What About Junia? (Women in Ministry pt. 1)

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Israelites who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”

Romans 16:7 (NRSV)

This blog post is the first of a few entries on the topic of women in ministry leadership.

In this first one, I want to start a bit autobiographical.

That’s because my aim with this short blog series isn’t to convince anyone else to believe the way that I do now. Instead, I’d like to simply document how my beliefs have changed over the last two decades. I do hope to be thorough, and I will tackle some of the “tougher” passages in scripture that pertain to this subject in later entries. But, again, my goal is exposure not argument.

Women in Ministry Leadership?

There were no *official* female leaders within the church that I was raised.

Sure, there were female Sunday School teachers but they only taught children; and more, they were under the oversight of a Sunday School superintendent who was always male. We also had a few women’s ministry leaders. However, these positions were usually held by the pastor’s wife or the wives of prominent lay leaders, and the ministries that these ladies oversaw served more as social mixers than serious Bible studies. Serious Bible study happened in the pews, in mixed gender small groups, or in the men’s group.

After a few rambunctious teenagers within the youth group that I was involved with questioned this hierarchy, the youth pastor of my church began a teaching series on ministry leadership and gender roles.

A lot of it was based on Paul’s household codes and the creation narrative in Genesis. But we were taught that a man’s ideal role was to be both a leader and a protector. On the other hand, a woman’s ideal role was that of an encourager and a supporter. Translated to the context of church ministry: men should lead but women should serve only as support to the men. This, we were told, was the only orthodox reading of scripture. To think otherwise would be sinful.

Ashamedly, all of this was ok with me! I was very comfortable with my church’s teaching on the subject at that time.

It was in late high school that I began to really enjoy studying the Bible and reading books by pastors and theologians. Some of my favorite authors back then were John Piper and John MacArthur, two very staunch complementarians. John MacArthur’s book God’s High Calling for Women[1] was even in my church’s library, a space which I frequently visited. In this book, MacArthur argued that women *should* lead within the church. They just cannot be in charge of men, cannot preach, and cannot teach biblical doctrine as that would subvert male “headship.” MacArthur explained his position very clearly. I was totally convinced that he was right.  

However, there were a few things that threatened my certainty.

There was a lady in my church who was frequently asked to lead our body in congregational prayers. Her prayers, I thought, were much more eloquent than our senior pastor’s. There was another lady who committed to memorizing large chunks of scripture and then would recite them in front of the congregation. She often coupled these recitations with encouraging words based on the content of the passage she’d recently memorized. These demonstrations were never in the ”sermon slot” in our order of service, but they often felt like sermons.

After I graduated High School, I decided to pursue a degree in Christian ministry. This required that I leave my hometown, my home church, and seek Christian community in the new town that this college was located in. In my search, I came across an evangelical church which allowed women to serve as Elders. I thought it was odd that a church which considered itself biblically conservative would make such a move, and while I ended up attending elsewhere, this stuck with me for a while. The college I attended, while also biblically conservative, had several professors who were egalitarian. And while I didn’t find their explanations about women in ministry completely convincing at the time, this did expose me to a different way of thinking.

I mean, why were there so many churches who allowed women to fully participate in the leadership of the church?

Wasn’t the Bible clear on such things?

Bible Translations and Transparency

In my undergraduate and seminary education, I had the privilege of taking a large number of courses on ancient Greek and Hebrew.

Mostly, these classes just frustrated me. I’m not great at memorizing vocabulary flash cards. I’m definitely not great at memorizing large grammar paradigm sheets. But these courses in the biblical languages did teach me that Bible translations, and the teams of translators who work to create them, sometimes need to make choices in order to present the material as clear English.

Yet, the choices translators make may slightly alter the way we understand what a text is saying.

Let’s start with a relatively neutral example. In English, we have punction. Periods are utilized to end sentences. Commas are used to separate clauses or to set up quotations. But in the Greek manuscripts we have of the New Testament, there is no punctuation at all. In fact, there often weren’t even spaces between words. For the most part, this isn’t an issue. But sometimes, where you place a punctuation mark matters in a theological sense.[2] Consider Luke 23:43 punctuated in two different ways:

1. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

2.Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”

In the first, Jesus is telling the thief on the cross that he will be immediately ushered into heaven when he dies. That is, this thief will experience a conscious existence in a spiritual realm before the resurrection of the dead. In the second example, however, Jesus seems to merely be saying that the thief will be counted as one who will be resurrected into God’s kingdom. No heavenly intermediary is promised, but maybe a soul sleep-type scenario is offered.

So, again, choices that translators made can have theological implications.   

Here’s an example that’s related to the point at hand. There are several completely valid translation options for Phoebe’s title in Romans 16:1. She is called a diakonos[3] by Paul. But that word could be translated a number of different ways. Diakonos can mean “servant,” “deacon,” “deaconess,” or even “minister” depending on the context. Many Bible translators that lean towards the complementarian camp naturally choose the “servant” option. Is Phoebe a servant of the church or a leader within the church? It depends on which version of the Bible you read.

Or what about Junia in Romans 16:7? Is she one among the broader apostles, like Barnabas and Silas? Or is she just a faithful believer known by the apostles? The answer to this question depends on what translation you consult.

Consider these examples:

1. ESV Translation – “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

2. CSB Translation – “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews and fellow prisoners. They are noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles, and they were also in Christ before me.”

3. NRSV Translation – “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Israelites who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”

4. NIV Translation – “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”

Did you notice how these translations of the text render Junia’s relationship to the apostles differently? In the ESV and CSB translations, Junia is well known, or prominent, in the eyes of the apostles. She isn’t an apostle herself, but she is recognized by them. However, in the NRSV and NIV translations, Junia is among the apostles. She is counted with the group. She is a highly esteemed a leader within the early church.

So, isn’t the Bible clear on the issue of women in leadership? It depends on what version of the Bible you read.

What Exactly *Was* Junia, then?

If we were to ask this question, not to modern English translators, but to early translations and commentaries however, we’d get a more unified answer.

The Latin Vulgate renders this text “Junia…notable among the apostles.” John Chrysostom, a church father in the fourth century, made this comment about Junia: “to be even amongst these of note, just consider what a great encomium that is! …Oh how great is the devotion of this woman that should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!” And many, many other ancient commentators and commentaries follow suit.[4]

Why, then, do some modern English translators choose to demote Junia from her apostolic status? Let’s get a bit technical.

There are many translators that see the prepositional phrase πίσημοι ν τος ποστόλοις in a grammatically exclusive sense. In other words, they take the preposition ν and the adjective πίσημοι to mean something like “well known to.” They base this conclusion on extrabiblical sources that translate prepositional constructs in this exclusive way, and conclude that only the genitive personal modifiers paired with ν are used to signify inclusive ideas but dative modifiers, like what is found in this text, do not.[5]

There are flaws in this argument. First, πίσημοι, as an adjective, means something more like “notable.” It doesn’t naturally translate into a passive verb. There is also significant data that backs up the idea that dative nouns used with the preposition ν do actually function inclusively.[6] This construct, while rare, does appear in the Greek additions to Esther, the writings of Josephus, and the writings of Lucian. This makes the inclusive reading of this phrase not only possible, but the most plausible.

Ancient commentaries and translations attest to Junia’s apostleship. And what I think is the best understanding of the Greek grammar attests to Junia’s apostleship too.

Junia seems to have actually been an apostle.

She was a prominent female leader in the early church.

Junia Isn’t the Only One

But should this really be that surprising?

The Bible is full of women leaders: Miriam. Deborah. Huldah. Esther. Mary. Mary Magdalene. Priscilla. Euodia. Syntyche. Phoebe. And Junia just to name a few. The scriptures are chocked full of women in leadership. But depending on the translation you read, or the cultural conditioning you’ve received, these characters are sometimes easy to miss or dismiss.

And that’s too bad.

In the Bible, there are women leaders and women teachers. That’s a fact. In our churches, there are many woman leaders and teachers also; they just might not have the opportunities to receive the titles we give to men.  

I’ve now chosen to both see and encourage women as leaders and teachers, and I now affirm that women can fully participate in the ministry leadership of the church at any level. This is not the case in all places, I know. It took me a lot of time and study to reach the conclusions that I now hold. But if Junia could function as an apostle in Rome in the first century of the church, why can’t women teach, preach, and pastor today?

So, all in all, I do think that, if we are going to take the Bible seriously, affirming women leadership in this way is the right thing to do.

[1] John F MacArthur, God’s High Calling for Women: 1 Timothy 2:9-15, (Chicago, Il: Moody Publishers, 1987).

[2] I found this example at: https://www.thenivbible.com/blog/why-bible-translation-is-difficult/

[3] διάκονον

[4] For example: Theodoret in Epistles 82.2, Catena on the Epistle to the Romans 519.32, Chronicon Pashale, John of Damascus in Epistles 95.956. See: Linda L. Belleville, “Woman Leaders in the Bible,” in Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 79.

[5] Daniel B. Wallace and Michael H. Burer, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Reexamination of Romans 16:7,” in The Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 6/2 (Fall 2001), 8. 

[6] Linda L. Belleville, “Woman Leaders in the Bible,” in Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 80.  

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