Now this one threw me for a loop. I never noticed this before – “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” – Romans 16:7
There is no doubt that Paul is referring to Junias as a female apostle in this verse. Paul’s use of the plural seems to include her and not just Andronicus. Add on top of that his reference to Phoebe as a female deacon in 16:1 and you really have some issues to work out. This is a really tough one for me because I want the Bible to inform and shape me and not the other way around. I don’t want to try so hard to make the Bible fit my preconceived ideas that I miss what is being said.
The good news is, I think there is a consistent answer that makes sense of this. N.T. Wright sheds some light on this verse by pointing to 1 Cor 9:1 which seems to say that anyone who witnessed the resurrected Lord might be considered an apostle. What is an apostle? The word literally means someone who is sent. In this light it is presumed that if you witnessed the resurrected Lord that you had the obligation to go out and share what you saw and are then by definition an apostle. So Paul’s reference to Junias as an apostle may just be about her observance of the risen Lord, which fits with Paul saying that they were Christians even before Paul was.
Then you have Phoebe in 16:1 who is a “servant of the church in Cenchrea”. In Greek the word for deacon is literally the word “servant.” We have formalize this in the church into male leadership roles. Paul calls her a deaconon. Paul certainly didn’t feel uncomfortable using the word. So I don’t have much trouble with Paul calling Phoebe a servant of the church in Cenchrea. How formal of a role that was we don’t know! And that’s fine with me. Does this mean we need female deacons today? One might argue we already have them in an informal way…that females already serve the Lord and the church but are not officially recognized as “deacons.” I think this is up to the eldership of individual congregations to decide what is best for their flock and for those who see different in other congregations to not point fingers at those who take that step. If you follow the principles of CENI you could certainly argue the example of female deacons/servants in the early church. Much care has to be taken in how we understand that verse and apply it, to not throw holy hand grenades in the midst of the congregation.
Anyway, Romans 16 has more in it than meets the eye. As Fred Craddock said in his famous “When the Role is Called Down Here” sermon on Romans 16 repeatedly said “This is not a list.”