Recently, I heard it said in a sermon that the early church was led by “unschooled, ordinary men”.
This idea that Jesus chose poor, uneducated fishermen as his disciples is entrenched in evangelistic teaching, and was something I heard often growing up in the church.
But is it really true?
The genesis of this idea is found in Acts 4:13: “When [the religious leaders] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished”. While the verse refers to Peter and John and probably had more to do with their lack of religious training than anything else, over the years this description has been applied to the disciples as a whole. (More on the nuances of the Greek words for “unschooled” and “ordinary” can be found here.)
The phrase “unschooled, ordinary men” perpetuates the misconception that Jesus traveled in the company of twelve male disciples of questionable abilities (remember those Jesus film parodies?). But when I read through the New Testament, a very different picture emerges; one I find to be more engaging and appealing and am guessing you will too. Here are five things to consider when you see the word “disciples” in your bible:
1. Don’t assume “disciples” means just the twelve apostles.
Luke 6:13 [Jesus] called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them whom he also designated apostles.
Luke 6:17 He went down with them [the 12 apostles] and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over….
Luke 10:1 …the Lord appointed seventy-two and sent them two by two ahead of him…
Luke 19:37 When he came near the place where the road goes down from the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God…
There are more verses about the crowds, but you get the idea. As Jesus’ ministry grew, his group of followers expanded far beyond the “original” twelve.
2. Don’t assume “disciples” means only male disciples.
Luke 8:1-3 records that “as Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another…the Twelve were with him, and also some women…Mary (called Magdalene), Joanna (the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household); Susanna; and many others…”.
Luke 23:49 tells us these women were at the foot of the cross: “But all those who knew Him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance… “
Luke 24:9-10 “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them.”
We would be remiss not to count Mary and Martha of Bethany as disciples since four visits to their hometown are recorded. (Luke 10 – Mary sits at Jesus’ feet; John 11 – Martha confesses Christ; Mark 14 – Mary anoints Jesus; Luke 24:50-53 – Jesus goes to Bethany before the Ascension.)
Some people are surprised to learn that women traveled with Jesus, but they joined his band of followers early on and stayed the course. (Read more about why the twelve apostles were all men here.)
3. Don’t assume the disciples were all of humble means or uneducated.
Jesus’ followers came from a wide geographic area since he traveled through both small towns (like Nazareth) and larger urban centers (like Sepphoris). It is likely that at least some of his disciples were rich, well-educated, or synagogue-trained.
Matthew 9:9 identifies Matthew as a tax collector, so he was probably fluent in the languages spoken in his area (Greek, Latin, Aramaic).
Colossians 4:14 tells us that Luke was educated as a doctor.
Luke 8:3 states that Joanna was the wife of Herod’s steward, so she would have lived a comfortable lifestyle on the palace grounds.
Luke 23:50 describes Joseph of Arimathea as a member of the Sanhedrin. The fact that he was able to provide a tomb for Jesus indicates he had some wealth.
Although some of Jesus’ disciples may have been poor and uneducated, examining scripture shows us that the disciples came from diverse backgrounds.
4. Female disciples helped to start the early Church.
Acts 1:12-14 tells us that the group “joined together constantly in prayer” included the apostles “along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”
Acts 2:1-4, 17-18 indicates that these women were also present at Pentecost, filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke in tongues. As Peter reminds the crowd, “on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit and they will prophesy”.
The narrative also indicates that women were included when it came to making leadership decisions. For example, in Acts 1 they helped the group choose a replacement for Judas.
5. Female disciples filled leadership roles in the early church.
Acts 16, 1 Corinthians 1, and Colossians 4 reference several house church leaders who were women (Lydia, Chloe, Nympha).
Acts 22:4 says that women were persecuted and imprisoned for ministry involvement.
Romans 16:1 shows that women served as deacons (Phoebe, in this case).
Romans 16:7 records Paul’s commendation of a female apostle (Junia).
Tryphena, Tryphosa, Euodia, and Syntyche are described as ministry partners of Paul, Phillip’s daughters were prophets, and Priscilla was known as the teacher who instructed Apollos more fully. (You can read more about the leadership involvement of women in the church here.)
I have to confess that there is something romantic about the idea of twelve ordinary, uneducated men starting something so miraculous and wonderful as the Church. But it’s even more amazing that God chose to use men and women with differing backgrounds, education, and social standing. How very like God!
As we continue to develop a better theology of women for the church, let’s remember to check our assumptions at the door.
Cartoon Credit: David Hayward, davidhayward.com