11. DISCIPLESHIP OF EQUALS
Mk. 15:40-41, Lk. 8:1-3
The phrase "Discipleship of Equals" is coined
by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. The question of “discipleship of
equals” is very important in the church to which I belong because it
becomes one of the criteria of rejecting women for ordination, and a
barrier to partnership between men and women in the church.
Particularly, it is important to me because it is one of the roots of
my consciousness of inferiority, arising out of my experiences in
the church. First, as a woman, ordination is closed to me and all
other women. Further, we women are not given equal status and
pay. I ask why am I a secondary person in the church? I began to
question the meaning of the "call to discipleship." I ask myself
and my God whether I am called to minister to God and people? One
of my disappointments with the church is their answer to me,
saying "Jesus did not call women. Only twelve male
disciples are named."
It is important to raise this issue because on the
one hand the church takes the Bible literally to support its stand
against women's full participation in the leadership of the
church. On the other hand the male hierarchy uses this to further
its own ends. It liberally interprets the Bible to its advantage
in maintaining power and position. We therefore need a different
interpretation of the Bible passages on discipleship.
From our earliest days in Sunday School, we have
heard the story of the twelve disciples (all men) called by Jesus, who
left their fishing nets and other tasks to follow him (Lk.
6:12-16, Mk. 1:16-18). The question before us is whether
Jesus calls women to be disciples or not?
Criteria of Discipleship:
The criteria of discipleship is first of all
to be called by Jesus. This call is inclusive, irrespective of sex,
race and class. A disciple is anyone who denies herself/himself
for the sake of the reign of God and follows Jesus, according to Mk.
8:34, and who ever leaves everything to follow Jesus, according to Lk.
5:11. Still again, a disciple is one who is willing to serve, and
humble herself/himself to the service of God, and any one who lays down
one’s life for the sake of Jesus (Lk. 9:24).
On the contrary, Jesus puts demands on those who
would be his followers does not accept anyone who makes an excuse as
his disciple, for example, a man said, “Lord, first let me go and bury
my father.” Another one said, “I will follow you Lord; but let me
first say farewell to those at my home” (Lk. 9:59-62).
Elizabeth S. Malbon, in her article "Fallible
Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark," says that "disciples"
are ordinary people, imperfect, faulty, weak, uneducated, who do not
hold position in the society. Malbon extends her idea of
discipleship beyond the twelve and says that the "call to discipleship"
is both open-ended and demanding; "followership" is neither exclusive
In her further development of the “discipleship of
equals,” Fiorenza uses the Greek term diakonia, which means
literally “waiting at tables,” and which is usually translated as
“service” or “ministry.” In its original sense the term means
actual material service, waiting at table and other menial tasks.
The servant had a low social position, was dependent on her or his
master/mistress, and could not command respect. Despite the
negative social connotations of its original meaning, “service” has
become the key symbol for the revival of a “servant ecclesiology” --
selfless service is central to Christian identity and community.
Read Luke 8:1-3 and Mark 15:40-41
Luke and Mark record the ministry of women
differently. Luke says that women follow Jesus during the
course of his ministry, starting from his `Galilean ministry’ (Lk. 8:
3). In Mark women appear only in the later part of Jesus’
ministry, particularly at the passion and resurrection.
Both Mark and Luke affirm that whoever had any
connection with Jesus which led to their following or serving him could
be considered a disciple of Jesus, whether, she/he ate with him, were
healed and served him, were forgiven by Jesus.
Mark and Luke have different names of women who
follow Jesus. According to Luke, women disciples whose names are
recorded are - Mary, called Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s
steward Chuza, and Susanna. There are also many other women whose
names are not recorded, but who provided their resources to Jesus (Lk.
8:1-3). According to Mark, the women who follow Jesus are
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome
(Mk.15:40). Mary Magdalene is the only name common to both Luke and
Mark, and also named by John, indicating her prominence. Mark
also affirms that there are many unnamed women who follow Jesus from
Galilee to Jerusalem (Mk. 15:41). John has pointed out women with
different names, such as Mary the mother of Jesus, and her sister Mary
the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (Jn. 19:25).
Women at the Crucifixion:
In the most critical moment of Jesus’ life,
and when he was deeply worried about his death, one of the most
faithful disciples, Peter denied him three times. But the women
risked their lives by following Jesus to the mount of Calvary.
Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and
Salome and other women remained with Jesus at the time of the
crucifixion (Mk. 15:40-41). These were women who had followed
Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Though the twelve have forsaken Jesus, betrayed and
denied him, the women disciples, by contrast, are found under the
cross, risking their own lives and safety. That they are well
aware of the danger of being arrested and executed as followers of a
political insurrectionist crucified by the Romans is indicated in the
remark that the women "were looking from afar." They are thus
characterized as Jesus' true disciples and true relatives. Discipleship
is set before us as the model for followers of Jesus, both in relation
to Jesus, and in relation to each other.
According to Mark the leading male disciples do not
understand this suffering messiahship of Jesus, reject it, and finally
abandon him. The women disciples, who have followed Jesus from
Galilee to Jerusalem, suddenly emerge as the true disciples in the
passion narrative. They are Jesus' true followers who have understood
that his ministry is not rule and kingly glory but service,
diakonia (Mk. 15:41). Thus the women emerge as the true
Christian ministers and witnesses.
I would rather call women who witnessed the
crucifixion the true disciples, because with their own loving and
caring of Jesus they gave support till Jesus' death.
At the Tomb:
The women who followed Jesus in his ups and downs
kept on following him till the end of his earthly career. Women
spent money to buy expensive spices to prepare Jesus’ body for
burial (Mk. 16:1) to show their love and faithfulness to Jesus.
They were looking up to Jesus on the cross (Mk. 15:40), watching his
tomb at the burial (Mk. 15:47), and witnessing the empty tomb (16:1ff),
in contrast to the male disciples who disappeared from the scene.
Women: First witnesses to the Resurrection:
The two sources of Mark and Luke give different
names of women. Mark recorded that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the
mother of James and Salome (Mk. 16:1) went to the tomb early in the
morning. They were the first witnesses to resurrection.
These Galilean women were also the first to articulate their experience
of the powerful goodness of God who did not leave the crucified Jesus
in the grave but raised him from the dead.
The women characters shed light on what it means to
follow Jesus by serving, by being faithful to Jesus, by anointing by
encountering the risen Christ and witnessing the resurrection.
The women characters are especially appropriate for the role of
Mark and Luke are aware of female presence in
Jesus' ministry from the beginning to the end, but obscure it.
How hard it is for men to give credit to women! But what is
important for us to remember is that though men may tell us that women
are not disciples, Jesus did not limit discipleship to Jews or men
only. Jesus also called women and gentiles for the same
cause. Women experience good life and bad life for being the
disciple of Jesus, for example, women followers too were put to death,
hated for the sake of the gospel (Lk. 21:16-17).
We have seen in various ways that Jesus calls
disciples not on the basis of the status of the person who is called,
but rather based on the level of their response. For instance,
the poor widow who gave away her last two coins was observed by Jesus
and he used her as an example of faithful discipleship (Mk.
12:41-44). The hemorrhaging woman was one of the disciples of
Jesus because of her faith and boldness (Mk. 5:25). The
Syropheonician woman was given the privilege of healing for her
daughter because of her faith (Mk. 7:24-30). The centurion was
not discriminated against because of his race by Jesus, instead his
request of healing for his servants was fulfilled.
Galilean women were not only decisive for the
extension of the Jesus movement to gentiles but also for the very
continuation of this movement after Jesus' arrest and execution. The
unnamed woman who annointed Jesus with a prophetic sign-action in
Mark's Gospel is the paradigm of the true disciple.
Though the twelve are identified as men, through the
list of names taken over by Mark from tradition, the wider circle of
disciples are not exclusively males as we have seen. Just as in
the beginning of the Gospel Mark presents four leading male disciples
who hear Jesus' call to discipleship, so at the end he presents four
leading women disciples and mentions them by name. The four women
disciples - Mary of Magdala, Mary, the daughter or wife of James the
younger, the mother of Joses, and Salome - are prominent among the
women disciples who have followed Jesus, just as Peter, Andrew, James
and John are prominent among the twelve.
By understanding the true meaning of
"discipleship" we begin to liberate the oppressive androcentric text of
the Bible into feminist liberating interpretation. We begin to
admire the women characters depicted as followers of Jesus. The
more carefully we read the gospel sources, the more we are influenced
to believe that women are the disciples of Jesus Christ in his
ministry, because discipleship refers to the service rendered to Jesus
by his followers, both a male and female.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Are injunctions imposed on women in your church?
2. Discipleship of equals presents an alternative
model. How can women and men work in
partnership towards such a model?
3. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in
1. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Discipleship of
Equals, London: SCM Press, 1993, p.
2. Elizabeth S. Malbon, “Fallible Followers: Women
and Men in the Gospel of Mark” Semeia
28, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993,
3. Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals, p.
4. Malbon, p. 41
5. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 320.
6. Ibid., p. xiv.
7. Malbon, p. 41.
8. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 139.
10. Ibid., p. 320.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth S., Discipleship of Equals: A Critical
Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation, London: SCM
Fiorenza, Elisabeth S., In Memory of Her: A Feminist
Theological Reconstruction of Christian
New York: Cross, 1988.
Malbon, Elizabeth S., Semeia 28, Atlanta: Scholars Press,