Twelve Apostles male men

Jesus and his disciples (A scene from the movie Son of God.)

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An argument often brought up in discussions about women in church leadership is that Jesus’ twelve apostles[1] were all male, and, because there were no females among the Twelve, this means that women cannot be church leaders.

This argument is usually countered with the fact that, as well as no women, there were also no Gentiles among the Twelve. So, if we genuinely want to use the Twelve as a paradigm of people suitable for church leadership, we should restrict leadership to Jewish men.

I find neither of these arguments useful in discussions on church leadership because they miss a critical point: Jesus’ earthly ministry and the choosing of the Twelve occurred before the church was in existence.

Jesus’ ministry occurred at a vital juncture between the Old Testament and the New Covenant—between “Israel only” and the inclusive, universal Church. The New Covenant had not yet been inaugurated when the Twelve were called, and so, at that time and at that place (Israel), Jesus chose twelve Jewish men to be his first disciples.

The Old Testament, Israel, and Patriarchy

There are a few reasons why Jesus chose twelve Jewish men to be his chief disciples. Jesus’ teaching ministry was directed primarily to the Jewish people within Israel (Matt. 15:24), and for Jesus to be recognised as a rabbi he needed to have at least ten male disciples. With twelve Jewish male disciples, Jesus’ status as a rabbi was never questioned, even by his critics.[2]

Furthermore, there is an obvious symbolism with the number twelve. Jesus himself makes a connection between the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29-30; cf. Rev. 21:12.14).

William G. Witt comments on this symbolism.

Jesus chose male apostles for the same reason he chose twelve apostles and Jewish apostles. Insofar as Jesus’ followers represent the new Israel, Jesus’ twelve apostles typologically represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and, specifically the twelve patriarchs (sons of Jacob/Isaac) from who the nation of Israel descended…. The twelve had to be free Jewish males, and not slaves, women or Gentiles, in order to fufill the symbolic function of their typological role.[3]

When Judas Iscariot died, his place was filled to keep the number of the apostles at twelve, but once the New Covenant had been inaugurated, and when the church age began with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and as more and more Gentiles joined the church, the significance of the Twelve was no longer relevant. The New Testament shows no evidence of any attempt to replace James after his early death (Acts 12:1-2) in order to keep the number of apostles at twelve.

Jesus chose Judas Iscariot to be one of the original Twelve, presumably knowing that Judas would later betray him (John 6:64, 70-71). Since Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve, this makes the argument untenable that Jesus intended these men to be some sort of precedent or paradigm for church leadership. The fact that one of the Twelve never became a church leader is an important point to consider. In fact, Jesus never refers to the Twelve as “leaders.” But there are still other factors to consider regarding the argument that the all-male Twelve means that women cannot be church leaders.

The Twelve assisted with Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry to the Israelites (Matt. 10:5-6; cf. 15:24). It is inconceivable that the Jewish people would have accepted this kind of ministry from Gentiles, and, due to the poor status of women, there may have been considerable difficulties for Jewish men to accept healing and instruction from women. Jesus began his earthly ministry while the Old Covenant was still operative and also while the repercussions of the Fall, which included the rule of men over women, were still in full effect (cf. Gen. 3:16b).

Nevertheless, while there were no women among the Twelve, there may have been Jewish women among the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1ff). Many women accompanied Jesus and the Twelve on missionary trips and supported the men from their own resources (Luke 8:1-3). Many women were among the most faithful of Jesus’ followers and so some (or all?) of these women may have been among the Seventy-Two.[4]

The New Covenant, the Church, and the Holy Spirit

Once Jesus had fulfilled all the requirements of the Old Testament with his death and resurrection, the old rules and restrictions became obsolete. Jesus commissioned his disciples to make more disciples from every nation (Matt. 28:19; cf. Acts 9:36). These other disciples included Gentiles and they included women.[5]

With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, a new covenant was ratified and a new era began. And at the dawn of that era, Peter proclaimed that ministry was not restricted according to gender or age.

“And in the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh (i.e. all people).
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
and your youth will see visions, and your seniors will dream dreams.
And indeed on my male servants/slaves and on my female servants/slaves
I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” Acts 2:17-18

In the church age, the Holy Spirit equips both men and women for ministry. In fact, in every New Testament passage that speaks about spiritual gifts and ministry abilities, even leadership and teaching ministries, there is no gender distinction implied or stated. The Holy Spirit gives his gifts as he determines without any apparent regard for gender (1 Cor. 12:11; Heb. 2:4).

Jesus had treated women with a degree of dignity, intelligence, camaraderie, and genuine brotherly love that was uncommon in those times. But true equality within the community of Jesus’ followers had to wait for Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out for the first time on all believers regardless of gender.

Witnesses, Apostles, Pastors, or Priests?

The twelve apostles were all male. These men were witnesses—witnesses of Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his death and resurrection. “Witnesses” is a word that comes up frequently for the ministry of the Twelve. (For example, Luke 24:48; John 15:27; Acts 1:8; 2:32; 4:20, 33ff; 5:32). The fact that women were not considered as credible witnesses in the first century is probably a significant reason why women were not among the Twelve.[6]

As well as being witnesses, the men were itinerant missionaries (i.e. apostles). Except for John who settled in Ephesus in later life, it is possible that none of the Twelve functioned as local pastors or local church leaders. So the argument that women cannot be pastors of churches because the twelve apostles were all male is illogical. Being a pastor and being an apostle is not the same thing.

Having said that, we do have the example of a New Testament woman who was an apostle—Junia (Rom. 16:7). Moreover, the New Testament gives us several examples of women who functioned in various leadership ministries in the early church, including being pastors and leaders of house churches.[7]

Some denominations teach that the apostles functioned as priests and that subsequent church leaders also function as priests. Under the New Covenant, however, there is only one priest—Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Mediator. There is no need for any other mediator between God and his people (1 Tim. 2:5). The New Testament never refers to apostles or any other church leaders as priests.[8]

All Christians are agents of Jesus Christ by virtue of his Holy Spirit who lives within us, and we are all members of a royal priesthood. As members of this priesthood, we are called to collectively, and individually, proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard.[9]


The fact that the Twelve were all men cannot be used to bar women from leadership ministries for several reasons. Jesus called the Twelve before the New Covenant had been inaugurated and before the Holy Spirit had come on all believers. He chose the Twelve to help with his ministry to Israel within a certain cultural context. The fact that Judas was one of the Twelve means that Jesus must have chosen at least one (or some?) of the Twelve for reasons other than church leadership.

The “male apostle” argument cannot be taken to mean that women cannot be pastors or evangelists, etc. It might be taken to mean that women cannot be apostles; however, the example of Junia as an apostle makes even this argument untenable. Moreover, Jesus never stated that only men could be leaders. Jesus’ only instructions about church leadership are that those who lead in the Christian community should be servants not rulers.[10] The fact that Jesus’ twelve apostles were all male is not a valid premise to exclude godly and gifted women from any kind of ministry function or role in the Church.


[1] The Twelve are only infrequently referred to as apostles in the Gospels: “only once in Matthew and Mark, not at all in John, and five times in Luke … Many scholars [e.g. W. Schmithals (1969:98-110)] in fact argue that Jesus did not at any time call the twelve ‘apostles’ during his lifetime.” Kevin Giles poses the question, “Did Luke introduce the title ‘apostle’ in his role as editor of the historical sources he used, or was it already there?” Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Collins Dove, 1989), 155 & 157.

[2] “To the present day among orthodox Jews the quorum for a synagogue congregation is ten free men; unless ten such males are present the service cannot begin.” F.F. Bruce “Women in the Church: A Biblical Survey,” Christian Brethren Review 33 (1982), 7-14, 10. (Source) It is unclear when, in the history of Judaism, the regulation about a quorum came into effect.

[3] Lucy Peppiatt includes this quotation in her book, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 24. William Witt’s book Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination, published by Baylor University Press, will be released in November 2020.

[4] Richard Bauckham writes,

… if we read on from Luke 8:1-3 in the company of Joanna and the other women, it will not be possible to read Luke 10:1-20 where Jesus sends out the seventy-two disciples to participate actively in his own mission of preaching and healing, without assuming that women are included among these disciples.
Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of Named Women in the Gospels (London: T. & T. Clark, 2002), 200.

[5] Tabitha (Dorcas) is a woman specifically identified as a “disciple” (Acts 9:36ff). However, Jesus had discipled other women too. Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’ feet, the posture and position of a disciple, listening to his teaching (Luke 10:42 cf. 11:27-28). And Mary Magdalene called Jesus, “Rabboni,” my master-teacher (John 20:16). See also Matthew 26:46-50. (More on Jesus’ female disciples here.)

[6] Josephus, writing in the late first century, expresses sentiments that were common at the time.

But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. Nor let servants be admitted to give testimony, on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.
Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15, §219

[7] New Testament women who were involved in ministry include Priscilla (with her husband Aquila) (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3-5, etc), Lydia (Acts 16:40), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Apphia (with Philemon and Archippus) (Philem. 2), “the chosen lady” (2 John 1) and “the chosen sister” (2 John 13), Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Junia (Rom. 16:7), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3), plus others. These New Testament women had significant Christian ministries which may have included house church leadership. Just as there have been good and bad male leaders, there were good and bad female leaders. Sadly, the church in Thyatira was being corrupted by the teachings and false prophecies of a wicked and immoral female leader (Rev. 2:20-24). A woman in the church at Ephesus was also teaching unsound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3-4; cf. 2:11-15). [More in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 here.]

[8] There is no real evidence that Peter was the first leader or the first bishop of the church at Rome, or that the ministry of being a “priest” is passed on from minister to minister (known as apostolic succession). Peter makes no mention, or hint, about apostolic succession in his letters, nor does he ever state that he was the first bishop of Rome.

[9] Paul refers to his ministry as “priestly” once, but he says this in the context of proclaiming Christ to the Gentiles—to those who do not know him (Rom. 15:16; cf. 15:20). Christians should rely primarily on God, and not a person, for their forgiveness, comfort, and guidance, etc. I do not believe that church leaders and other Christians are called to represent Christ to people who already know him.

[10] Kevin Giles makes this point in his study guide Better Together, and adds that this rule is stated seven times in the Gospels: Matthew 20:26-28; 23:11; Mark 9:35; 10:43-45; Luke 9:48; 22:27. Furthermore, Jesus demonstrated this rule in John 13:4-20. Better Together (Acorn Press, 2010), 8.

Postscript: 11th of February 2020

Sean McDowell quotes James Dunn and Craig Keener about the role of the Twelve as representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

[W]e should remember the purpose for which Jesus called 12 apostles. James Dunn notes: “The only obvious way to interpret the significance of Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples was that he saw them as representing (the twelve tribes of ) Israel, at least in God’s eschatological intent.” [James D.G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 2:206.] This same reasoning lies behind the emphasis in early Christianity upon “the Twelve,” as seen in passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:5 and Revelation 21:14. The calling of the 12 disciples was a prophetic sign that God was sovereignly initiating a new era for Israel.

Craig Keener writes: Although these witnesses were foundational (cf. similarly Eph 2:20), from the standpoint of Luke’s theology, such choices did not exalt the individuals chosen as individuals (hence the emphasis on their backgrounds, e.g., Luke 5:8; 22:34; Acts 8:3); rather, these choices highlighted God’s sovereign plan to fulfill the mission effectively … apart from Jesus, all the protagonists would be like David, who passed from the scene after fulfilling God’s purpose in his generation (Acts 13:36). [Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 1:662.] This may help explain why the Gospels pay so little attention to some of the apostles. The importance of the Twelve is found less in the individuals who composed the group than in the theological transformation their existence signified.
Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015),10.

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