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Reflections on Discipleship by Denise C. Hogan from 'Women Priests'

Reflections on Discipleship

by Denise C. Hogan

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 284-289.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(Denise C. Hogan received her Ph.D in theology from Boston University; her dissertation was entitled: ''Women and the Christian Experience: Feminist Ideology, Christian Theology and Spirituality". She was at the time teaching at Southern Vermont College in Bennington.)

Concluding an essay on women in the fourth Gospel, Raymond Brown takes a second look at the pericope of Jesus with the Samaritan woman. He reflects that had the disciples, who were amazed to find Jesus conversing with such a one, had the courage to ask, “What do you want of a woman?” (John 4: 27), we might not be so straitened to define woman’s role in the Church today.(1) This essay is a reflection upon Brown’s exegesis, with special reference to his assertion that Jesus included women as “first-class” disciples.(2) It is based upon the conviction that the implications of discipleship include two possibilities of vital importance for Christian women today: the possibility of sacramental ordination and the prospect of a fuller understanding of the meaning of partnership in the Christian community.

Discipleship, as Brown points out, is the primary Christian category for the author of the fourth Gospel.(3) Quite apart from “apostleship,” which in its technical sense connotes a specific office in the Christian community, the notion of discipleship is glorified by John, indicating as it does, not a special ecclesiastical charism from God, but a simple, wholehearted and humble following of Jesus in obedience to his word and fidelity to his example.(4) John’s Gospel seems to remind us, Brown says, that neither Church office nor Church structure is as important as the radical adherence to Christ which constitutes the sole criterion for participation in the reign of God.

With this in mind, we turn to a brief consideration of two instances of the discipleship of women cited by Brown as clearly evident in the fourth Gospel. This is followed in each case by an analysis of the implications of discipleship for Christian women today.

The first example of female discipleship concerns Mary Magdalene and has its basis in the allegorical parable of the Good Shepherd. John compares the disciples of Jesus to sheep who are able to recognize their shepherd’s voice when called by name (John 10:3-5). In the same passage, we are told, Jesus twice refers to the sheep as “his own,” the same phrase he uses to refer to his disciples at the start of the Last Supper (John 13:1).

It is of no small significance that John takes care to describe Mary Magdalene responding in the same manner. That is, she recognizes the risen Jesus when he appears to her (before all others)(5) and calls her by name. The Gospel tells us that it was then that Mary knew Jesus, and it was then that Jesus gave her a quasi-apostolic role: to go and tell the others—a task she eagerly and joyously fulfilled, using the standard apostolic proclamation: “I have seen the Lord!" ln this, Mary Magdalene is but a hairsbreadth away from satisfying the Pauline conditions for apostleship: seeing the risen Lord and receiving a commission to preach him to the world

This episode and its interpretation deserve closer examination. In receiving a direct commission from Jesus, Mary Magdalene, as the long tradition of the Western Church holds, was granted the honor of the apostolate. She proceeded to evangelize her “co-apostles” with the Good News of the Resurrection.(6) Further, she received her apostolic commission expressly on the basis of her faithful discipleship, and in exercising her apostolic office she fulfilled a genuine missionary function. This is of particular importance inasmuch as in the Palestine of that time, the testimony of a woman was not accepted as reliable. And while it may be impossible to conclude from the evidence afforded by this episode that Jesus intended women to be included among the sacramentally ordained, we are certainly warranted in the assumption that Jesus did intend that women preach—a function ordinarily reserved to the ordained. In commissioning Mary, Jesus abrogated the law and surpassed another of the “ancient juridical structures”(7) which served to hamper the realization of feminine dignity and forbade full female participation in public and religious activities.

Pondering this incident from the point of view of the Christian feminist one takes heart at the fact that at least some glimmer of hope exists for those women who are convinced of their call to the sacramental priesthood. Mindful of the significance of Jesus’ command to Mary, they can recognize in her the triumph of woman over her habitual consignment to a particular social category and particular functions in society and its institutions. The immanentist view of woman which confines and regulates her to a narrow sphere of existence is most clearly illustrated by the old aphorism that there is a “woman’s place.” That “place” is a field of operations presumably reserved for her in the divine scheme of things and corresponding to the fulfillment of a particular set of functions in the world of men. This kind of mythic thinking reflects the age-old tendency of societies and institutions to maintain certain traditional patterns of thought and behavior. This is done in the fear that challenging or changing such patterns is tantamount to inviting chaos and disaster by undermining the order which the traditions both establish and prolong.(8)

In studying the scriptural passage cited above, and with particular reference to the question of female ordination, we would do well to recall the report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission to the Vatican’s Doctrinal Congregation. This report stresses that Jesus’ activities and his attitude toward women should be examined in light of his intention to bring about an unmistakable “departure point” from the previous state of affairs; “the reign of God, inaugurated by his preaching and his presence, brings with it a new order and a full restoration of feminine dignity.”(9) Granting, as the Commission’s report also states, that the biblical texts are not principally concerned to define the role of women, we must still ask ourselves what they do reveal to us about Jesus’ attitude and intentions. Christians believe that Scripture constitutes the written record of God’s revelation to humanity. Dare we say that we have plumbed the depths of its divine message, particularly as it relates to the question of the role of women in the Church? The Church itself teaches that “. . . there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down . . .” and that “. . . as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth....(10) Recalling the exegesis of John which we have been considering and its explication of the concept of discipleship, including the full discipleship of women granted to them by Jesus himself, we must also ask whether the Church can afford to overlook such actions of Jesus and still remain faithful to his word. To insist that women cannot receive the call to ordination seems precariously close to an insistence that God cannot issue that call.

Further, since “theology rests on the written word of God, together with tradition,(11) it is of the utmost importance for the correct interpretation of Scripture that its limitations as well as its enduring truths be fully appreciated. The Biblical Commission expressed just such an appreciation in its recent report, with the reminder that in regard to the role of women, the biblical texts themselves are not particularly helpful. From the feminist point of view, this means that essential to the correct understanding of the texts is the recognition (with all its ramifications) that the revelation of God in Scripture is still expressed in human language. As such it reflects historically and culturally conditioned notions at the same time that it contains within itself the seeds of greater understanding. We have to remember also that Scripture scholars themselves tell us that the connection between theology and revelation is so close as to be at times indistinguishable. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza observes, ”This hermeneutic insight is far-reaching when we consider that Scripture as well as theology is rooted in a patriarchal-sexist culture and shares its biases and prejudices.(12) This does not mean, however, that Scripture is without value to us in coming to some understanding of Jesus’ attitude and, by implication, his intentions.

Christian feminists are willing to concede the merit of arguments which claim that the question of female ordination cannot be solved solely by reducing it to a matter of justice, as though ordination were a God-given right.(13) They are also mindful that the Church holds that “problems of sacramental theology, especially when they concern the ministerial priesthood . . . cannot be solved except in the light of Revelation,(14) and that the human sciences alone cannot suffice in these cases.

Nevertheless, these same feminists also recognize that the Church does use the findings of the human sciences in its approach to the solution of certain pastoral problems associated with sacramental theology. They wonder, too, why questions concerning the ministerial priesthood, more than questions concerning baptism, marriage or any other sacrament, are solvable only in the light of Revelation. The question becomes more pressing when we realize that the written record of Revelation is not without its sexual prejudices. The Pontifical Biblical Commission itself has declared: “It does not seem that the New Testament alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.(15) If the Mary Magdalene story has any relevance at all, at least a part of its message must be that Christian discipleship carries with it the further possibility of exercising the apostolic vocation in its fullness.

Turning to a second instance of female discipleship in the fourth Gospel we consider Brown’s treatment of the Mother of the Lord. According to the exegete, both John and Luke tell us that discipleship constitutes the true family of Jesus, and that his natural family become his true family through the grace of this calling.(16) The order of relation is reversed and a new order inaugurated, one based not on blood, but on faith and obedience to Jesus. The position of Mary in relation to her Son assumes a new importance and must be seen in a new light.

John speaks of Mary in only two instances: at Cana and on Calvary. In neither instance does he use her personal name. Rather, he refers to her as the mother of Jesus, his way of insisting, we are told, that her primary importance lies not in her maternal relation to Jesus, but in her symbolism for the meaning of true discipleship.(17) At Cana, her request is granted because Jesus is willing to anticipate the “hour” of his glorification dictated by God. He reminds his mother that his primary relation is not to her as mother, but to God whom he calls Father. This is a bond which transcends all human relationships. Additionally, he reminds her of the only title by which she may command his intervention, that is, not as her son, but as her Lord. This Brown tells us, is the significance of Jesus’ use of the term “woman,” in addressing Mary on this occasion.(18)

On Calvary, Jesus again addresses his mother as “woman,” and grants her the role of mother to the Beloved Disciple. In recognizing the Disciple as the child of his mother, Jesus is claiming him and all disciples to be his true sisters and brothers. Mary’s role at this most important juncture at Jesus’ “hour,” is not that of mother to Jesus but that of mother to the Beloved Disciple. By explicitly denying Mary involvement in his ministry on the basis of her physical motherhood, Jesus is reinterpreting who his mother and family are, and reinterpreting them precisely in terms of discipleship.(19)

This reinterpretation of Mary the mother of Jesus, like that of Mary Magdalene, is of great importance for understanding the role and “place” of women in the Christian community. Like Mary Magdalene, whose primary claim to fame (though its historicity is open to question) is that she was a reformed prostitute and thus a woman of the flesh par excellence, Mary the mother of Jesus has been presented to generations of Christians primarily in her maternal role as biological mother. While the Church has always honored Mary as the symbol of humble faith and obedience (discipleship), she has nevertheless remained in popular devotion as first and foremost the loving nurturing mother, standing ready to intervene between a sinful people and a just God. By embracing her primary identity in the scheme of salvation as that of disciple rather than that of mother, Mary expands the horizons of possibility for all Christian women and personifies their God-given ability to transcend identification with the merely physical or with any role in which they are defined as purely relational beings. She holds out to them the possibility of embarking upon their Christian ministry, whatever it might be, in full partnership with the other disciples. In Brown’s words, “A man and a woman stood at the foot of the Cross as models for Jesus’ ‘own,’ his true family of disciples.”(20)

That the Scriptures should contain this pearl of information and that it should be illustrated in the life of the Mother of God offers immeasurable consolation to those women who wish to serve the Lord in capacities other than those defined by sexuality, whether as consecrated virgin or consecrated mother. The notion of Mary as disciple gives a new dimension to the lives of Christian women who have heretofore been expected to fit themselves to one of the traditional feminine roles. Mary herself takes on a new richness when she is seen as disciple, and the age-old patriarchal and Patristic emphasis upon her (and woman’s) role as bride is counterbalanced by the recognition of her simultaneous vocation to discipleship. The Declaration of the Vatican congregation with regard to the ordination of women relies heavily upon the nuptial theme of Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as his Bride, with the usual emphasis upon the strong, protective love of the Groom for the Bride. This imagery is used to buttress the argument that the maleness of Christ is essential to the economy of salvation and that the sacramental sign of ordination is attached to human sexuality rather than to human personhood.(21) The concept of discipleship as the primary Christian category allows for an emphasis on personhood and partnership and opens the way for the use of other scriptural language which also “expresses and affects man and woman in their profound identity.”(22) Using the insights of the fourth Gospel, we may assert that Christian identity rests on discipleship and is not primarily sexual. The mythic notion of woman as essentially sexual and consequently both inferior and evil provides the basis for Canon 968, which forbids the ordained ministry to women. The law is reflective not only of the age in which it was formulated, but also of the collection of myths surrounding woman which have persisted in the minds of men from earliest times.(23) As an example of positive law it is, as Pierre Grelot says in another context, “not the consequence of an ideal principle derived from revelation; it provides the framework for an actual situation determined by the culture of the times.”(24) Similarly, the Declaration, with its mythic view of the “place” and role of women, its static view of tradition and its unwillingness to recognize the value of the human sciences, ignores the facts of history and the new realization of woman’s identity and worth.

We are fast approaching the time when, after the example of Jesus, we must formulate new laws which abrogate and transcend the old, and which bring with them “a full restoration of feminine dignity.”(25) Both at Cana and on Calvary Jesus responded to the demands of the “hour” dictated by God, in the first instance by the anticipation and in the second by the completion of his redemptive mission. In each case, he reminded a woman, his mother, that her relationship to him was primarily that of discipleship. In each case, also, he involved her as disciple directly in his activity. After his death, the risen Jesus revealed himself first to a woman and commissioned her as his disciple to carry the Good News to others, a distinctly apostolic activity. Recognizing Jesus’ intention to depart from the old order and acknowledging his inclusion of women into full discipleship, we may allow ourselves the hope that the full implications of that discipleship—full priesthood and full partnership in the Christian mission—may also be recognized as open to women and as in direct conformity with both Jesus’ words and his actions in their regard. The hour has come for the Christ to be fully glorified in his humanity.


1. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., “Roles of Women in the Fourth Gospel,” Theological Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), p. 699.

2. Ibid.

3. 1bid., p. 694.

4. Hartman points out that in the New Testament the primary meaning of the term is that of follower or adherent, and that in many cases it is impossible to say whether it refers to the smaller or the larger group of Jesus’ followers. See: Louis F. Hartman, C.SS.R., Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible. A Translation and Adaptation of A. van den Born’s Bijbels Woordenboek. Second Revised Edition, 1954-1957. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1963), s.v. “Disciple.”

5. The tradition that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene has a good chance of being historical. See: Brown, op. cit., p. 692, n. 12.

6. In the liturgy of the Western Church, Mary Magdalene was given the honor of being the only woman besides the Mother of God on whose feast the Creed was recited, specifically because she was revered as an apostle. Brown cites the use of the term “apostle” with reference to Mary Magdalene by Rabanus Maurus, her ninth-century biographer. Ibid., p. 693, n. 14

7. Biblical Commission Report, Part 1, 3.

8 The term “myth” is used in the technical sense as referring to a living social force which is only indirectly related to historical fact. A social myth strengthens certain traditions and endows them with greater value and prestige by tracing them back to an earlier, higher and in some cases divinely ordained order of events. See: Bronislaw Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1926), p. 13.

9. Biblical Commission Report, Part 1, 3

10. “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” par. 8, in The Documents of Vatican 11, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966),p. 116.

11. Ibid., par.24,p. 127.

12. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation,” Theological Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), p.

13. Declaration, par. 38.

14. Ibid., par. 34.

15. Biblical Commission Report, Part IV, sec. 2.

16. Brown, op. cit., p. 698.

17. It is important to note that Brown makes clear that discipleship is not the only symbolism in which Mary can be seen, and that in becoming a disciple, Mary did not become simply one among many. Rather, she has “an eminence as the mother of the ideal Disciple,” Brown, op. cit., p. 698, n. 28.

18. This view is corroborated by Bruce Vawter in his commentary on the Gospel of John. See: Bruce Vawter, S.M., “The Gospel According to John,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. II, ed. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 427.

19. This is a close paraphrase of Brown, op. cit., p. 698.

20. Ibid.,p.699.

21. Declaration, pars. 29, 30. Krister Stendahl speaks to his assertion in a pithy manner when he says: The masculinity of God and of God-language is a cultural and linguistic accident, and I think one should also agree that the masculinity of Christ is of the same order. To be sure, Jesus Christ was a male, but that may be no more significant to his being than the fact that presumably his eyes were brown. Incarnation is a great thing. But it strikes me as odd to argue that when the Word became flesh, it was to re-enforce male superiority. Quoted in: Casey Miller and Kate Swift, “Women and the Language of Religion,” Christian Century, Vol. 93 (April, 1976), p. 355.

22. Declaration, par. 29.

23. For a treatment of the origin of certain of these myths, see: H.R. Hays, The Dangerous Sex. The Myth of Feminine Evil (New York: Pocket Books, 1964).

24. Grelot is speaking of the Old Testament tradition of two moralities, one for men and the other for women, which reflected the social point of view rather than any considerations of sexual morality, and which contained no recognition of marriage, for example, as an agreement between two equal partners. However, the application of his words to the Canon Law of the Church is a logical one. See: Pierre Grelot, “The Institution of Marriage: Its Evolution in the Old Testament,” Concilium, 1970 (Vol. 55, American Edition), p. 43.

25. Biblical Commission Report, Part I, sec. 3.

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