Last week we met the married couple Prica and Aquila who ministered together as husband and wife.
This week we meet another husband and wife team this time named Andronicus and Junia (16:7). This couple was apparently related to Paul and had either been in prison with him or at least shared the same distinction of having been imprisoned for the cause of Christ. Paul also declares that they had been converted to Christ before he was.
Of particular interest to us is that Paul describes them as “prominent among the apostles.” This short phrase has led to quite a debate. Some, assuming that a woman could not be an apostle, have suggested that this is not a husband and wife team but two brothers and that Junia should be read as Junias. This is difficult to sustain, however, because there is no evidence for this name ever being given to a male (it is consistently a woman’s name) and the earliest evidence from church history demonstrates that these two people were understood to be husband and wife, not brothers. While these two were certainly not apostles in the same way as the twelve, they are called apostles and probably fit into the group Paul describes in 1 Cor 15:7 of those who saw the risen Christ. Thus, it is significant that Paul, a person who struggled to get some to recognize his own claim to being an apostle, would recognize that among the “foundation apostles” was a woman and a wife.
The rest of the greeting list contains a number of men and women. At first glance the list does not seem to lend itself to anything significant. But I would like to point out some interesting aspects of this passage as I continue to unpack it.
There are four women here that Paul describes in a similar manner. In 16:6 we meet Mary and in 16:12 we meet Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis. Each of these women is singled out by Paul by the way he describes them. Mary is said to have “worked very hard among you.” Tryphaena and Tryphosa are probably two sisters who have “worked in the Lord.” And finally the “beloved Persis” is said to have “worked very hard in the Lord.” Unlike Phoebe, none of these women are given a title that describes some type of leadership function. But the language of “labor” or “working” that Paul uses here is significant. It is the same language that he uses to describe his own ministry and when he wants to give special commendation to other ministers (1 Cor 16:16; 1 Thess 5:12). It suggests voluntary labor taken at one’s own initiative. It implies sensitivity to the needs of the church with a willingness and energy to meet the needs of the people. Paul’s brief, but incisive description of these women demonstrates that women played a very significant role in the emerging church. Indeed, Persis’ work was so well-known that Paul was able to refer to her by her nickname, “Persis the beloved.”
The last woman of interest to us here is found in 16:13. Paul sends greetings to Rufus’ mother. Paul notes that this unnamed woman had been a mother to him as well. This seems to be a relationship of a surrogate mother to Paul. The fact that Paul himself has not yet visited Rome clues us in that he had met her and experienced her mothering care elsewhere. Thus, she seems to have been, like Phoebe, one who traveled and therefore was unusual in that respect to her gender. What exactly she provided for Paul is unclear, but they apparently had a very special relationship.
All in all this last group of women demonstrates that women played a prominent role in the ministry of the early church. One was even known as an apostle, and an important one at that. In fact, in this list Paul sends greetings to 25 people. 17 are men and eight are women. But only 5 out of the 17 men are listed in a way that describes a specific contribution to the church while 7 out of the 8 woman are highlighted according to their contribution to the ministry, and Prisca who is listed before her husband.
These statistics indicate that women have a rich heritage of contribution to ministry in the church. It includes a deacon that carries the letter to the Romans, a lady who was an apostle and a group of others whose service was well known to the church. It also means that women have a great responsibility to uphold this tradition.
I would encourage my female readers to be like these women of old and undertake to work for the Lord and church at your own initiative. Develop sensitivity to the needs of the church and a willingness and energy to meet the needs of the people. Men we need to acknowledge that women had a much larger role in the early church then we sometimes realize. Although there are no Gospels or Epistles named after a woman, it is clear, lurking beneath the text, that women played an important role in promoting the gospel. Example like the above need to be considered when we think about other verses in the New Testament that seem to restrict the role of women. And even if those verses do clearly restrict women, we need to ask how they compare with the kind of information we have in Romans 16 and other places. I think the early church struggled with this just as we do. We need to work hard to interpret passages within the wider witness of scripture.