"Outstanding Among the Apostles" - What's your choice?!

Some of us were discussing Romans 16 in class last weekend, as evidence that Paul's teaching on women was inconsistent at best, and probably downright contradictory.

Romans 16
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.

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…

Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. 
 Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord's people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. 

I love this quotation from St. John Chrysostom:

Greet Andronicus and Junia . . . who are outstanding among the apostles” (Romans 16:7): To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle.

Of course, Paul isn't exactly subtle in Galatians, either:

Galatians 3
You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

But Paul also made all sorts of comments, forbidding women from speaking in church, etc...

Yeah, he's sort of a problem.

So what do you do when someone makes contradictory statements? Conservative churches have traditionally taken the most patriarchal, oppressive stance. A surprising choice, given that Christianity is supposedly founded on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Nonetheless, it's important to recognize and admit that right or wrong, it IS a choice being made by Christians. There ARE opposing statements being made. We don't get to reconcile them (of course there are lots of valid "contextual" readings that do help soften some of the harshest language). Ultimately, either Paul is right when he says there is no male or female in Christ, and recognizes women as "apostles," or Paul is right when he says, "women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says." (really, Paul? You're suddenly back to the Law?)

Which do you choose? I mean, really! What's worth fighting for? "Keeping women in their place"? Or freedom?

I choose freedom.

I choose the same for my queer sisters and brothers, and friends of other ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, too. I choose it because I believe the Holy Spirit will guide me into all truth. (John 16:13) I believe the word of God (not a book, but a person) is living and active. (Hebrews 4:12) I also believe I'm generally an ignorant fool, so I constantly question, constantly try to listen, constantly deconstruct... but re-read that Matthew quotation in the header of this blog. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice..." We haven't even BEGUN to understand what's asked of us - what freedom looks like - have we?


Josh Mueller said...

How about applying plain old hermeneutics and understanding statements within the specific context in which they were made?

Assuming that Paul was plainly erratic and couldn't be consistent in his thinking and theology does not fit the character we find in his letters.

Work from the assumption that he is neither contradicting himself on this issue nor on the issue of circumcision (compare Galatians with the fact that he circumcised Timothy!), and I'm sure you can come up with a better solution than the one you're suggesting here!

Eruesso said...

Or you can avoid the issue of Paul contradicting himself if you consider the possibility that he may not have written all of the Pauline letters. But that opens up a whole other crate of worms.

mwp said...

What we can learn from Paul's contradictory statements on these issues is simply that, for him, bringing women into leadership roles wasn't the most important thing. When he discerned good leaders among women, he affirmed that. When he felt that affirming women leadership would threaten something he considered more important for this community at this time (the ability of the community to gather and worship in good order, say) he put it aside. Something similar happens with slavery, which I think he clearly wishes he could just condemn but doesn't, because he doesn't think that's the best way to bring the gospel to the particular people involved (which, in the case of Onesimus, involves plead for his individual freedom).

In most of his letters, Paul didn't think that he was writing rules for the ages; he was trying to keep particular congregations together. My own belief is he may have made some compromises along the way that he would have regretted if he'd known they would live so long and be given such status. He's given us a good window into his thinking so that we can learn from the way he applies the gospel to real life. Starting in a different place we may end up with different results, even thought the same Spirit is at work in us both.

Peter said...

Josh, I probably didn't communicate my motives very well, but my point is that no matter how meticulous ones hermeneutical discipline is, the result is ultimately going to come down to a position that can and will be refuted by others with opposing conclusions. God help us if we don't employ rigorous hermeneutics to our theological and academic disciplines, but sooner or later our conclusions come down to a conscious choice of what to favor. We can invalidate other parties (as I'm certainly guilty of) for perilous scholarship and outrageous conclusions (which I'm also guilty of) but ultimately, we're making a choice, just as they are. Some choices are more objectively made, but they remain choices.

My motive here is to point out the fact of choice - whatever processes brought us to that choice. If a choice is made, then an opposite choice can be made. That can be very liberating for folks whose theological choices have been made for them.

Euresso, I'm comfortable with worm crates, and I definitely agree Paul didn't write all the letters ;)

MWP, I agree: "In most of his letters, Paul didn't think that he was writing rules for the ages; he was trying to keep particular congregations together. My own belief is he may have made some compromises along the way that he would have regretted if he'd known they would live so long and be given such status."
Actually, some of my assumption is actually that Paul was CONSTANTLY battling two halves of himself - the theologically-trained Pharisaic Jew, and the liberated apostle of Christ. There are times when he seems simply unable to break free from his previous lens - the one shared by most of his contemporary, Hellenized society. I get that, and it makes me a little more tolerant of Paul. It's like when I rant against misogyny, and then find YET ANOTHER attitude or assumption in my life that is wildly sexist. We like the idea of Christ's liberation, but I have never seen a person's programming rewired overnight.

Angela said...

Great post. I loved discussing Paul in my religion classes. When people would argue in favor of his more conservative views, I would tell them that I went along with his views that were more in tune with Jesus. Made things less complicated.

Josh Mueller said...


I have no problem with making choices. I do have a problem when the options of that choice are either dictated (and more often than not incorporate some kind of false dichotomy) or when the question itself reflects a misdirection of the actual issue.

But if you must know where I stand on the issue, I will readily confess that I see no obstacles in Paul's writings to a full embrace of women's equality and freedom to use their giftedness.

But that, my friend, is the result of a long process of researching, finding common threads of argumentation, considering cultural and transcultural norms etc. which were all part of a paper I did back in seminary on the question of Women in Ministry.

Choices along lines of personal preference and conviction are possible of course, but to me biblical guidance through solid principles of interpretation and dependence on God's wisdom and the Holy Spirit's assistance in the process is not a utopian quest.

Rhiannon Y Orizaga said...

i wish i had more time to comment on this because it is so relevant! i have been reading a lot about the "new woman" controversy of the first century. Paul & others, Christian and non-Christian alike, were reacting to the emerging fashion of independent, outspoken, women who demanded greater freedoms with their property rights, social lives and sexuality. I just finished research on this... so yeah will write more later! is amazingly interesting. basically Paul could work with women like this (Prisca, Lydia) but still condemn it. Give him a break how many of us always do what we say and say what we do?

Dan Wright said...

I'm not as well studied as some of you on this matter. But it goes back to what I've always said, if Jesus didn't teach it, it doesn't hold as much water, if any. (that's probably why I don't really care about Paul's beliefs/teachings) Also, I don't understand why so many of Paul's letters and teachings are so highly regarded by followers of Jesus. But I'm not a typical Christian either.

Josh Mueller said...


It may have something to do with the belief that Jesus picked Paul and not vice versa (Acts 9).

Steve said...

Hi Peter,

I agree that it isn't simply a matter of using the correct interpretive tools. Our personal histories will influence our decisions, no mater how careful we are or how much we seek the Holy Spirit.

Either the NT affirms women in leadership, but makes some exceptions, OR the NT restricts the role of women, but allows for exceptions. Whichever you choose, you will be influenced by your background.

Nevertheless, what we all miss is the fact that whatever position you support, the Bible affirms exceptions to that position. So if you support women in leadership, you'll have to admit that Biblically that is not always the best path. Also, if you affirm male leadership, you'll have to admit that sometimes God calls women into leadership positions.

So we all have to get off our high horses and be more humble. Including me.


Peter said...

Well said, Stephen. Especially the part about being humble - I need those reminds.

Good to see you here, thanks for the visit, friend.

Eruesso said...

Darn you Martin Luther and your Super-friends! Why did we have to open Pandora's Box? Why couldn't we just leave well enough alone and leave the scripture in the hands of the church. ;)

Josh Mueller said...

Maybe I should clarify that I didn't mean to say good hermeneutics and dependence on God's guidance will magically lead us to a unanimous interpretation of the text.

But since I can only make a choice for myself and not others, the opinion I would like to bring to the table of a communal discussion would have to be based on that.

And Eruesso,
I'd much rather deal with the messy business Luther and friends created than being told what to believe! :-)

Popular Posts