There is some question about whether or not there were women disciples or apostles in the New Testament, and what the difference is between the two.
Although the words disciple and apostle are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to some of Jesus’ followers, they have two different meanings in Greek.
The word apostle ἀπόστολος (apostolos) means, “one who is sent.”
The word disciple μαθητὴς (mathetes) means, “one who learns.”
Students of religious teachers were called disciples. They would sit on the floor around a teacher or rabbi, and learn. The expression used to describe this posture was learning, “at the feet.” Paul uses it in Acts 22:3 when he describes being instructed in the law παρὰ τοὺς πόδας (para tous podas or at the feet) of Gamaliel. He is describing how he had been a Jew, zealous for God, before his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
In Luke 10:38,39 we see Mary taking the position of a disciple, learning at the feet of Jesus. This was a position only given to Jewish men, however, Jesus affirms Mary’s position as a disciple. The text says, “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet (παρὰ τοὺς πόδας ) listening to what he said.” This is the exact same expression Paul uses in Acts 22, so in the following verses, we have Jesus affirming Mary’s position as a disciple.
In Acts 9:36, Tabitha is also listed as a disciple. “In Joppa there was a disciple (μαθήτρια) named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor.”
There is no question that women were among Jesus’ disciples. They are often referred to generally as part of the large group following him, including Mary Magdalene and others. And then there are specific references like Mary at Jesus’ feet, and a disciple named Tabitha.
In Matthew 10:1-2, the twelve are referred to as both disciples and apostles.
“Jesus called his twelve disciples (μαθητὰς) to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles (ἀποστόλων)“
The switch from the use of disciples to apostles comes as Jesus is literally sending them out. They are “the sent ones.”
Mark 3, Matthew 10, and Luke 6 all record Jesus calling twelve of his disciples and also appointing them as apostles, to be sent out to preach and have authority to drive out demons.
In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the seventy-two in the same way that he sent out the twelve. Luke 10:1 tells us Jesus appointed seventy-two to go in pairs ahead of him to every town and place he was about to go. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
While the word “apostles” is not used here to describe the seventy-two, the rest of the wording is exactly the same as that used in Matthew 9 and 10 when Jesus appoints the twelve as apostles. And when the seventy-two return they announce, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10:17).
Whether or not the seventy-two were called apostles, it is clear that they did the work of apostles, at least during their journey in Luke 10. But some argue that the title of apostle in the gospels is specifically used only of the twelve who were sent out.
The twelve apostles are often referred to simply as the twelve, and are also frequently referred to as the disciples. The term disciples is also used to refer to a larger group of Jesus’ followers.
The distinction between disciples and apostles seems to be that some of the disciples, or followers, were specifically sent out as missionaries (including the twelve), and given certain authority to heal and cast out demons. Others were simply followers or students of Jesus.
The fact that Jesus chooses twelve disciples is symbolic of the twelve tribes of Irsael. It suggests that his ministry and message is for all of Israel. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the death of Judas, the eleven cast lots to replace Judas, and the lot fell to Matthias, so he becomes the new twelfth.
But after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter stands up and quotes the prophet Joel saying,
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17,18)
This signifies a shift, and opens up the presence and power and authority of the Holy Spirit, to both sons, daughters, young, old, men, and women.
The message of Jesus is now open to all people, not just Israel. After this, the restriction of “twelve men” no longer applies. We know this because when James is killed, there is no move to replace him as they had replaced Judas after he died. And we also see Junia, a woman, listed as an apostle in Romans 16:7. “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
So were there women disciples? Yes, absolutely.
They are mentioned repeatedly, and some are named specifically.
Were there women apostles? Yes.
After the coming of the Holy Spirit, the role of apostle, which may have previously been limited to twelve men who represented the twelve tribes of Israel, becomes open to everyone. There are no longer only twelve, and they are no longer only men.
Note: Apostles were not local church leaders, they were traveling missionaries. So whether or not women were apostles (which they were), has no relevance to the ability of women to lead and pastor local churches. Churches in the New Testament met in the homes of believers, and were led by the home owners. Many women led churches, including Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), and Lydia (Acts 16:14-15).
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