Junia in Romans 16:7

Suzanne McCarthy has a series of posts on the Better Bibles Blog about the name “Junia” in Romans 16:7. I’ve discuss this before on the Compuserve Religion Forum, but Suzanne covers all the major points. Here posts are, in order:

List updated to include parts 7-10, written after I posted this.

I’m writing this for two reasons: First, I want to commend the entire series to you for your reading pleasure and its educational value. This is some good blogging. Second, I want to comment indirectly on this verse and the way we make theology and practice out of Bible passages. I really have nothing to add directly.

The handling of this text illustrates to me two elements of the way in which we make theology from scripture that are problematic. (Yes, I guess I’m on a 2’s kick today!) I believe that we tend to take the propositional statements of scripture over its narrative, and secondly, we tend to avoid the implications of the cultural context. (For further notes on context, see my essay Understanding Context.)

Dealing first with the issue of narrative and propositional statements, I do not mean simply that we take passages that present propositions over those that are narrative in nature, for example, taking Galatians over Acts. I mean to say that we take the theological propositions over the narrative background. There is considerable narrative background even in non-narrative passages. For example, in Galatians we have both the theological heart, of the book, and we have some application toward the end. In the first part, Paul is presenting theology, in the last, he is talking behavior. In my seminary class in Galatians, a quarter long study, we never got out of chapter 4. Now I understand that when doing in-depth study, you can’t always cover all the ground you’d like, but is one’s view of the book balanced when you read the heart of the argument but not the conclusion?

Similarly, you might compare the heart of Galatians to 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians you can get a good deal of narrative by looking just below the surface. What is actually happening in the church in Corinth. Gordon Fee uses the narrative in chapter 11 to note that obviously women were prophesying and praying in church, otherwise why comment on their headgear? He follows this up with his textual arguments that chapter 14:34-35 is an interpolation. (See The First Epistle to the Corinthians in the New International Commentary on the New Testament, pages 699-708. I regard Fee’s comments here as definitive.)

Romans 16:7 falls into the narrative. It tells us what the church was actually doing, and here we have that exception to the rule that intrudes on one’s comfortable assumptions. The easy thing is to explain this quick reference away so that we can keep our interpretation of other passages about women intact. I must note here that I do see as the only strong reason for rejecting the idea that Junia was an apostle is a preconceived notion that a woman cannot possibly be an apostle. The most probable reading of the text, in my opinion, is that she was.

And that’s were the other element comes into play–cultural context. We come to the text of scripture, not hearing the text speaking directly to us, but rather listening in on the divine conversation with someone else, in this case God to Paul to the church in Rome. This is true of all of these passages. In the background we have to realize there is a patriarchal society. Now certain people want to make that patriarchal society normative.

But think of it this way. Supposing that today I write that we need more women active in church leadership. I believe that to be the case. I feel no need of qualifying my statement. Supposing that someone reads my statement 2,000 years from now. Women’s liberation has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and extended itself into nightmare. We have a matriarchal society, and men are not permitted in positions of leadership. How will my statement be understood then? It should be understood as irrelevant to the existing situation. Women are in all the positions of leadership, but it could be understood as advocacy of an all female leadership.

In a patriarchal society, I think we need to look for the exceptions to discover the answer to the question of whether other indications of all male leadership are simply an artefact of the particular culture, or whether they are a moral imperative. In fact, by looking at those exceptions, such as Romans 16:7, I believe we see the church willing to accept female leadership, but not yet ready to push for equality in the church when the church lived in a very unequal society.

I believe a combination of observing the narrative of scripture and the cultural background will lead us to a more balanced view of church leadership roles.

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