I’m still going to be in and out a bit the next week or so, but let’s move ahead a bit in our discussion of gender. It might help a bit to look at some of the women mentioned in the New Testament.
Romans 16 is an important passage; about one third of the people mentioned in this chapter are women. Phoebe is the first; she was probably the bearer of this letter. She is called a servant or deaconess. It helps to remember that “deacon” and “deaconess” really don’t exist in Greek; the word is servant. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether Paul uses this term in a technical way. The most likely is yes, that Phoebe was recognized as one of the official church workers. Early church writings show women who served as deaconesses, fulfilling roles that the men found difficult, such as helping with the baptisms of women.
Several of the women in the list are said to have worked hard. We’d like to know exactly what that work involved, but we aren’t told.
One of the most interesting comments in Romans 16 is made about a woman named Junia. Paul says:
“Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” (Romans 16:7, KJV)
“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Romans 16:7, NIV)
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.” (Romans 16:7–8, ESV)
Those three translations give a pretty good idea of the different ways of reading this passage. The KJV shows the ambiguous nature of the Greek, while the NIV and ESV show the different ways that phrase can be understood. Outside of the New Testament, there’s good evidence of the grammatical use reflected in the ESV, though context would tend to favor the NIV’s view.
Either way, it helps a lot to remember that Paul doesn’t use the word “apostle” in the same way that Luke does. That is, Luke uses the word “apostle” almost exclusively to refer to the Twelve, while Paul often uses it in a broader sense. He uses the term for people other than the Twelve, and even contrasts the terms in this passage from 1 Corinthians 15:
5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
In my view, Junia was one of the sent, probably along with her husband (Andronicus). Like Priscilla and Aquila, they were probably active in evangelism and the establishment of new churches. That would help explain their imprisonment at this early date.
Women were active in the life of the early church, as they are today, so none of this should be threatening to anyone. We need Phoebes and Junias today as much as ever.