Outstanding Among the Apostles

Writing is an act of hope. There is a presumption that what you have to say not only matters, but can shift things, make things better. To write is to believe that things can be other than what they are. Maybe that is why I have battled to write these last few months. I am not sure I believe that anymore. Nevertheless, here I am again – inspired to continue to write by remarkable women.

As a tribute to my wife on her birthday on Saturday, I want to write about another remarkable woman who inspires hope. She is a character in the Bible who gets only one mention in a reference that it is all too easy to gloss over. She is probably somebody you have never heard of and who has never ben mentioned in a sermon at your church. But her courage and steadfast faith bear witness to the power of the gospel to outlast even Christianity’s attempt to pervert it.  Her name is Junia.

At the end of his epistle to the Romans, Paul concludes the letter with the ancient equivalent of a series of shout-outs. One of these (in Romans 16:7) mentions Junia:

“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”.

The fact that this cameo appearance has incited as much debate, spawned as many books and papers as it has, is in itself worthy of our attention. It illustrates perfectly what the gospel does: it disrupts. It makes us question all of our deeply-held convictions about what God is like and the appropriate ways to respond to who God is. The truth of the matter is that there really should not be anything even remotely controversial in Paul’s commendation of somebody who has inspired him.

And yet, over the centuries, Junia has proved to be a divisive figure in Christianity. The controversy boils down to this: Junia is a woman and yet Paul calls her an apostle. Through the centuries, Christian commentators, entangled in problematically patriarchal ways of understanding theology, have not been able to wrap their heads around that. Whoever heard of a female apostle?

Now I have no doubt that in Paul’s world this commendation of Junia would have been equally inflammatory. After all, we know that Junia, like Paul, is Jewish, and in the orthodox Jewish world that Paul inhabited, women could not hold positions of authority. In fact, men and women would not have been allowed even to sit together, whether in synagogue or at the dinner table. Nevertheless, Paul considers her not only as “among the apostles”, but as “outstanding” among them. No doubt that would have rocked some boats, as indeed is evident in the fact that Peter and the church in Jerusalem seem to engage in an ongoing wrestling with letting go of the requirement to obey Jewish cultural laws.

The thing is, I don’t know that Paul intended it that way – as controversial, I mean. What strikes me is that Paul writes about Junia being an apostle as though equality between men and women was a completely normal part of everyday life. And my suspicion is that for the early church, it was. This is the same Paul, after all, who wrote in Galatians that in Christ there was to be no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free. The gospel obliterates arbitrary social distinctions and Paul accepted, preached and lived that. This would not have been an inflammatory political statement by Paul; it was just a shout-out. For Paul and the early church, inclusivity was the new normal.

We battle with that, though. We need a hierarchy. We want a God who rewards the faithful with a place at His (somehow this God is always identified as masculine) right hand, We need there to be a righteous few, whom God will vindicate, and an unrighteous many, whom God will – with as much glee as we would, I imagine – smite. We crave the assurance that the oppressive ways our cultures have ordered the world are divinely sanctioned. It makes the denigration of certain (less righteous) groups – systemic injustices that are foundational in maintaining social cohesion – a little more palatable. It makes the guilt of accepting and embracing our own privilege so much easier to bear when we can accept that females and foreigners and the poor are (even if only marginally) more unrighteous than we are, if we can convince ourselves that we are somehow Chosen. Our problem with Junia is that Paul’s God doesn’t seem to make those same distinctions. Jesus clearly didn’t get that memo.  

And so centuries later, when the various texts that have come to be known collectively as “The Bible” were collated and printed, the translators – incapable of reconciling apostleship with femininity, performed the first sex change: Junia became Junias. It was only in 2011 that the NIV translation, which purports to be the most accurate translation of the original, finally acknowledged that Junia was a woman and amended the translation.

Nearly two millennia later, Junia stands as a testimony to the irrepressible and enduring hope that the gospel message contains, that God will not be remade in our own image, we who regard righteousness as a consequence of being born into a particular culture or the by-product of faithful observance of particular laws and creeds. The gospel message of Jesus, for which Junia was no doubt imprisoned and her devotion to which Paul found so exemplary, is an inclusive one. Junia, who most likely followed Jesus while he was still alive, because she was a follower even before Paul, stands as a guardian of the gospel even now, through the ages, as she refuses to allow us to use the gospel to justify exclusion.

In many ways, Meg, you remind me of Junia. You are resolutely true to your convictions, despite the hostility of a world that cannot understand the radical inclusivity of the gospel you live, that strives to make you something other than what you are. In stark contrast to modern Christianity’s toxic self-righteousness, there is the shining light of your graciousness, your humility, your self-sacrifice, your tireless struggle to make the world a better, more Christlike place. You are a truly exceptional, beautiful human being. A beacon of light in a dark world. Outstanding among the apostles.

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