Submitting to governing authorities – Romans 13:1-7

… we read Romans 13:1-7, Jesus remains the one in whom the nations place their hopes. Third, we have read Romans 13 in light of Paul’s apocalyptic narrative about the overthrow of all authorities at the return of Jesus. Paul declares the ‘powers,’ be they political or spiritual, have been disarmed and are impotent before Jesus’ lordship (see Rom 8:38-39; 1 Cor 2:8; 15:25-26; Col 2:15).

‘One Who Will Arise to Rule Over the Nations’, Michael Bird.1

Christians did not affirm Roma aeterna (eternal Rome), but neither did Christians intend to overthrow any government themselves. Rome would be judged by Christ one day, so there was no reason to accept Rome’s claims of eternality or divine favor, but the Kingdom of God would be established by God in God’s time, so there was no need to attempt to overthrow Caesar to install Christ.

Brian LePort on Michael Bird

We can’t overplay the significance of Paul’s understanding of the interplay between the ruling powers of his day and the eschatological hope found in Jesus Christ. One is not divorced from the other – whether Paul thought the eschaton was imminent or not, the ‘spiritual’ is not separate from the political and social order. Paul and these early followers of Jesus did not walk around blindfolded, unaware of the daily challenges of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in an outright pagan society that demanded the obedience of the Empire to another ‘Son of God’ and ‘Saviour’.

Reading the Bible in the New Testament in this way infers that imperial politics was merely an interesting backdrop against which the first-century followers of Jesus conducted their affairs. As I’ve stated before, the Roman Empire “… was not the background, but the foreground of Paul’s world.” Paul’s monotheistic critique of pagan rule may not have been the primary purpose of Paul’s writings, but it is a theme we cannot ignore.

Brian LePort’s challenge, however, is well made. We don’t need to assume that this automatically meant that to install Christ as Lord automatically meant working towards the ‘overthrow of Caesar’ in any overt way. It did mean to live in such a way that recognised who was truly sovereign over history, and to trust that the “kingdom of God would be established by God in God’s time.”

At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

For us in the twenty-first century, our very obedience to the governing authorities, our choice to pay taxes, to honour and respect those who have been placed by God in positions of power and responsibility is a recognition that God knows what he is doing. Being salt and light in our communities and working for the good and blessing of our cities is a godly calling. It is one that requires active engagement with the politics of our day – in the things we say and the way we live. But where change is not as forthcoming as we would like, and things seem to be going from bad to worse, we know that he is control. His timing is perfect. His ways will prevail.


  1. Michael Bird, “‘One Who Will Arise to Rule Over the Nations’: Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Roman Empire” in Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies, 159. ↩

So What?

solafidetop

{This is a follow up post to Part 1 and Part 2.}

My wife is very good at asking me a question I need to ask myself a bit more often: ‘So what?’ Why does it matter how justification works, as long as it does? Does it really matter if Wright has a different take on the imputation of God’s righteousness to Piper?

Piper is very clear that he thinks it matters very much. He argues that Christ is the basis of, and the instrument of, our justification. By faith we’re united with Christ so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). Wright, on the other hand, argues that justification is the announcement issued, on the basis of faith, of who is part of the covenant family of God. Justification isn’t a substance or a ‘thing’ that is passed on to those who have faith in Jesus – it isn’t something that ‘happens’ to someone who puts their faith in Jesus. Justification isn’t a description of how someone becomes a Christian, but rather a declaration that they are a member of God’s family. As the Messiah took upon himself the death that we deserved, Wright argues, God justifies all who are ‘in Christ’ and declares them to be members of his family.

‘Great’, I can hear my wife say, but isn’t that just a false dichotomy? Piper’s interested in how individuals come to be saved and Wright emphasises what happens when they do. Piper is concerned with a starfish and Wright with the ocean, but isn’t the truth that the gospel is both?

Here are a couple of pretty important reasons that Piper cites as to why he thinks that this is an issue that needs bottoming out:

Is the gospel an account of how people get saved or isn’t it?

“The gospel”, according to Wright, “refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.”1 So far so good, but it’s what Wright goes on to claim: “’The gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is… the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus.”2

Needless to say, Piper takes issue with that on several levels, as we shall see.

Is justification addressing ‘how’ you become a Christian or isn’t it?

Justification wasn’t seen by Paul and his contemporaries, as about ‘getting in’ as much as it was about ‘staying in’. Yet haven’t we learnt to read plenty of scriptural passages that are about justification altering our relationship with God? What about Romans 5:1 (if you’re reading this on my website, just hover over the reference and it’ll pop up for you.) Doesn’t that verse alone seem to suggest that justification brings about a “fundamentally new and reconciled relationship with God”?3

Why I think this matters…

I think that what we think about the gospel and about justification will affect the way we live. What we think about the gospel will shape how we respond to the tough times, how we respond to the knocks to our faith, how we respond when we doubt God. It has immediate pastoral relevance when helping others to follow Jesus too. What we think about the gospel, and justification, will affect the way we share the gospel with others.

The primer I referenced in an earlier post puts it this way:

Which is more scandalous? The multitudes of Christians who think they need to earn their salvation by being good? Or the throng of Christians who think that holy living doesn’t matter as long as they have prayed the sinner’s prayer? Pastors’ answers will largely indicate how they feel about the justification debate…” 4

I have sympathy with the pastor who says of Wright’s, arguably more obscure, view on justification, “very few people in my congregation would understand it, and few would take real comfort in it.” On the other hand, he says, “whenever I nail a strong justification sermon and emphasize that nothing we do provides any grounding for our right standing with God, I’ll get e-mails thanking me for such a freeing message."5

This is the point, however, when I start to get a bit nervous. Just because someone is expressing an opinion that is difficult to follow and not immediately grasped, it doesn’t mean that his or her opinion is wrong.

I want to get as close as I can to understanding what Paul was saying to the early church when he spoke about justification. If Wright is closer to this than Piper, I don’t care whether it’s complicated or not, it deserves to be taught in every church. If the answer is more complicated than the one I have been brought up to believe, then so be it. If we choose to place an emphasis on something other than what Paul placed emphasis on, we better have a good reason.

If my cultural blinkers are keeping me focused on a gospel that risks me thinking that the world revolves around me as a person rather than around the cosmic plan of God then I want to do something to change that. Right now, that thing I’m going to do is think. I hope you’re thinking of doing the same thing.


  1. Wright cited in Piper, (2008: 18)  ↩

  2. Wright cited in Piper, (2008: 18)  ↩

  3. Piper, (2008: 19)  ↩

  4. See “Not an Academic Question”  ↩

  5. See “Not an Academic Question”  ↩

42 and all that

open quotes[Wright’s] portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognise as biblically faithful.close quotes

(John Piper1)

Ok, the quote to your right is a serious statement, so over the next couple of posts I’m going to start exploring the debate between Piper and Wright as I understand it…

At the start of his book, Wright gives an analogy of a friend who, through accident of education, is convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. This friend points to what he sees with his eyes – the rising and setting of the sun – and holds that tradition, held over many hundreds of years, also stands in support of his claim. Despite long conversations late into the night, your friend remains unconvinced by all your attempts to persuade him otherwise. The point that Wright makes is that this is exactly how it appears to him – his attempts to outline a different way of viewing God’s plan for salvation have been flatly rejected as obscuring what, to many in the reformed tradition at least, is presented as ‘the most obvious meaning’ of scripture. With some frustration, Wright is seeking to outline his view that discussion of justification as ‘the evidence of our eyes’ belies the fact that the reformed view of ‘justification’, as many understand it, is deeply conditioned by a tradition that obfuscates Paul’s original meaning. Here, Wright spells it out:

The theological equivalent of supposing that the earth goes round the sun is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation2

Wright, aware of his own potential to be in error, is seeking to engage in a discussion on whether the sun truly does revolve around the earth or if things might be a little different from what they seem. If the ‘story’ of justification is not that God revolves around me, the sinner, and that Paul was meaning something quite different, then this copernican revolution deserves our careful attention. Wright’s argument is that justification is, indeed, expressing a much larger story about the plan of God for his universe. “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”3 Salvation, whilst obviously hugely significant for every individual, is part of a much larger purpose:

We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around4

To be fair to Piper, I’m sure he would very much agree that we are not ‘the centre of the universe’. His very definition of God’s righteousness as “[God’s] unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does” lays this out fairly firmly. However, something in me riles against the tendency in reformed evangelical circles to explain the Christian life from the starting point of detached propositional truths. This isn’t the way Paul chose to unpack the Christian life. God didn’t give us the Bible as a systematic, theological primer, he gave us a book with lots of really good stories, letters, poems and histories – the ‘doctrine’ threaded through its pages is mostly pulled out to address specific pastoral needs. If we depart from framing our discussion in the context of God’s plan for the universe, then are we departing from the Bible’s choice of communication?

The historian in me is more attracted to Wright’s attempt to place Paul firmly within a historical context. I am also impressed by how hard he works to synthesise the old and new testaments. Here’s a confession: I admit to being attracted to this approach, before actually hearing his arguments, because it fits into my categories of thinking. So, when Wright says things like “for too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions…”5 I‘m liking his style. At times, it does feel as if Piper’s arguments are a little detached from all that has gone before, as if the long story of Israel is merely a backdrop that can be pushed aside (once proof texts have been extracted, of course) rather than the whole book being about the story of God’s plan to save the world.

In case it isn’t already obvious, I’ll come out, unashamedly, to state that as I start to explore what I think, my eggs are largely starting in Tom Wright’s basket. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to be ‘thinking out loud’ as I unpack this debate a bit further, in a (vain?) attempt to come to my own, considered, opinion. All being well, my next post will ask a question I haven’t properly addressed yet regarding Wright and Piper’s conflicting views on justification: ‘So what?’


  1. Piper, J. (2008), The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright, Nottingham: IVP, p. 15  ↩

  2. Wright, N., T. (2009), Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, London: SPCK, p. 7  ↩

  3. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  4. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  5. Wright (2009), p. 21  ↩

Wright on blogging

NT Wright

It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage… [I have] a pastoral concern for anyone who spends more than a few minutes a day taking part in blogsite discussions, especially when they all use code names: was it for this that the creator God made human beings?

Was that Tom Wright having a rant?!

IVP have made available 29 or so pages of Wright forthcoming ‘Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision’. It appears that Wright was prompted to write this tome as a reply to some of the criticism he has been experiencing in some quarters, perhaps most notably and articulately from John Piper. Looks like it’ll be a good one…

Christ and Caesar

St-Paul-the-Apostle-Mosaic

Only recently alerted to its existence by Jon Taylor, I’ve recently been dipping into Seyoon Kim’s Christ and Caesar.
Kim’s central purpose is to debunk the idea that Paul included coded political messages in his letters in order to subvert the Roman Empire. I have expressed my views on the debate, particularly as it related to Philippians, in a previous post, but I must say that Kim does raise some excellent critical doubts regarding the counter-imperial readings offered by N.T. Wright et al that are worthy of serious consideration. After a brief introduction, the book is divided into two main sections: (1) The Epistles of Paul (pp. 1-71), and (2) The Writings of Luke (pp. 73-190). The book concludes with a Summary and Conclusion (pp. 191-99), an Epilogue titled, “Some Implications for Today” (pp. 200-3), and finally a select bibliography and two indices.

In part 1, Kim examines five epistles of Paul exegetically and shows how the dominant anti-imperial interpretation is actually difficult to sustain. Lee Irons has posted a very helpful review of the book and draws attention to chapter 4, titled “Factors that make an anti-imperial interpretation difficult.” Of the 9 factors given, a number particularly stand out and are picked up on by Lee in his second post that fleshes out the following headings:

  • The problem of Romans 13:1-7 for proponents of the counter-imperial argument
  • The relative scarcity of references (explicit or otherwise) to the imperial cult in scripture
  • Paul’s expectation of acquittal and release (see for example Phil 1:19-26) – “A man with such a hope could hardly have preached the gospel in an anti-imperial sense” (p. 50).
  • Paul’s socio-political conservatism – Paul exhorts them to be subject to the governing authorities and to live quietly* and mind their own affairs (Rom 13:1; 1 Thess 4:11). (*The verb is ἡσυχάζω: “Of conduct that does not disturb the peace. Christian leaders endeavored to keep their members free of anything that might be construed as disturbance of public order” [BDAG].)
  • Paul’s transcendent conception of salvation – the belief that Paul viewed the fundamental problems confronting humanity did not have to do with political oppression, imperialism, and the like, but with humanity’s alienation from God and its enslavement to the powers of sin and death

Using these factors as a launching pad for his argument, Kim seeks to undercut the notion of there being “coded” messages in Paul’s letters (a device that N. T. Wright is particularly fond of):

This is a rather desperate attempt to obtain anti-imperial messages where there are none. Inevitably this method involves self-contradiction… Thus, the anti-imperial interpreters’ appeal to the device of coding amounts to an inadvertent admission of the failure of their whole interpretive scheme (pp. 36-37).

open quotes… It simply makes sense to me that some of Paul’s important language would have naturally struck cords in people’s minds concerning the empire, and that this was no accident on Paul’s part…close quotes

Kim’s analysis of how Paul uses terms like kyrios, euangelion, dikaiosyne, katallage, etc within the context of his writings and mission seeks to demonstrate that he used them to convey his own message about the gospel of Christ, not to critique the Roman Empire or the imperial cult. He argues that a counter-imperial reading must be imposed on the texts in question by assuming deductively that since the Roman order and the imperial cult were so pervasive, that Paul had to have had this political reality in view when using these terms and therefore could only have been using the terms subversively:

Really they impose anti-imperial meanings onto these terms and string those passages up, sometimes extrapolating the meaning of one passage to another, in order to claim that Paul preached the gospel in deliberate antithesis to the imperial ideology and cult. This looks like a new application of the old-fashioned proof-text method that dogmatists employed to construct doctrines, and dispensationalists used to construct elaborate eschatological scenarios (p. 32).

It’s this part of Kim’s analysis that leaves me feeling a bit cold. The historian in me is never fully comfortable with readings of scripture that don’t seem willing to recognise both the ‘theological’ with the ‘historical’ trajectories of texts. As Adolf Deissmann wrote early in the 20th century: “It must not be supposed that St. Paul and his fellow believers went through the world blindfolded, unaffected by what was then moving the minds of men in great cities,” namely, the imperial cult (quoted by Kim, p. xv). Or as Chris Tilling says “It simply makes sense to me that some of Paul’s important language would have naturally struck cords in people’s minds concerning the empire, and that this was no accident on Paul’s part.”

The strength of part 2 is, in many ways, undercut by his brief and last section on the implications of his research for today’s audience. Part 2 examines the Lukan writings (Luke-Acts) to see how Luke talks about the encounters of Paul and other preachers of the gospel with Roman imperialism. Central to this section is why Luke appears to make no effort to present Christ’s redemption as materialized in terms of political liberation. Fair enough. Yet after around 198 or so pages devoted to Paul and Luke, it’s such a shame that Kim can only muster 3 pages on exploring the implications of what he has been saying!

We have pointed out that both in Paul and Luke an imminent eschatology and political realism played their parts, along with other factors, in discouraging them from thinking about the present materialization of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship in the political sphere … But most Christians today no longer feel the pressure of an imminent eschatology so greatly, and they therefore naturally are concerned about the present materialization of God’s reign or Christ’s Lordship

Kim seems here to be inferrnig that because both Luke and Paul viewed the eschaton as imminent, they simply rejected any notion that there was a political dimension to the gospel. Our circumstance are, he argues, different becuase we “no longer feel the pressure of an imminent eschatology so greatly” and so are therefore free to develop a stronger political emphasis to the gospel in bringing about, what he describes as “the present materialisation of God’s reign.” This, for me, falls far short of a decent answer and lets the book down IMO.

Once I’ve had the chance to further digest Kim’s work, I will hopefully take the chance to post some further thoughts on this blog, but my overwhelming impression having just put it down, is that it lets itself down in its “implications for today”.

Does anyone else have any thoughts to contribute?

Romans 16v1-16 – Part 4

Continued from Part 3Part 1 here

Four other women are worthy of especial mention. Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Mary and Persis (vv. 6, 12) are described by Paul with the verb Kopiao (κοπιάω). This is a technical term describing the labours of a missionary, which implies strong exertion by those who ‘toil’. Paul is known to use this term for his own evangelistic and pastoral ministry,1 but here uses it four times to describe these women. It seems Paul intends for these women to be characterised as members of the community who “deserve respect and recognition for their tireless evangelising and community-building ministry.”2 It is significant that no such descriptions are found in this passage for men.

Lampe gives a detailed analysis of the names provided in Romans 16 in the light of the inscriptions available in Rome. He concludes that four names are definitely not those of slaves or freedmen; ten definitely are; and twelve cannot be determined.3 Whilst we cannot know if this pattern pertains to the church as a whole, if it did, then the composition of the church would broadly mirror wider Rome society.4 Many freedmen were rich businessmen who held a more secure economic position than many within Rome who were freeborn.5

Of the 26 names listed in these verses, only 15% are recognisably Jewish (Andronicus, Junia, and Herodia), pointing therefore to a largely Gentile church. How then can we account for the content of Paul’s letter assuming a fairly developed level of knowledge of both Jewish customs and culture? The most likely solution is that those within the Roman church were of Gentile origin but “had lived as sympathisers on the margins of the synagogues before they became Christian.”6

16:16: Greet one another with a holy kiss

While Watson may be correct in asserting “two Roman congregations”7 in the most general sense of two differing theological positions, Lampe argues from this passage that there could have been up to seven different house-churches in Rome.8 Paul’s purpose in addressing each house-church here seems to be hinted at in him asking them to greet each other with a holy kiss in v. 16. This would serve as a reminder to them that they belonged to the same family and a reminder of the unity Paul longed for, as expressed in chapters 14 and 15. Seen in this light, the verses that immediately follow, whilst seeming to be a “brief and unexplained tirade” (vv. 17–19),9 do make sense as a warning against any heresy that may put their fellowship as a collection of house-churches under threat.

Conclusion

Debate will continue on some aspects of this passage. Feminist commentators rightly caution that the perspectives and experiences of women in scripture have been funnelled through the perspectives of male authors and interpreters. This should heighten our awareness of our own hermeneutical presuppositions and lead us to take special care when interpretive decisions involving gender are required. In the absence of further information, it is often left to the theologian to make informed decisions on exactly how to interpret this list of names and one must be critically aware of ones own hermeneutical blind spots when making interpretative decisions which must always remain provisional.

It is important to recognise in an analysis of Romans 16:1–16 that a “group of 26 hardly allows any generalisation about the Roman church as a whole.”10 Whilst we cannot generalise these results for the Roman church, we also cannot trivialise the importance of what this data reveals. There is no evidence here that the ways in which women participated in the early church differed “in kind or in quantity”11 from the ways in which men worked. Indeed, it appears that Paul “singled out [a number of women for] their service to the Pauline mission.”12 What this data does not conclusively prove however, is that women joined the Pauline mission as an “an association of equals”;13 to make a judgement purely from this data is to go beyond what the text itself allows.

Bibliography

  • Burer, M., H., & Wallace, D., B., (2001) ‘Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Re-examination of Rom 16.7.’ in New Testament Studies 47.1. p. 76–91
  • Bray, G., (Ed.), (1998) Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press)
  • Brunner, E., (1959) The Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, (London: Lutterworth Press)
  • Cohick, L., H., (2002) ‘Romans’, in Kroeger and Evans (Ed.), Women’s Bible Commentary, (Illinois: IVP)
  • Gaventa, B., R., (1992) ‘Romans’, in Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Ed.) The Women’s Bible Commentary, (London: SPCK)
  • Harrison, E., F., (1976) The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans, (Volume 10: Zondervan)
  • Lampe, P., ‘The Roman Christians of Romans 16’, in Donfried, K., P., (Ed.), (1991) The Romans Debate, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark)
  • Moo, D., (1996) The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing)
  • Murray, J., (1965) The Epistle to the Romans: Volume 2, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s Publishing)
  • Scholar, D., ‘The Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry’, in Levine, A., (2003) A Feminist Companion to the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, (London: T&T Clark)
  • Schüssler-Fiorenza, E., (1990) ‘Missionaries, Apostles, Co-workers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History’, in Loades, A., (Ed.), Feminist Theology: A Reader, (London: SPCK)
  • –––––– (1995) In Memory of Her, (Second Edition: London: SCM Press)
  • Wacker, M., (1998) ‘Feminist Exegetical Hermeneutics’, in Schottroff, L., Schroer, S., Wacker, M., Feminist Interpretation: The Bible in Women’s Persepctive, (MN: Fortress Press), pp. 36–62
  • Ziesler, J., (1989) Paul’s Letter to the Romans, (London: SCM Press)

  1. See Gal 4:11 and 1 Cor 15:10  ↩

  2. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 68  ↩

  3. Moo (1996), p. 918 quoting Lampe  ↩

  4. Moo (1996), p. 918  ↩

  5. Lampe (1991), p. 229  ↩

  6. Lampe (1991), p. liii  ↩

  7. Watson argues that there are two separate congregations in Rome marked by “mutual hostility and suspicion over the question of the law.” Watson in Lampe (1991), p. 206  ↩

  8. Lampe (1991), p. liii. It’s worth noting that most commentators identify between three and five separate house churches (vv. 5, 14, 15, cf. also vv. 10, 11.) See, for example, Moo (1996), p. 918  ↩

  9. Ziesler (1989), p. 349  ↩

  10. Lampe (1991), p. 224  ↩

  11. Gaventa (1992), p. 320  ↩

  12. Scholar (2003), p. 121  ↩

  13. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 70–71  ↩

Romans 16v1-16 – Part 3

Continued from Part 2Part 1 here

16:3–15: Personal Greetings

A significant indication that there may have been equal opportunity for roles within the church is found in verse 3. One can argue that this list of greetings is structured not (as was typically the case) in terms of social status but in terms of ecclesial standing. The greetings list begins with greetings for Prisca and Aquila (a couple whom Paul most likely knew well) alongside the ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) community that meets in their house (vv. 3–4), and ends with greetings to whole groups and to ‘all saints’ belonging to them (16v15).1 In mentioning Prisca before her husband, Paul may be inferring that she was even more outstanding in her work for the church than was Aquila.2 Some commentators suggest that Prisca is mentioned before Aquila because she may have occupied a higher social rank than her husband.3 The co-text of these verses does not suggest that this is a correct interpretation however. Verses 21 – 23 lists five names before those of the socially elevated Erastus and Gaius with their “municipal office and spacious habitation” respectively (v. 23).4 It would appear that Paul is more interested in listing people’s importance for the church than for their secular credentials. For Paul to choose to over-ride social conventions in mentioning Prisca before her husband, it seems likely therefore that Paul was attributing particular importance to the role of Prisca in that house church community.

open quotes… whilst this passage does not prove apostolic leadership for women in the church, it certainly does not rule it out.close quotes

The identification of Andronicus and Junia (v. 7) as ‘outstanding among the apostles’ (ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις) may also indicate a degree of equity in gender roles within the church. Interpreters from the thirteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century generally preferred the masculine identification of ‘Junias’, with seemingly no supporting evidence, as a contraction of the name ‘Junianus’.5 Before the thirteenth century commentators largely preferred the feminine identification ‘Junia.’6

Cohick helpfully points out that the masculine name “Junias” appears on no known “Greek inscription, public monument, graffito or literary document.”7 With the debate hinging on whether the name is accented, made problematic by the fact that most MSS do not use accents, it would appear that the hypothetical masculine name “Junias” rests on “nothing more solid than conventional prejudice.”8

We must rightly ask, however, that if they are ‘outstanding’ examples of apostles, what was meant by the term ‘apostle’ as applied to them? Feminist commentators have usefully drawn attention to questionable methodology in regards to the translational decisions made over Junia’s gender. Accepting the case for ‘Junia’ over ‘Junias’, we cannot then state with apodictic certainty, however, that Paul was therefore making a statement about the role of women as apostolic leaders within the early church as some have sought to do. We still need to distinguish the sense in which the word ‘apostle’ is being used here. Wallace and Burer argue linguistically that the Greek phrase means “well-known to the apostles” and thus doesn’t indicate that Junia was an apostle. It would, though, appear that their analysis falls short of being able to explain how Andronicus and Junia could be an ‘outstanding’ example of being well-known.9 Paul often uses ‘apostle’ in a loose sense to denote ‘messenger’ or ‘emissary’10 and Moo suggests that we can therefore read this title here as “travelling missionary”11 rather than as an office or title within the early church.

Taking an approach commensurate with what Osiek identifies as a “hermeneutic of loyalty,”12 Harrison argues that in this passage Paul’s “relation to [women] and [his] appreciation for them makes suspect the verdict of those who would label him a misogynist.”13 To count Andronicus and Junia amongst the apostles, and not only this but outstanding among them, is highly significant evidence for the regard in which Paul held for women within the Christian movement. There is a danger here of over interpreting the evidence given in this text, yet it is clear that whilst this passage does not prove apostolic leadership for women in the church, it certainly does not rule it out.

Feminist theologian Schüssler-Fiorenza is quick to identify the trend to masculate Junia as an “androcentric theological assumption [which] cannot be maintained exegetically.”14 She goes further however, in suggesting that this example is only the “tip of an iceberg” in which the role of women has been “submerged… by an androcentric model of early Christian beginnings” that will refuse to recognise evidence for the leadership of women.15 In contending that our reading of this text has been held back by the unconscious bias of established scholarship and the “obfuscating functions of androcentric language of biblical sources,”16 she asserts that we have “erased”17 women’s role in the early church. Only through what she calls a “hermeneutic of suspicion”18 are we able to recover glimpses of women’s participation, leadership and experience in the beginnings of the Christian church. Whilst one must be suspicious of a conservative-traditionalist approach that grants the Bible absolute authority almost to the point of denial that the worlds of the reader and the author exist, Schüssler-Fiorenza is at risk here of using women’s experience as a hermeneutical principle which is over and above Scripture. If this is her stance, then she fails to articulate an evaluative criteria that seeks to justify this interpretive framework to safeguard against eisegesis without appropriate respect for historical context and appropriate exegesis.19

Continue to Part 4


  1. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 66  ↩

  2. See also Romans 16:3; Acts 18:18, 26; and 2 Tim 4:19. Only 1 Cor 16:19 (cf. Acts 18:2) presents the opposite order. “If Luke had known anything about a socially elevated status of Prisca, he would have loved to mention it, distinguished women being a preferred subject for him: e.g. Luke 8:3; Acts 17:4, 12; vf. 16:14; 17:34.” Lampe (1991), p. 223  ↩

  3. Lampe (1991), p. 223  ↩

  4. Lampe (1991), p. 223  ↩

  5. Moo (1996), p. 922. (cf. NIV; RSV; NASB; TEV; NJB)  ↩

  6. Moo (1996), p. 922. (cf. KJV; NRSV; REB). John Chrysostom: “Think how great the devotion of this woman Junia must have been, that she should be worthy to be called an apostle!” Bray (1998), p. 372  ↩

  7. Cohick (2002), p. 644. Moo rightly cautions, however, that the Greek form of the name (as opposed to the Latin form) was not a popular name. Moo (1996), p. 922  ↩

  8. Cranfield (1985), p. 377  ↩

  9. Burer & Wallace (2001), p. 91  ↩

  10. See 2 Cor 8:3; Phil 2:25  ↩

  11. Moo (1996), p. 924  ↩

  12. Wacker (1998), p. 36  ↩

  13. Harrison (1976), p. 166  ↩

  14. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 68  ↩

  15. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 60  ↩

  16. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 71. Wacker (1998) describes Schüssler-Fiorenza’s work as representing a ‘hermeneutic of liberation’ approach to feminist theology, p. 44  ↩

  17. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1995), p. xlviii  ↩

  18. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 71  ↩

  19. Wacker (1998), p. 46, echoes this critique as pointing to “… different basic decisions in feminist hermeneutics that need to become subject to discussions in critical solidarity beyond the domain of feminist exegesis.  ↩

Romans 16v1-16 – Part 2

… Continued from Part 1…

16:1–2: Commendation of Phoebe

Feminist interpretations on this passage have shed useful light on these verses, raising many questions that must continue to be explored. Paul’s commendation of ‘our sister’ Phoebe as a diakonos (διάκονος) of the church in Cenchreae can be interpreted in at least two ways.

open quoteswhat is clear is that she served in some significant leadership role in the congregation at Cenchreaeclose quotes

Firstly, that ‘Deacon’ is used in this verse to denote that Phoebe is being commended for acts of service, but that this is does not suppose that she “occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesiastical office.”1 Evidence for this usage can be found elsewhere within the letter. For example, when talking of his collection for the church in Jerusalem, an immensely practical task, Paul describes himself as “ministering (διακονῶν / diakonon) to the saints.”2 In this context, it would not appear that a diakonos does not need to refer to an official office. Moo posits two levels of authority operating within the early church, whereby women participated within the ministry of the church but in a ‘private’ rather than ‘public’ sense. Therefore, Paul’s use of diakonos (διάκονος) here is being used in an unofficial, private and non-authoritative sense.3 Those who read the text through feminist lenses have rightly questioned this approach. Coming from quite different perspectives, both Scholar and Schüssler-Fiorenza argue that to separate out authority like this is not only anachronistic but also overlooks the fact that “in the house church the ‘private and public’ spheres of the Church overlap.”4 Furthermore, there appears to be no direct evidence for this approach to ecclesial authority within the Pauline corpus.

The second interpretation of this reference accepts some level of recognized position within the church at Cenchreae. We know that the office of diakonos already existed in some form, although how developed, and how similar to its later meaning, is unclear.5 In Romans 12 Paul includes the gift of diakonia (διακονίᾳ) alongside that of prophecy, teaching, and exhortation implying that the office of deacon has a teaching and liturgical function within church life.6 Timothy is called ‘our brother’ by Paul and as God’s diakonos.7 The author of Colossians recommends Tychicus as ‘our beloved brother’ and ‘faithful diakonos’ (4v7).8

The qualification of diakonos coupled with ‘of the church’ does seem to suggest that Phoebe held the office of deacon at Cenchreae as a co-worker of Paul as described it in 1 Tim 3:8–12 (cf. Phil 1:1).9

Phoebe is also described as the Prostatis (προστάτις) “of many” in verse 2. Cohick cites the masculine form (προστάτης) being employed by Justin Martyr to denote the person presiding at communion.10 Yet whilst the pastoral epistles do use this word to describe church officials who preside over the congregation,11 the comparison between Phoebe as the patron “of many” rather than “of the church”12 (as compared to verse 1) suggests that Cohick is overstretching the text to fit what she would like it to say. The meaning of Paul here, is more likely to reflect her role as a ‘benefactor’ of many therefore. Nonetheless, in describing Phoebe as a ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’ does point to her having considerable wealth, independence and, evidently, freedom to travel.

There is no indication of the nature of Phoebe’s business or how long she intended to stay in Rome, but what is clear is that she served “in some significant leadership role in the congregation at Cenchreae.”13 What is unclear from this text, however, is the extent to which this leadership was equal in authority to that of men.

… Continue to Part 3…


  1. See for example Murray (1965), p. 226  ↩

  2. Romans 15:25, 31. See also Acts 6:1–2; Col 1:7  ↩

  3. Scholar (2003), p. 110 commentating on Moo  ↩

  4. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 71 and Scholar (2003), p. 110 commentating on Moo: Interpretation p. 208  ↩

  5. e.g. Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 11  ↩

  6. Romans 12:6–8. See also Acts 6:4; 20:24; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Tim 4:5  ↩

  7. 1 Thess 3v2  ↩

  8. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 64  ↩

  9. Moo (1996), p. 914  ↩

  10. Cohick (2002), p. 644  ↩

  11. e.g. 1 Tim 3:4–5; 5:17  ↩

  12. Moo (1996), p. 916  ↩

  13. Gaventa (1992), p. 320  ↩

Feminist approaches can be handy you know

An interpretation of Romans 16:1–16

Over the next four posts I am going to be exploring one of those chapters that we are in danger of skipping over in our Bible reading, but which, with a bit of effort, can give us vital information on the life and practice of the early church. We’ll start with a bit of an overview today and move onto the text proper tomorrow. As the title suggests, I’ll be giving an interpretation that (hopefully) takes particular account of the perspectives offered by a range of feminist approaches to the passage…

Brunner describes this chapter as “one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament”1 because it provides a window into the early church in Rome. It reveals Roman Christians to be diverse in race, social status and gender and is a “gold mine…” for those “interested in the socioeconomic composition of the early church.”2 However, as we shall see, there is significant disagreement amongst interpreters over the meaning of the greetings, especially to the women he mentions, as to their role and function within the early Christian church.

Context

open quotes… one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testamentclose quotes

Through my interpretation of this passage I will be looking to demonstrate that these verses show the 50’s of the first century to have included the significant involvement of women in the pastoral and missionary work of the Roman church. However, by the end of the first century this influence had been reduced to a minimum, later surviving only in marginal Christian groups that soon were viewed as having “the taint of heresy.”3

There is considerable debate over whether chapter 16 was originally found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is surprisingly to read the longest list of greetings found in Pauline texts written to a church Paul had not yet visited, and has led some to question, from the list of names given, whether this actually constituted a shorter letter to the Ephesian church. However, it is worth noting that the letter with the second longest list of greetings is found in Colossians, a church Paul had also not, at the stage of writing, visited himself.

The manuscripts disagree over the accuracy of the order of the text as it now appears in Romans. For example, should the benediction in vv. 25–27 occur at the end of chapter fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or be omitted altogether? Manuscript evidence can be given in support of each of these alternatives. However, textual criticism does teach us that “no Romans manuscript ever ends with chapter 15.”4 Lampe argues convincingly that Romans 16 is an original and integral part of Paul’s letter epigraphically, theologically and sociologically and this author finds no reason to disagree with his conclusion.5

16:1–16: Overview

In the passage Paul commends Phoebe to the Roman Christians (vv. 1–2), urges them to greet several of their number,6 (vv. 3–15) and to greet one another with a ‘holy kiss’ (v. 16). Seeking their support for his coming missionary work in Spain,7 Paul is aware that he is personally unknown to many in the church. Paul therefore first has to gain their confidence. Paul is indirectly displaying his authority by sending his greetings from ‘all churches’. This also makes sense of why Paul asks the Roman church to greet some of his personal friends rather than simply greeting them directly himself; highlighting that he is known by some within their communities and thereby gaining the trust of those he does not yet know.8

… Continue to Part 2…


  1. Brunner (1959), p. 126  ↩

  2. Moo (1996), p. 918  ↩

  3. Lampe (1991), p. 224  ↩

  4. Lampe (1991), p. 217  ↩

  5. Lampe (1991), p. 219  ↩

  6. “Verses 3–15 is really a connected whole; but perhaps a minor transition can be discerned at v. 8, where Paul moves away from greetings to people that he knows well (vv. 3–7) to greetings of people that he may know only casually or perhaps even only by reputation (vv. 8–15).”, Moo (1996), p. 918  ↩

  7. See Romans 15:24, 30  ↩

  8. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 66  ↩