Glimpses of the Quiet Witnesses

I recently read a paper by the "out there" liberal church leader Francis McNabb which claimed (amongst other things) that the prayers of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane were speculative because all the disciples were asleep, and that most of the events surrounding the trial and death of Jesus were speculative because all the disciples ran away. The bible, in his view, clearly had many sections that were simply made up.

But were there really no witnesses?

Thanks to the cowardice of the twelve, the unnamed disciples of Christ that had followed him all the way from his home town of Galilee are finally named late in the gospel of Matthew. As the events around the crucifixion of Jesus are described, we suddenly read:

Ch. 27:55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons.

The invisible disciples throughout the rest of Matthew's gospel are named at last... there were many women who had followed Jesus. We can only assume that the details of the pivotal moment of the Christian story are only revealed to us by the faithfulness of these female disciples. Were the eyewitness accounts of the twelve the only material available to the gospel writers, we would have a very sketchy account indeed of the trial and death of Jesus.

Not only this, but each of the four gospels makes it clear that the first witnesses of the resurrected Christ were not the twelve, but the female followers of Christ.

For all of its gratuitous violence, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" actually does a wonderful job of revealing the women who were the only faithful witnesses to much of the Greatest Story.

Now all of the New Testament was written by men (with the possible exception of Hebrews, where Priscilla is one of the list of "suspects"). Within the legal systems of the day, women were not considered as valid witnesses. Nonetheless, the gospel writers had no other options but the testimony of women when describing the climactic moments of the story of Christ.

As one re-reads the New Testament with both eyes open for the ministry of women, the astonishing level of involvement in the ministry of Christ and in the life of the early church starts to be revealed. Peeling back centuries of church patriarchy, we discover Junias who along with Andronicus "have been in prison with me (Paul). They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." (Romans 16:7) We note Phoebe, who is described as a deacon/servant of the church in Cenchrea. (Romans 16:1) We discover Lydia, the first convert of Phillipi and whose home is the centre of the church in Phillipi (Acts 16:14, 40) We discover the elder, a chosen lady (II John 1). We discover the daughters of Phillip, whose prophetic gifts were apparently comment-worthy.(Acts 21:8 - 9). We discover Priscilla, (Acts 18), who along with her husband had a key role in teaching and developing another key leader, Apollos. Paul needs to devote considerable space of his letter to the Corinthians to describing appropriate head wear for women who were praying or prophesying in church (I Corinthians 11:5 and following.)

As an aside, it is worth noting later in the letter that Paul bizarrely orders silence for women , which many scholars now consider not Paul's schizophrenia but Paul's quotation of (I Cor 14: 34 - 35) then refuting of (I Cor 14:36) the Corinthian's earlier letter to him (I Cor 7:1). Other scholars suggest it forbids asking distracting questions of husbands, rather than prohibiting the right to public prayer and prophetic ministry implied by chapter 11).

It is timely to reconsider and rediscover the ministries of women in the New Testament church. Like the first century Jesus revolution, the phenomenal Jesus movements of our time enjoy the heavy involvement of women. The exponentially growing house church movement in China boasts something like 85 % female leadership. Likewise a lesser-known but exponentially growing house-church movement in the centre of India is largely led by women in their own homes. If we are to reach the world with the gospel, it is time to sacrifice some sacred cows, and the idea that first deserves throwing on the holy bonfire is the concept of a "church" in a specialised worship building led by an ordained male. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with buildings and ordained males of course, (God bless them all) but good missiological research suggests this imagination of church alone is not going to reach the world for Jesus.

May all the people of God, both men and women, be released from narrow imaginations of ministry, and spread the Best News of all to all the ends of the earth.


Lee Fischer said…
thanks Janet. So, are you leading a church out of your home too? lee fischer
Janet Woodlock said…
Not out of my home, but a mum's group of "seekers" is evolving into a rotating house church at the moment. There are relational links with a larger congregation I'm connected with... this has kind of evolved out of our church MOPS group. However, "sunday church" doesn't work for many of the women in the group, and so I feel we're being led to grow a more organic discipling community. No grand plans at this stage, but just following the Spirit as I go. I do think that multiplying organic expressions of Christian community is probably the best strategy for reaching the world (and the one most faithful to the witness of the early church) but I live and work in both worlds. It's all about faithfulness to our callings in the end. I hope to be a bridge-builder wherever people are following Christ, regardless of what that community looks like.

God's blessings on you!
David said…
Check out non stamp collectors "What Would Jesus Not Do?" at
Janet Woodlock said…
Hi David, nice to hear from you. I've been wondering what you've been up to. Did you make it to the Atheist Conference... you would have been like a pig in mud!

I'll look at the youtube clip sometime, but I'm under the hammer right now time wise and it's not short. Interesting bio of "non stamp collector" though. Not that non stamp collectors are usually so passionate about obliterating the evil of stamp collecting from the earth... but I guess we can let that go to the keeper!!!!

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