Skip to content

Gender and Discipleship

The original disciples were male—mostly young, mostly without strong family responsibilities. Imagine how women in this culture of highly restricted gender roles would have been viewed had they tried to become members of this group of twelve. Christ’s ministry would have stirred even more suspicion and anger than it already did. Women in Christ’s time were relegated to a peripheral role in discipleship, and since that time, with relatively few exceptions, women have remained on the periphery. Those who have made it to the inside role of discipleship have needed an unusual sense of calling and tremendous perseverance.

Mary the mother of Jesus was his first disciple, within the confines of her domestic role. Before she could even know her son, know what his ministry would be, know what she would suffer because of him, she accepted that his birth would have special meaning. We have only to read Ovid’s well-loved collection of Greek and Roman myths, The Metamorphoses, to understand that stories of virgin births in that era were already a stock part of culture. Many a girl who found herself pregnant before she had a right to be explained to stunned friends and family that a god had flitted out of heaven, surprised her while she was alone, and impregnated her with a god’s seed. How hard it must have been for Mary to be one of “those girls.” Yet, she chose to believe; Joseph chose to believe with her, and together they raised the child who would come to define for all time the meaning of discipleship.

Other women in Christ’s time also had to be disciples in the only way that women relegated to the side lines could, but to the extent they were allowed, they were faithful disciples. Mary and Martha lived under their brother’s protection, kept house, and did the entertaining. Christ and his male disciples came to rely on their hospitality. There they found a refuge from the crowds, home-cooked food, clean linens, and in Mary, Christ found an eager listener and a true believer in his ability to do the impossible. This same Mary also committed a socially outrageous act—one that had the potential of causing great embarrassment to a young male teacher and preacher. When one of his “real disciples” scolded her for pouring perfume on his feet and wiping them with her hair, Christ welcomed her attentions and blessed her for understanding that discipleship does not necessarily follow socially accepted norms (John 11 and 12).

By the beginning of the Christian era, well-known voices from St. Paul to Augustine were weighing in on women’s roles in Christian life, and these voices did little to make female disciples welcome in the mainstream of Christian culture. To his credit, Paul declares in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is perfect equality: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). He contradicts his assertions of equality when it comes to other descriptions of a woman’s place, and he doesn’t hesitate to remind women of their tie to Eve’s sin in order to keep them in their place:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be kept safe through childbirth, if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

(1 Tim. 2: 11–15)

Here a woman’s discipleship is confined to faithful silence, and always she must be reminded that she carries Eve’s sin so that she may never be a leader, may never voice her faith.

Given Paul’s take on Eve’s sin, it is no wonder that Augustine (354–430 A.D.), the most prolific and outspoken of church fathers, takes such a dim view of women’s place in Christianity. Arguing from the Garden of Eden story, Augustine also asserts that God ordains women to be subservient to men. Even in their state of bliss, Adam and Eve, were, according to Augustine, meant to live in perfect harmony, with Eve being obedient to Adam. Once sin entered through Eve, she became known as his temptress, and thus all women inhe”it the role of temptress to men and carriers of sin.1 The temptress must be watched over, held in check, kept from inflicting harm. How then is she to be a disciple? For centuries, the Christian church argued over the state of her soul, if, indeed, she could be said to have one. Women who wanted to serve Christ had to do so in the most unobtrusive and subservient manner possible.

To what extent do these early Christian views of women affect us as Christians today, especially as Seventh-day Adventist Christians? With the exception of a brief period during the formative years of the church when men and women both served in leadership roles, Adventist women have played secondary roles in the church. Until a quarter of a century ago, women could teach children’s Sabbath Schools. They could not be elders. They could be Bible workers, not ministers or evangelists. Even today, when it is common, at least in many large American Seventh-day Adventist churches to find women as elders and pastors, the church refuses to bring them into full discipleship through allowing ordination at the same level male pastors receive it: thus they are effectively barred from top leadership positions in church government.

Certainly we can argue that without access to these top leadership positions, women can be disciples of Christ—as indeed they can be. Anyone who serves Christ is his disciple, but we can only guess at the harm done to women and to the progress of the church when more than half its members cannot achieve the official insignia of discipleship at its highest level. We can point to any number of women pastors who are fully committed disciples of Christ and accomplishing great work for them. In my church at Pacific Union College, we have two women pastors who work equally with the male pastors, but until the church takes away that last hurdle these women, as with all other women pastors, must be extraordinarily confident of their calling and persevering in their discipleship.

Notes and References

1. Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1989), 113–14.

Marilyn Glaim chairs the English Department at Pacific Union College, in Angwin, California.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.