What did the archbishop say about the apostle?
Some reflections on Romans 16 and women in ministry.
Romans 16 has had its ups and downs. For centuries it has probably been one of the least studied chapters in the New Testament, and at first glance you can see why. After all, according to the NIV heading, it’s just a collection of ‘personal greetings.’ We know it’s God’s word to us, but it feels rather like an anticlimax after the dizzy heights of Romans 8 or the application-rich treasures of chapters 12-15: hard for anyone reading it in church to get through all the names and hard for the preacher to find something meaningful to say about it.
On the other hand, Romans 16 has enjoyed the limelight more recently. We have become increasingly aware of the way that Paul’s greetings give a window onto the social and ethnic make-up of his churches and onto his ministry methods. In particular, Romans 16 is striking for the number of women who are greeted or commended by Paul (9 out of 26 names are female). As a result the passage makes an important contribution to our view of Paul (and his much-maligned views on women) and is increasingly discussed in the wider debate about women’s ministry in the church today.
Indeed for some it’s a central passage in the debate because they think it proves that Paul allowed women to teach and lead. That, for example, is the view of R. T. France:
The cumulative impression from Romans 16.1–16 is that Paul numbered women amongst his closest fellow-workers in his apostolic mission, that they held positions of recognized authority in his churches, and that they were engaged in teaching and indeed ‘apostleship.’ … All this seems to be in a different world from 1 Tim 2:11–12, and to be hard to square with the belief that Paul’s principle of female ‘submission’ extends outside of the marriage relationship to include also the prohibition of authoritative ministry in the church.1
The obvious question that emerges is, “what should we do with passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-12?” It will not do to say that Romans 16 “seems to be in a different world” to 1 Timothy 2 because it’s in the same Bible and written by the same man. So what to do? Of course, some try to relieve the tension by saying that Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy. Others, like N. T. Wright, take a different approach, arguing that Romans 16 should have priority because it is the clearer text:
Yes, 1 Timothy 2 is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else. That, in any case, is not where to start.2
To his mind, that place is the significance of Mary as a witness of the resurrection in John 20, and then the prominence in Romans 16 of Phoebe (whom Paul asks the Roman church to receive and care for in 16:1-2, and is therefore probably the one delivering the letter) and Junia in 16:7 (whom Paul describes as “outstanding among the apostles”).
The argument is usually then based on how we reconstruct the roles of these women. According to Wright, “the letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents,” making Phoebe “the first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter.” Then there’s Junia. Although during the 19th and 20th centuries translations gave a male name (Junias) in Romans 16:7, it is almost certain that Paul was referring to Junia; a woman and probably the wife of Andronicus, who is commended with her. The fact that she is called an apostle, it is often claimed, shows that women were active in public teaching and leadership roles.
And then enter the archbishop; specifically, the archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom (c.347-407A.D.), who is quoted by just about everybody in connection with this passage. In his homilies on Romans he reaches the name Junia and then pauses to exclaim:
Think what great praise it was to be considered of note among the apostles. These two were of note because of their works and achievements. Think how great the devotion of this woman Junia must have been, that she should be worthy to be called an apostle!3
So there it is. Apparently, an open-and-shut case. Phoebe was the first interpreter of Romans; Junia was a leading apostle. Paul championed them both and so did the early church, as shown by Chrysostom. Without going any further than Romans 16 the question seems unavoidable: How can anyone remain faithful to Scripture and maintain that Paul restricted the public role of teaching and leading the church to men?
So how then should we respond? Well first, any Bible believing Christian needs to think hard about Romans 16. Every word of Scripture comes from God for our good. So we should be glad to study it and reflect upon how he speaks to us through it. More specifically, we cannot claim to be faithful to Scripture’s teaching on women’s ministry without holding a view of Romans 16. It is clearly a piece of the jigsaw that we need to fit in to the discussion about their ministry in the church. Our picture is incomplete without it.
Second, while we must hold to that, it is not the case that those other passages (1 Timothy 2 etc.) are complicated while Romans 16 is crystal clear. In the case of Romans 16, it’s clear what Paul said, but what it looked like in practice is very hard to say. In relation to Phoebe, there is hardly any research on the role of letter carriers in the ancient world despite the frequent claim that it was a well-defined role with established responsibilities like reading it aloud to the recipients or taking questions. The only major study has found that in the sending of some ancient letters the carrier may have been equipped by the sender to underline the main message but it also found no expectation that the carrier would be the reader4. At this stage, we are just guessing.
The same goes for Junia. That she is called an apostle is almost certain, but what that looked like is far from certain. For Paul, ‘apostle’ can mean an eye-witness of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:6-8), someone sent by the church for a particular job (2 Cor 8:23 – NIV ‘representatives’ in Greek is apostoloi = apostles; likewise in Phil 2:25, ‘messenger’ is apostolos), or someone commissioned by a church to go and spread the gospel (Acts 14:4, 14). Which of these Paul meant is hard to say, and the claim that any of them necessarily contradict a complementarian understanding of 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 is impossible to prove.
Such a contradiction is also made very unlikely given the evidence of our friend Chrysostom the archbishop. He praises Junia in his comments on Romans 16:7, but what are often overlooked are his comments on Romans 16:6. While discussing the ministry of Mary (who’s mentioned in that verse) he realises someone might think that there’s a contradiction with 1 Timothy 2. So this is what he says:
In what sense then does he say, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach?’ (1 Tim 2:12.) He means to hinder her from publicly coming forward (1 Cor 14:35), and from the seat on the bema [i.e. the pulpit platform] not from the word of teaching. Since if this were the case, how would he have said to the woman that had an unbelieving husband, ‘How knowest thou, O woman, if thou shalt save thy husband?’ (1 Cor 7:16.) Or how came he to suffer her to admonish children?…How came Priscilla to instruct even Apollos? It was not then to cut in sunder private conversing for advantage that he said this, but that before all, and which it was the teacher’s duty to give in the public assembly; or again, in case the husband be believing and thoroughly furnished, able also to instruct her. When she is the wiser, then he does not forbid her teaching and improving him.5
Chrysostom, it turns out, is a complementarian: his view is that a woman may not teach publicly, but as he goes on to explain, she may do so privately in a variety of contexts: unbelieving husbands, children, and private instruction in evangelistic or domestic situations where she is wiser than her husband. So Chrysostom is a complementarian, and he thinks Paul was too. And what’s so significant for our Fellowship is that he sees no contradiction between that position and Paul’s praise of women’s contributions in Romans 16. Despite some people’s impressions, and sadly despite some complementarians, it is possible to hold that view and be excited about the ministry of women. This is one of the crucial implications for us of this chapter. We should be wary of the way in which people reconstruct the situations of Phoebe and Junia to create a tension with Paul’s writings elsewhere, but we mustn’t miss this challenge: if we are going to imitate Paul then instead of speaking only of the ministry women cannot do, we will learn to treasure and praise more and more the ministry they are doing.
1. R.T. France, A Slippery Slope? The Ordination of Women and Homosexual Practice - A Case Study in Biblical Interpretation, Grove Booklets B16, 11–12
2. N. T. Wright, “It’s About the Bible, Not Fake Ideas of Progress,” The Times, November 23, 2012, n.p. [cited 8 January 2013]. Online: http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=759
3. Homilies on Romans 31, quoted from Gerald Lewis Bray, Romans (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Vol. 6; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1998), 372.
4. Peter M. Head, “Named Letter-Carriers Among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (2009): 279–99.
5. Homily on Romans 31 (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers 11:554)
A longer version of this article appeared in the journal Churchman vol 127 (Summer 2013).