In calling only men as 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 the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.
— Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem
Pope John Paul II insisted that the choosing of males as followers was not simply Jesus’ way of conforming to the conventions of his time. In this letter, this fact of Jesus’ choice is a major argument against the ordination of women in our time. The insistence is that there is a theological reason for this choice, and that this theological reason cannot be side-stepped.
In re-reading this argument the other day, another choice Jesus made seemed to beg to be noticed. Jesus didn’t choose any gentiles to be his Apostles either. He only chose Jews – even Saul was a Jew. I will come back to Saul, who became the apostle Paul, in a moment because he dared to do something very courageous in confronting the conventions that had quickly formed among the early followers of Jesus.
Although Jesus did not offer specific teachings about the place of women in his following, he certainly had something to say about the fact that he had come only for the Jews. Matthew 15:24 has Jesus saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He commands his twelve disciples not to even go among the gentiles in Matthew 10:5,6 but only to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (The exception Jesus made in healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter only reveals that Jesus’ salvific mission was capable of expansion when faced with human need and great faith.)
What can be made of the fact that when it came to choosing his Apostles, Jesus not only chose men – he only chose Jewish men? After all, it was not Jesus, but the apostle Paul, who insisted that it had been revealed to him that salvation was for all and not just for the Jews. It was Paul who became the Apostle to the Gentiles. Eventually a theology was constructed to account for this accommodation, as Jesus’ early followers began to welcome gentiles into their communities and to baptize them. The revelation came to a human being – Paul – and then was translated into the tradition of the Church. Eventually, this revelation and its consequences became the official teaching of the Church.
The fact that we have a distinctly “Christian” hierarchy that is not simply a branch of Judaism is a direct result of this accommodation in the early life of the Church. Because of Paul, the mission of the Christian church was extended beyond the parameters that had been set by their founder, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus insisted that his mission was only to the Jews and he chose only Jewish male apostles to lead his followers after his death.
Leaders, over time, emerged from the Christian community which came to be composed of both Jews and Gentiles. After the destruction of the temple in C.E. 70, a division came between the Jewish and Christian communities and the communities of the followers of Jesus began to form hierarchies of leaders from within their own communities. The priesthood evolved and bishops were appointed. These Christian hierarchies evolved in a way that was separate from Judaism, eventually becoming an entirely new religion. That is, they became entirely composed of “gentiles.”
Jesus did not choose women to be his Apostles. According to Scripture, that is true. But, he did not choose gentile men either. Perhaps we should reflect on this when we consider how strongly the fact of Jesus’ choices is being used against the prospect of women’s ordination. We must decide whether revelation is ongoing now, as it was at the time of Paul – when he made a stunning declaration that forever changed the constitution of the Church.