discipleship they’re with Jesus and have plenty of these doofus moments.

    But when Jesus leaves and sends the Holy Spirit, the game seems to change. In fact, it seems and even more inclusive club, as it were, where both the men and women spread the good news.

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but it struck me that you’re post may not yet be finished?

  6. I’m sure it’s been mentioned many times over, but it’s worth remembering that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the women first and entrusted them with the responsibility of proclaiming his resurrection to the men. In which case, these women were the first ones to “teach” the gospel to others.

  7. This is fantastic, Daniel. We are tragically STILL playing out the argument of James & John about who gets to have the place of privilege when Jesus is busy rushing to the margins, rushing to the disconsolate, rushing to the cross.

    To those who replied that in Acts and tradition outside Scripture the Disciples became the “pillars of the early church” I would reply that it is remarkable how many of those stories of the disciples getting it right post-easter have to do with the disciples listening to someone on the margin – Cornelius, the Ethiopian eunuch etc…

  8. I love the way Mark “bookends” the Mark 8-10 passages with the two healing stories…the first healing the man sees but not clearly just like Peter,,,,a great progression

  9. I very much enjoyed this post from the perspective that it brought an insight into the gospel of Mark. However, the statement in no way addresses the issue raised by John Piper. While I would not call the gospel a “masculine” gospel, the underlying question is that of design. Has God created his families, his people, and his church to be overseen by men exclusively or not?

    I find it very hard to use the argument of “authority misused” means that Jesus never intended them to truly retain authority. I think “authority misused” should lead us to question how such authority would be properly used.

    To suggest that this in any way stands for egalitarianism is revisionist (just like many readings of texts to hold to 1950′s culture is revisionist). I would much rather people say honestly, as to an extent Rachel Held Evans has, that they find these texts distasteful to our modern worldview. This is honest, which is much better than revising the meaning of a text.

    1. Matthew, I agree that the NT isn’t egalitarian. When I lay out my position more fully (in my ch. on women in Jesus Have I Loved) I suggest that all the little indications of women doing more than they “should” in a hierarchical society point in a direction that the NT itself does not attain to.

      1. And in many ways I do agree. I find myself quite firmly outside of either camp by their standards. I haven’t yet read JHIL, though it is on my list, but will be excited to see your thoughts when that time does come!

  10. Daniel

    In an effort to avoid the elephant in the room (12 men chosen to train and lead)you get yourself into a sorry mess.

    Leroy points out some of the problems.

    1) You confuse calling and faith with leadership and authority.

    2) The narrative is finally that all fail, though I am happy to agree that the failure of the men is greater and more culpable – but that is irrelevant to the question. Both adam and Eve failed but God lays the blame firmly at Adam’s door.

    3) Your selection of people of faith is somewhat selective. Firstly both men and women are recorded as having faith. Secondly, in Mark, only one woman’s faith is commended and we are not told she had ‘great faith’. ‘Great faith’ is said of two in the gospels – a man and a woman – and both were gentiles.

    4) You confuse leadership and the nature of leadership – two different things. The nature/style of leadership says nothing about who should lead.

    The very weakness of the arguments presented further convince me of the rightness of male leadership. If this is the best that can be presented then the case must be very weak indeed.

    1. John,

      I think you are misunderstanding the argument.

      The argument is not that all men in the story are worse than all women in the story and therefore women should be pastors.

      The argument is addressing the particular issue of the significance of the Twelve for leadership in the church.

      In response, I compared and contrasted one other particular group of characters–nameless women.

      My point is that you cannot abstract the appointing of the twelve from the story within which they act out their discipleship and leadership. They fail dramatically at both. The story as a whole, especially in Mark, gives them a different role than “paradigmatic leaders of the church.”

      Asking “why were these appointed leaders in the first place” is an interesting question, and one whose answer will be colored by their failure. That they were chosen to extend Jesus’ ministry (not train as far as I can see in the Gospels) is not the elephant in the room–except insofar as their choice does not indicate them suitable patterns for later generations but rather indications of how thinking ourselves “insiders” will quickly show up our “outsider” status if we are not careful–or if we try to hinder others who do not fit our bill from enacting or fulfilling the kingdom ministry of Jesus (cf. Mk 9-10).

  11. Wow! A powerful message. Thanks for speaking out for those that some would disposess.

    Your new book is on its way to me and I cannot wait!

    1. P.S. I do see the NT authors as egalitarian, as I see Jesus teaching it as a Kingdom principle, altho of course it is not the highest Kingdom principle, love is. So I will be interested in seeing how your understanding is different.

  12. Just so I’m clear, this post is NOT about arguing for or against any particular view of women’s roles. This post IS about what not to do with the fact that Jesus chose 12 men. Is that right?

  13. Actually, I think in today’s culture, choosing 12 men, or 6 men or men in general is counter-cultural. Maybe it’s just where I live or something.

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