Our own experiences often affect how we read the Bible. Take Romans 16:7, for example:
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsfolk and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. (Rom 16:7)1
There’s something in this verse that often catches the eye of the modern reader: a woman, Junia,2 is said to be “of note among the apostles.” This means that she was either a person of note to the apostles, or that she was herself “among the apostles.” Either way, the Bible seems to be saying that there was a woman who had a ministry role that was important in the early church. Surely then, as many argue, the example of Junia means that women today, too, can and should have significant ministry roles? At this point, our own experiences can play a big part, particularly our experiences of Christian ministry.
It’s quite common today for ministry to be understood individualistically. That is, we often think in terms of ‘the minister’ or ‘the pastor,’ i.e. individuals entrusted with the sole care for a church. If you read Romans 16:7 with this individualistic kind of ministry model in mind, you might conclude that the verse is an excellent proof-text to show that women should be allowed (indeed, encouraged) to be individuals entrusted with the main responsibility for a mixed congregation (otherwise, how could they ever be “of note?”). On the other hand, if you don’t like this conclusion, you might consider this verse as a troubling little blip in Paul’s otherwise quite excellent letter to the Romans, and you might spend a great deal of time and energy proving that the verse doesn’t mean that women can be individual ministers/pastors of mixed congregations.
But what if you don’t read the verse in light of this individualistic ministry model at all?
By God’s grace, I’ve experienced churches where ‘women ministers/pastors’ are part of team ministries. I’ve rejoiced in the godliness and perseverance of women ministers/pastors, and I’ve seen the fruit of their work, and benefitted from it immensely: in fact, I became a Christian through the work of a woman who was part of a team of evangelists. The women I’m speaking about haven’t had the job of formally teaching men in mixed adult congregations (as per passages like 1 Timothy 2:8-15); but they have had prominent and important ministries. Women, in other words, have been “of note among the ministers/pastors.” I think this is a good thing, and I think it’s worth promoting (and, I have to admit, at times I’ve failed to promote this ministry to the full extent it deserves).
This experience of mine makes me read Romans 16:7 in way that’s different to the kind of reading that comes from the ‘individualistic’ model of ministry. I notice different aspects of the verse, beyond the simple fact that there is a woman in it. One thing I notice is the striking emphasis on team ministry. Paul is commending two people, together. What’s more, he’s talking about a group of apostles. In fact, there seems to be an intimate ministry partnership between Andronicus, Junia and Paul himself: Andronicus and Junia are involved in Paul’s experience of ministry, suffering alongside him, in some kind of ‘imprisonment.’ Furthermore, when I look at Romans 16 as a whole, I see that it’s all about team ministry and ministry partnerships and fellow workers and suffering together. In fact, when I look back over Paul’s letter to the Romans, I see team ministry in all sorts of places. For example, even though Paul introduces himself as a singular ‘apostle’ (Romans 1:1), in Romans 1:5, he says that he is among a plural group ‘we,’ who have received ‘apostleship.’3 In Romans 10:15, Paul implies that he himself is among a plural group of people who are ‘sent’ (a word that is directly related to the word ‘apostle’) to preach the gospel.4
So coming back to Romans 16:7: what’s Paul’s actual point here? Paul wants his readers in Rome to remember and greet two people in particular who are very significant in relation to the apostolic team ministry.5 Of course, this doesn’t necessarily imply that Junia and Andronicus have exactly the same role as the apostle Paul. We don’t have to assume, for example, that either Andronicus or Junia had a special revelation from God or that they each received a personal ‘apostolic’ commissioning (Gal 1:10). Furthermore, we don’t have to assume that either Andronicus or Junia founded a church, or were leading a church, or that Junia (or Andronicus for that matter) was preaching to mixed congregations. In fact, we don’t really know what Andronicus and Junia did. We don’t know about their relationship, either: maybe they were married to each other, or maybe they weren’t. But that’s not the point. The point is that whatever they did was important, and was connected closely with Paul’s (very non-individualistic) ‘apostolic’ ministry.
So what is the significance of this verse for us? On the one hand, we shouldn’t claim too much for this verse, as if it is some kind of blanket approval for women to be the sole ministers in charge of congregations or to formally preach to mixed adult congregations. On the other hand, let’s not be defensive about this verse, either. It’s not just a problem to be explained away. Among other things, it affirms the significance and prominence of the ministry of a woman in the context of team ministry. Junia (along with Andronicus) is “of note among the apostles.” How, then, might we ensure that we ‘note’ (promote, recognise, etc.) the ministry of women in our own contexts?
- This is a relatively straight word-for-word translation, based on the New King James version, but with the word “countrymen” changed to “kinsfolk” to avoid confusion. Most other translations use interpretative glosses which limit the possibilities for reading the verse: e.g. instead of “of note among the apostles” the ESV has “well known to the apostles” ↩
- Some argue that this is referring to a man called Junias. This is possible, but unlikely. ↩
- See also 1 Thessalonians 2:6-7, Ephesians 3:5 ↩
- Interestingly, it seems that Paul has even modified the Greek of Isaiah 52:7 from singular to plural in order to make this point clear! ↩
- Their Jewishness is also very important for Paul—in fact, I think it’s another key reason he mentions them, but that’s another (long) story ↩