The Highest Shall Be The Servant Of All

From “Women in Christianity”
by Hans Küng, b.1928

According to present-day research, there can no longer be any question that women played a considerably more important role than is directly indicated in the “New Testament” sources, not only among the disciples of Jesus but also in earliest Christianity. We are above all indebted to the German-American “New Testament” scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza for having investigated the “New Testament” material from a “feminist theological perspective.” Her investigation confirms that in the early Jewish-Christian Jesus movement there was a praxis of equality and the involvement of all, both male and female disciples:

“The majority of them were not rich, like the Cynic philosophers who could reject property and cultural positions in order ‘to become free from possessions’. Rather, they were called from the impoverished, starving and ‘heavy laden’ country people. They were tax collectors, sinners, women, children, fishers, housewives, those who had been healed from their infirmities or set free from bondage to their evil spirits. What they offered was not an alternative lifestyle but an alternative ethos: they were those without a future, but now they had hope again; they were the ‘outcast’ and marginal people in their society, but now they had community again.”

How far, though, women were active as charismatic itinerant preachers in the early Jewish-Christian community can only be conjectured. Historically this can no more be verified than the thesis that women were decisive for the extension of the Jesus movement to non-Jews. So we should be very restrained in concluding historical leadership roles or even leading positions for women from individual texts (eg. the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7.24-30). This also applies to the role of Mary Magdalene, who might have been the most significant female figure from Jesus’ immediate circle.

None of this, however, detracts from the important recognition that the activity of Jesus called to life a community of disciples who were equals, and this also represents a criticism of the situation in the church today. And if explicit criticism of patriarchy was no essential concern of the Jesus movement, Elisabeth Schiissler Fiorenza is still right:

“No one is exempted. Everyone is invited. Women as well as men, prostitutes as well as Pharisees. The parable of the ‘Great Supper’ jolts the bearer into recognising that the kingdom of God includes everyone. It warns that only those who were ‘first invited’ and who then rejected the invitation will be excluded. Not the holiness of the elect but the wholeness of all is the central vision of Jesus. Therefore, his parables also take their images from the world of women. His healings and exorcisms make women whole. His announcement of ‘eschatological reversal’ (many who are first will be last and those last will be first) applies also to women and to their impairment by patriarchal structures.”

That Jesus himself relativised the ‘fathers’ and their traditions, called women, too, into his group of disciples, and even expressed his high esteem for children, shows that patriarchal hierarchies cannot have appealed to him. Nor did he make, for example, celibacy a condition of discipleship. The church of the Jewish-Christian paradigm could have been called democratic in the best sense of the word (at any rate it was not aristocratic or monarchical): a community in freedom, equality and brotherhood and sisterhood. For this church was not a powerful institution, not a Grand Inquisition, but a community of free people; not a church of classes, races, castes or ministries, but a community of those who in principle were equal; not an empire under patriarchal rule with a cult of persons, but a community of brothers and sisters.

However, we should note here that although all members of this early church in principle had an equal status, and in principle had the same rights and duties, this did not mean a uniform egalitarianism, a coordination and uniformity which levelled out the multiplicity of gifts and ministries. On the contrary, the earliest Jerusalem community in which, according to Luke, people were of “one heart and one soul,” showed individuals opposed to one another, a variety of positions, differentiated functions and provisional structures.

On the basis of the texts we cannot ignore the fact that from the beginning, despite the apocalyptic expectation of an imminent end, there were provisional structures in the community: above all the group of Twelve, but also the group of Seven whom the “Acts of the Apostles” calls “Hellenists.” From this, we can conclude that the community which followed Jesus will by no means have consisted only of Aramaic-speaking Jews, but also in no small degree of Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews.

At any rate, the conflict over the daily care of widow s reported in “Acts,” chapter six, verse one, seems to reflect a marked division in the earliest community between Hellenists on the one hand and Hebrews on the other. This division is further underlined by the fact that to all appearances other Jewish-Christian groups had their own synagogues and their own house communities in which scripture was read at worship in their own language (Hebrew or Greek). These Jewish-Christians who had Greek as their mother tongue (socially and culturally they came from the urban milieu of Hellenistic Diaspora Judaism and, because they were educated, were probably also more active in thinking about the implications of their faith) may have been led by the Stephen group (the Seven, all of whom have purely Greek names). They were probably relatively independent of the group of apostles representing the Hebrews (the Twelve, who represented the twelve tribes of Israel). At the same time, that means that the Seven may well have been much more than simply welfare officers subordinate to the Twelve, as Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles” reports a generation later. We should see them more as the governing body of an independent community which was already engaged in active mission in Jerusalem at that time.

Not just the Twelve, nor even the Seven, were apostles, but all those who were regarded as the original witnesses and messengers: those who proclaimed the message of Christ and founded and led communities as the first witnesses. We cannot tell whether the title apostle was also given to women in Jewish Christianity; things would be different in the Gentile-Christian sphere. But it is certain that right from the beginning in Jewish Christianity (and this is easily overlooked) there were not only prophets but also prophetesses: in addition to Agabus, Judas and Silas, mention is explicitly made in “Acts” of the four daughters of Philip. Alongside them were evangelists and helpers of very different kinds, here too both men and women.

And what about offices in church? These various church ministries and callings were not given that name at this time. In fact in the “New Testament,” secular terms for office were avoided and with good reason. ‘Why? Because such terms expressed a pattern of domination which the Christian community did not want to take over. Instead. another general term was used, a quite ordinary religious word with a rather inferior tone, which could in no way conjure up associations with any authority, rule or position of dignity or power: ‘diakonia’, service. This originally denoted serving at table. Here it was evidently the way in which Jesus himself served his disciples at table that set the irrevocable standard. That is the only explanation of the frequency of the saying which has been handed down in six different variants: “The highest shall be the servant of all (at table).”

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