Women in International Development

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Women of Value: Loving Service in the Gospel and Epistles of John

Beth Snodderly, D Litt et Phil, is a past president of William Carey International University and is the editor for both the  William Carey International Development Journal  and the  Ralph D. Winter Research Center .

Beth Snodderly, D Litt et Phil, is a past president of William Carey International University and is the editor for both the William Carey International Development Journal and the Ralph D. Winter Research Center.

by Beth Snodderly, June 26, 2018

See additional articles on the topic of Women Missionaries here.

Jesus’ Example of Serving at the Center of the Gospel of John

Jesus was running out of time. His public ministry was over and he was giving last minute instructions to his disciples. So he chose an unforgettable object lesson: “He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4-5). Then he explained how that lesson applied to his followers: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master. … A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:15-16, 34).

Women in the Gospel of John Who Followed Jesus’ Example of Service

Although there are numerous references in the Gospel of John to the male disciples, male Jewish leaders, two men who were healed, etc., there are not many examples of the men serving each other. Rather, it is the women in the Gospel of John who are active in demonstrating what Jesus wants all his followers to be like. Both before and after Jesus’ clear explanation of what it means to follow him, women were serving him and serving others in a variety of ways.

Serving in Emergency Situations

Before Jesus’ Death:

In an embarrassing emergency at a wedding in Cana, Jesus’ mother served the bride and groom by asking Jesus to help with the unanticipated shortage of wine. Then she told the servants to just do whatever Jesus asked them to do. Perhaps unintentionally she also served by helping people begin to realize Jesus was someone special sent from God.

After Jesus’ Death:

As Jesus was slowly dying on the cross, Jesus’ mother and two other Marys served Jesus by staying near him to comfort him.

Serving by Getting Others Involved in Knowing about Jesus

Before Jesus’ Death:

When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water from the well, she turned around and asked him for the living water he offered. Then she went to tell people in town about Jesus and many believed because of her.

After Jesus’ Death:

Mary Magdalene ran to tell Jesus’ disciples that the tomb was empty. She had tried to serve by going to the tomb to check on Jesus’ body but ended up serving in a very different way!

Serving by Loving Jesus Personally

Before Jesus’ Death:

Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus. Martha returned that love by serving dinner to Jesus after he had raised her brother from the dead. Even before that happened she told Jesus she believed He was the Messiah.

Before Jesus’ Death:

When Mary showed her heartfelt love by pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping his feet with her hair, Judas the traitor complained about the wasted money. But Jesus said to leave her alone, that her act of service was in anticipation of his burial.

After Jesus’ Death:

The next day after Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene stood crying, heartbroken, outside the empty tomb. But when the person she thought was the gardener spoke her name, she recognized Jesus and tried to grab hold of him and hug him. She was the first to recognize that Jesus was alive.

Instructions to the Chosen Lady for Who to Serve and Who Not to Serve

After Jesus returned to the Father, the disciples must have kept busy for a long time, writing down what they remembered about his life and teaching. These became the four Gospels. Either John the apostle or some of his own followers also wrote three short letters to help their particular branch of Jesus-followers better understand how to obey what Jesus had taught.

In his Gospel, John spelled out the reason for Jesus’ sacrificial death: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (in John 3:16). In the first Epistle of John, he (or a follower) applied this verse to Jesus’ followers: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9); “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16).

So, while Jesus’ followers knew they should show love to people, false teachers were beginning to be a major problem, causing a lot of confusion for what to believe and do. Should they only show love to those in their own tradition? Should they welcome anyone who claimed to be teaching something “new” about God? At the end of the First Epistle of John the writer says, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” He wanted them to stay away from false teachers and their teachings that could cause them to lose their way in following Jesus.

As in the Gospel of John, the writer of the Epistles chooses a woman to help illustrate his point. In the Second Epistle, he writes to “the lady chosen by God and to her children” to explain the exception for not welcoming and serving someone if they are going around representing false teaching. The writer starts right out by telling her he is writing because of the truth and compliments her because her children walk in truth. Then he reminds her that loving one another is a true command she and other followers of Jesus have had from the beginning. The author uses a memory aid that was familiar to people at that time (called a chiasm) to emphasize his point: 

“And now, dear lady,
A. I am not writing you a new command (but one we have had from the beginning)
B. I ask that we love one another.
B. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.
A. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love” (2 John 1:5-6).

Jesus said people would know who his followers were because they love (and serve) one another. In the thought world of that time, if you weren’t on the side of what’s right you were automatically on the side of what’s wrong. So the Chosen Lady would have known right away that if she had to deal with someone who claimed to represent Jesus’ teachings, but was being un-loving, something wasn’t right. The writer of 2 John spelled it out plainly. She needed to watch out for deceivers (that don’t walk in love) so that she and her children wouldn’t lose out on what they had all worked hard for (2 John 1:7, 8). The author’s test for knowing who is from God was that if someone doesn’t live out the teaching of Christ (who came in the flesh) then they do not have God (2 John 1:9). (In fact, they are labeled as an anti-Christ—against Christ.)

So, the author makes his point in the strongest and most memorable way he can think of, by using another, longer, chiasm. (This is obvious in the Greek word order, although less obvious in modern translations, so I’ve used my own paraphrase of the original Greek):

“If anyone comes to you and doesn’t bring truthful teaching [or doesn’t obey the truth by showing love]:
A. do not receive him into your house.
B. If you’re thinking about giving him a happy greeting
C. Don’t say it.
C’. If you go ahead and say it,
B’. Indeed if you give him a happy greeting
A’. You will be partaking in his evil works” (2 John 1:10, 11).

In other words, to receive and greet the bearer of false teaching and false practices (A) is equivalent to taking part in his evil works (A’). This was a strong incentive to the Chosen Lady and her children to do what the author is asking them to do: avoid false teachers altogether. The way this lady and others could recognize false teachers would be if those teachers did not obey Jesus’ command to love each other: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35).

And, by extension, this letter to the Chosen Lady is letting us know that people will recognize us as Jesus’ followers if we don’t let un-loving people—who are not obeying Jesus’ teaching—pass themselves off as followers of Jesus through the fact that they are associating with us. In other words, we love and serve others, but at the same time we follow the strong reminder to “keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)—from false teachers and false practitioners.


The examples of the women in the Gospel and Epistles of John show us how to follow Jesus’ own example of loving servanthood. As more and more people were starting to be Jesus-followers, it became more and more important for the people to discern between truth and lies, love and lack of love. The writer(s) of the Gospel and Epistles of John valued the role of women who demonstrated by their service how to walk in love. They represented a loving Servant who commanded us to follow his example: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).