Junia (2): the evil of bad scholarship

I hope I conveyed both something of Scot’s passion in Junia is not Alone, and something of the fact that I share it, in the previous post. Strangely, however, one of the results of reading the book for me was a greater degree of sympathy for (some) of those I’ve met who take/took a male-only leadership position.

You see, they were faithful men & women, striving hard to be true to the Bible. And they’d been given Greek Bibles and commentaries that wrote Junia out of the picture so totally that the idea that ‘Junias’ could be a woman was never even considered. It wasn’t their fault that they’d never heard of her; they’d never been given the chance to hear of her.

Now, I know Rom. 16:7 isn’t the only text, and I know that actually you could always find witnesses to a better reading of Rom. 16:7 if you looked for them (see next post for a great example…), but the tale of bad scholarship that Scot tells made it at least more difficult for Bible-believing Christians to hear and understand the argument that male-only leadership was wrong. Scholarship matters, and it needs to be done well.


  1. alastairjroberts
    Dec 8, 2011

    I really do not see how this text bears anything remotely near the weight that McKnight places upon it. There are numerous testimonies in history to people who strongly opposed women exercising pastoral positions of teaching and leadership, but happily and openly acknowledged that Junia was a woman and rightfully termed an apostle. Chrysostom, whom McKnight quotes as giving us a ‘statue-like memorial to Junia’, is one who expresses himself in no uncertain terms in favour of the subordination of women.

    Calvin makes several similar arguments against women occupying the ongoing pastoral office. Calvin seems to allow the possibility of exceptions to the general pattern of women not exercising leadership positions over men under exceptional circumstances, while arguing that this should not be the case in the ordinary life and ministries of the Church. I see no evidence that Calvin held that Junia played a pastoral role. As one sharing an apostolic ministry with Andronicus, she would have been active in evangelism, teaching, and oversight in various ways. However, she would have ministered to women and would not have taught or exercised authority over men (although she could have informally instructed men apart from the pastoral office).

    In addition to the far-reaching assumption that a particular woman exercising the extraordinary and temporary office of apostle, when all of the other apostles of whom we know are men, justifies gender equality in the ordinary and continuing office of pastoral leadership, there is the further assumption that Junia being described as an apostle means that she played exactly the same role as the principal male apostles outside of the Twelve. We also miss the forest on account of a singular tree: if a female apostle is perfectly ordinary, where are they all? Why didn’t Jesus choose a single solitary female in the company of the Twelve? The New Testament, like the Old Testament, presents us with a picture of overwhelmingly male-dominated leadership. Any clear exceptions such as Deborah are presented as that – clear exceptions, and not a challenge to the norm. In fact, closer examination of the example of Deborah merely reinforces the norm of male-leadership.

    Looking more closely at the example of Junia, we see that she appears along with Andronicus. It is together that they are spoken of as being ‘of note among the apostles’. It is by no means obvious that Junia exercised the role of an apostle in her own right in exactly the same way as Andronicus did. When I was a child my parents could have been spoken of as being ‘well known among the Baptist church planters in the Republic of Ireland.’ However, the lead church planter was my father, and my mother entered deeply into his ministry, assisting him in key respects. My mother was not a church planter in her own right in the way that my father was, but was a helper in his task, and shared the title of his ministry as she participated in it (much as Isaiah’s wife was probably called ‘the prophetess’ [Isaiah 8:3] and queen consorts have a royal title on account of their husbands’ office), primarily working with women and doing much to found the church through her efforts.

    In 1 Corinthians 9:5 we read: ‘Have we not the right to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles (hoi loipoi apostoloi), and as the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?’ This suggests that husband-wife teams were common among the apostles. It also strongly suggests that male lead apostleship was the norm. Also, if women apostles were common, would Paul be speaking of possessing ‘the right to lead about a sister, a wife’ as ‘the rest of the apostles’. This phrase alone might suggest that only males exercised this sort of lead apostleship (if there were any women, they were quite exceptional and outside of the norm), and that their wives could be seen as apostles as they shared in their ministry. The men ‘led about’ their wives, much as the prophets and others led about their helpers, disciples, and assistants. Junia would have been led about by Andronicus, teaching and overseeing the women as her helping role within their apostolic ministry.

    Clement of Alexandria writes: “The apostles concentrated on undistracted preaching and took their wives around as Christian sisters rather than as spouses, to be their fellow ministers to the women of the household, so that the gospel would reach them without causing scandal.” (Stromata 3.53.3). The pattern here is a pattern that we see exhibited in various parts of Scripture: a male pastor is assisted by older and spiritually mature women, who minister to the women in a manner that provides them both with positive role models, and greatly decreases the possibility of offense or scandal. The wives are not merely there as spouses, but as supporting ‘fellow ministers’. The wife plays a diaconal role in relation to her husband’s ministry (much as characters like Elijah and Elisha had helpers with them in the fulfilment of their ministries), enabling him to give himself more completely to his particular role of preaching and leadership. If we think in terms of the practice of apostles lead around their wives, who entered into their apostolic commissions as key ‘fellow ministers’ and helpers in the fulfilment of their roles (much as Eve related to the commission of Adam), the fact that Andronicus and Junia are referred to as being ‘of note among the apostles’ really isn’t surprising at all.

    The more troubling thing about this whole debate is the degree to which it is a sort of prooftexting in favour of women’s leadership, neglecting the bigger picture that the Bible presents us with on the subject, and abstracting such verses from their canonical and Pauline context. The Scriptures provide no space for women in key leadership roles (the role of priest in particular) and views women leadership in many other roles as deeply anomalous, limited to exceptional circumstances or persons.

    It is also rather insulting that those making such arguments have the temerity to accuse those of us who oppose women’s leadership of bad motives and inattention to Scripture. Sadly, my experience in discussing this matter with numerous people over several years, is that those in favour of women’s ordination are almost invariably either unwilling or unable to have a wide-ranging biblical discussion on the matter, and many just end up explicitly denying the authority of many canonical texts in order to hold on to their position. Having had this experience numerous times, and coming from a context where I was familiar with the stories that McKnight accuses us of erasing from the earliest age, my suspicion is that the power and appeal of such arguments is far greater in contexts where little intense and comprehensive grasp on the contents of the biblical text is expected, and any employment of it is almost of necessity highly selective, neglecting certain parts of the picture in favour of others.

    • Steve H
      Dec 9, 2011

      Alastair, I don’t know if you read McKnight’s ebook, but he does not try to make Rom. 16:7 carry great weight; he rather uses the story of how Junia disappeared from the Biblical text as a way into exploring other stories of how women’s contributions have been written out of church history. Nor does he speculate at any point about anyone’s motives.

      • alastairjroberts
        Dec 9, 2011


        Thanks for the response, and I trust that all is well with you at the moment.

        I did read McKnight’s book.

        As I understood him, although his focus was upon the erasure of women from our reading of Scripture and Church history and our need to reverse this (a cause that I wholeheartedly support, although I don’t think that the reasons for this effacing are as simple as McKnight suggests), McKnight used Romans 16:7 to support the position that women have the right to exercise teaching authority over men in the Church, treating this as if it followed naturally from the claim that Junia was a female apostle. The resistance to women’s ordination is close beneath the surface of his argument throughout, and cracks the surface on various occasions. For McKnight, Junia isn’t merely about women’s stories not being told, it is about women being suppressed by not being able to act in positions of Church leadership. I was attempting to challenge the role that the text is made to play in that regard, a role that you made far more explicit in your post.

        It is quite possible that I misread him in this regard, but it seems to me that a considerable amount of the moral outrage of McKnight’s argument depends upon a strong connection between a purposeful suppression of Junia, and the denying of women their rightful place in Church leadership. My point is that neither necessarily implies the other. If this is the case, the significance of the treatment of Romans 16:7 for an argument of the suppression of women is considerably lessened.

        I’m sorry, but speaking about editors ‘murdering’ an innocent woman, and other such melodramatic and hyperbolic terms and expressions as McKnight employs, most definitely makes suggestions concerning motives.

        I have discussed this extensively in a post and the comments that follow (in which McKnight has also commented) on my blog.

  2. arlan aquino
    Dec 24, 2011

    I’d like to thank Alistair for giving me some perspective on this. Very helpful.

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