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A Note on Romans 16:7

Thursday, December 05, 2019

During my sermon last week on women exercising authority in the church, I noted in passing that some brethren try to argue for the existence of female apostles from Romans 16:7, but that I did not find the argument convincing.  I had assumed that most were familiar with the argument, but after services, my wife told me that my offhand comment generated a flurry of page-flipping in some quarters.  I guess I’d better explain!

The textual question in 16:7 is not obvious in most translations.  The ESV says, “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners.  They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”  Standard Pauline greeting, right?  What’s the big deal?

The argument that this is a text about a female apostle is twofold.  First, it identifies the person the ESV calls “Junia” as female.  Second, it asserts that the ESV rendering “well known to the apostles” should instead be translated as, “prominent in the apostles.”  Thus, Junia would be a prominent female apostle, which would have all kinds of implications for our understanding of the role of women in the church.

The problem is that this conclusion rests on shaky foundations.  First, it is by no means certain that “Junia” is female.  The ESV thinks so, but the NASB thinks “Junias” is a better translation.  “Junias” would be a contraction of “Junianus”, and thus male.  Most translations opt for “Junia” here, but reasonable doubt on the issue exists.

Second, it is unclear what relationship Junia/Junias has to the apostles.  Are they merely well known to the apostles, or are they a prominent member of the class of the apostles?  The Greek here is πσημοι ν τος ποστλοις, which is literally translated as “of note in/among the apostles”. 

The text does not straightforwardly say that Junia/Junias was a remarkable apostle, as Barabbas is described as “a notorious prisoner”  in Matthew 27:16 (“notorious” being the only other use of this word in the NT).  Instead, it allows for either interpretation.  Additionally, if Junia/Junias is a prominent, famous apostle, how come Romans 16:7 is the only place where they appear? 

On balance, I think that “Junia” is probably correct, but I also think that she is well-known to the apostles rather than being a well-known apostle.  However, that conclusion is not necessary to settle the issue.  It’s enough to observe that the gender and position of Junia are uncertain. 

In such cases, the principles of Scriptural interpretation call us to a) prefer harmonious to contradictory readings of the Bible and b) read unclear passages in the light of clear passages.  1 Timothy 2:12 is clear (except to those who are engaged in eisgesis rather than exegesis), and it forecloses the possibility of women taking on authoritative roles (like the role of an apostle) in the church. 

Thus, we are compelled to adopt a harmonious rather than contradictory reading of Romans 16:7.  Sorry, Junia!  You’re not an apostle, because if you were, you’d be violating 1 Timothy 2:12.

All of this probably strikes many brethren as a finicky, fussy sort of argument, which is why I did not spend much time exploring it during the sermon.  There’s a reason, though, why the subject of women in authority generates these kinds of arguments.  If you stick to the obvious stuff in Scripture, you’ll never find reason to believe that women should lead in the church. 

However, if you believe that women ought to be leaders, and you’re searching for Scriptural justification for your beliefs, that will drive you into the weeds.  Here, as elsewhere, we must be suspicious of subtle arguments that contradict the plain meaning of the text.  Their presence is usually a sign that somebody is trying to serve not God, but themselves.

Women Leading in the Church

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The other day, an article from Harding University’s student newspaper wandered across my news feed.  It described the decision by the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, AR, to begin allowing women to take leadership roles in the church.  Henceforth, among other things, they will be allowed to teach mixed adult Bible classes and to read Scripture from the pulpit. 

In many ways, this is no longer surprising.  Self- described churches of Christ all over the country are restudying the issue of female leadership in the church.  Unlike our brethren for hundreds of years before us, they are coming to the conclusion that this is Scripturally acceptable.

This is what is being done, but what does the Bible actually say?  This morning, let’s consider women leading in the church.

As will come as a surprise to no one, I do not believe that women should become religious leaders, and I see three main problems with the practice.  The first of these is that IT BREAKS WITH THE BIBLE.  Look with me at 1 Timothy 2:11-14.  This is a simple passage.  It explains what should not be—women teaching or exercising authority, and then it explains why it should not be—Adam was created first, and Eve sinned first.  As Paul notes in the next chapter, all of this is part of his instructions for right conduct in the church.  Thus, no women leaders in the church.  It has nothing to do with women being inferior or anything like that, and everything to do with events that happened thousands of years ago.

This is a strong prohibition, and it’s based on an equally strong argument from creation.  Because of the events of Genesis 1-3, we never should see women leading men in religious matters, not in the Old Testament, not in the New Testament.  Indeed, this is exactly what we see.  In both Old and New Testaments, those in religious authority, from priests to preachers, are always male.  Some people try to locate female apostles in Romans 16:7, but there, as with many other places, what can be asserted from the text and what can be proven with the text are two different things.

It is true that in both Old and New Testaments, there were prophetesses, for instance, Huldah the prophetess, who shows up in 2 Chronicles 34.  However, nowhere in the Bible do we see prophetesses taking leadership roles religious gatherings.  Whatever the prophetesses of 1 Corinthians 11 are doing, Paul, the same man who condemned women teaching men in 1 Timothy 2, thinks it’s OK.

To sum up, 1 Timothy 2 makes a strong claim that women shouldn’t be leaders, and nowhere in the Bible do we see evidence to the contrary.  Those who want to exalt women to leadership roles, then, are not breaking with “Church of Christ tradition”.  They are breaking with the practice of the early church.  Indeed, they are breaking with the way God’s people have done things since the beginning.

Second, turning to women for religious leadership FOLLOWS THE WORLD.  We see how big a problem this is when we consider Romans 12:1-2.  As Christians, we are to be transformed by Christ, not conformed to the world.

Here, I think it’s illuminating to consider an excerpt from the statement that the eldership of the Downtown church issued.  They said, “We live in the midst of both great and rapid socio-cultural change.  These changes tear at the fabric of our culture, polarizing and fragmenting community. How does the community of the church respond to this rending of unity?  Is it even possible to maintain a body with a transcendent unity in the midst of divergent opinions?  This was the question that the elders at the Downtown Church of Christ faced when they began to grapple with issues surrounding the role of women within the body of Christ.”

Basically, the eldership is saying that due to influence from the world, there were lots of people in their congregation who believed that women should be religious leaders, and it was to keep those people from splitting off that they decided to restudy the issue of women in religious authority.

With all due respect to them, that’s exactly wrong.  No congregation should determine its convictions according to socio-cultural change.  Instead, we must determine them according to the word of God, which does not change.  Similarly, we must never seek to please Christians who have been influenced by the world.  Instead, we must seek to please God and allow Him to be our only influence.

If we follow this path, the answer to questions about women as religious leaders, along with many other answers, becomes clear.  However, if we stray from it, that is when doubt and confusion arise. 

This is what happened to the Downtown church.  The article says they restudied this issue for four months.  That makes me awfully suspicious.  Women in religious authority is not a particularly rich topic.  There are only a few passages that address it.  I could polish those texts off in a Bible class or two, much less four months! 

I think, then, that what probably happened is that they brought in a whole bunch of authorities from outside the word, and those authorities muddied the water enough that they could reach the conclusion that would allow for peace in the congregation.  The problem is that peace with the world and peace with God are mutually exclusive.

The final difficulty I want us to examine this morning is that having women as religious leaders UNDERMINES CHRIST’S AUTHORITY.  Let’s read together from Ephesians 1:22-23.  As this text makes clear, Christ’s authority over the church is supposed to be absolute.  We do what He tells us to, and whether it seems like a good idea to us is irrelevant.  However, once we start rejecting Christ’s authority in one area, we will find that He has no authority in any area.

Let’s start with some low-hanging fruit.  According to the article, despite these changes, the Downtown church has decided that they won’t have a female preacher, nor will women be allowed to serve as elders.  Frankly, I think this is a distinction without a difference.  As long as a woman is teaching and exercising authority over men, does it really matter whether she’s standing behind a lectern or a pulpit? 

Indeed, I predict that over time, the distinction will prove meaningless.  In a few years, the Downtown church will have a female preacher.  In a few more, it will have female elders.  The momentum of the position they have taken is irresistible.

Nor do I think the momentum will stop there.  Consider, for instance, the Biblical case against the practice of homosexuality.  It looks an awful lot like the Biblical case against women as religious leaders.  In both cases, you’ve got a few clear passages that have come under severe criticism from the world. 

Once you have decided that you’re going to tolerate female church leaders, how do you say that you’re not going to tolerate practicing homosexuals in the church, or even practicing homosexual leaders?  The arguments for and against are exactly the same.  If you’re going to bend with the cultural wind in the one area, you will in the other too. 

Once culture becomes king in the church, Christ cannot be.  You may be going through with the charade that you’re loving Jesus and serving Jesus, but really, each man and woman are doing what is right in their own eyes.

Summaries, Psalms 126-130

Monday, December 02, 2019

Psalm 126, like all the other psalms in this week’s reading, is a Song of Ascents—a psalm that Jewish pilgrims sang as they went up to Jerusalem.  The second half of the opening line of this psalm is rendered quite differently in different translations.  The ESV has “restored the fortunes of Zion”; the NASB, “brought back the captive ones of Zion”.  The literal Hebrew here is “captivity”, but sometimes in Scripture it is used metaphorically of restoring fortune, as in Job 42:10.

Regardless of which translation approach is adopted, the meaning is clear.  This is a psalm about the return of the captives to Judah after the Babylonian Captivity.  The Jews were astounded, and all the nations around them remarked on God’s blessing for them.  The psalm concludes with a prayer for further blessing, so that the people who now weep as they sow will rejoice several months from now during the time of the harvest.

Psalm 127 remarks on the futility of life without God and the blessing of living with Him.  It observes that without His help, neither the work of the builder nor the watchman will be successful.  Faithless people live anxious lives, but the faithful enjoy pleasant rest because of the peace He gives.

The psalm concludes with discussion of one of God’s greatest blessings—children.  Just as a warrior with many arrows could be confident, so too could an Israelite with many children.  Because they had their children to rely on, they didn’t have to be afraid of their enemies in the village.

Psalm 128 continues the theme of God’s blessing upon the faithful.  Those who fear the Lord will be able to provide for themselves and enjoy His care through their lives.  Their wives will be fertile, and they’ll have many children (the “olive shoots” imagery is basically about a bunch of suckers growing from the roots and base of an olive tree).  The psalm concludes with an exchange of blessings—for prosperity in Jerusalem, for long life, and for peace.

Psalm 129 is a plea for God’s help and justice.  It begins with the personified nation of Israel complaining about how others have afflicted him.  The “plowing furrows” on the back of Israel in v. 3 is probably about the scars left by whipping a slave.  However, Israel has been released from captivity and now looks for God to punish his oppressors.  He asks God to make their prosperity like the grass that grows on a thatched roof (in our case, we might think of maple seeds sprouting in gutters).  It looks green for a little while, but it soon dries out, doesn’t offer anything for anyone to harvest, and doesn’t attract blessing.

Psalm 130 is a cry to God from the depths of despair.  It pleads with Him to listen and observes that if God remembered sins, no one could stand before Him.  Only His forgiveness makes serving and fearing Him possible and meaningful.  The psalmist says he waits for God like a night watchman waits for the coming of morning.  The psalm concludes with an appeal to Israel to trust in God because of His faithful love and sure redemption.

Summaries, Psalms 121-125

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Psalm 121 is the second in the series of psalms called “songs of ascent”.  They were usually sung by Jewish pilgrims who were “going up to Jerusalem”.  Even if you’re headed south, going to a mountaintop temple is still going up! 

In any case, the psalmist of Psalm 121 is lifting his eyes to the hills he is climbing.  He knows that he can seek and find help in God.  God will not allow him to fall, and because He doesn’t sleep, His care is constant.  God, like a friendly shadow, will keep the psalmist from the glare of the sun and the moon.  He will protect him from all evil and will always care for him in his travels.

Psalm 122 is another song of ascents, this one in praise of Jerusalem, the destination.  It expresses the psalmist’s delight that he has been invited to travel to Jerusalem.  He rejoices because he has been there before and knows what it’s like.  God has both established Jerusalem and decreed that the Israelites should go there to worship.  Additionally, Jerusalem is the seat of the Davidic kings.

As a result, it is appropriate to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the security of its inhabitants.  Because of them and because the temple is there, the psalmist promises to pray.

Psalm 123 continues the song-of-ascents cycle.  Naturally, this is another psalm about lifting up one’s eyes.  This time, though, the psalmist is lifting up his eyes not to Jerusalem, but to God.  Just like servants watch the hand of their master for indications of his will, so the psalmist will look to God until He has mercy.  Indeed, the psalmist pleads for mercy because he is fed up with being held in contempt by proud people.

Psalm 124 (another song of ascents) asks what life without God’s help would be like.  Without God, the people of Israel acknowledge that their enemies would have overwhelmed them and carried them off like a flood.  As it is, though, God did not give them to their enemies, so they have escaped instead.

Psalm 125 (Song of Ascents #6) is another mountain-centric psalm.  It contemplates the immovability of Mount Zion and concludes that people who trust God are equally secure.  Indeed, God will keep His people safe like the mountains around Jerusalem keep it safe from invasion.  However, His care is not physical, but spiritual.  He will protect His people from those who want to tempt them to do evil.  The psalm concludes with an appeal to God to bless the upright but punish the wicked.

God's Word Does Not Return Empty

Friday, November 22, 2019

Isaiah 55 is one of the more uplifting chapters in what is a fairly gloomy book.  Many Christians are familiar with God’s self-description in vs. 8-9 of the chapter, but vs. 10-11 are also worthy of our attention.

In them, God declares, “For just as rain and snow fall from heaven and do not return there without saturating the earth and making it germinate and sprout, and providing seed to sow and food to eat, so My word that comes from My mouth will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do.” (CSB)

At first glance, this promise seems strange to Christians.  God wants all men to be saved, and He has sent forth the gospel so that they might be.  However, we know from experience that not everyone who hears the truth obeys it.  In fact, most do not.  How can we reconcile these apparently paltry results with the absolute nature of God’s declaration?

The answer, I think, is that we need to take a more complex view of God’s purposes in the gospel.  God wants us to be saved, yes, but even more fundamentally than that, He wants us to make a choice.  He wants to see whether we will use our free will to seek Him or to reject Him. 

The gospel is the means that He uses to compel humankind to make that choice.  We can exist in a spiritual no-man’s-land until we hear the word, but once we do, our reaction reveals what kind of people we are.  Either we have chosen to obey, and that will be obvious, or we have chosen to rebel, and that will be equally obvious.

Sometimes, in fact, God uses His word primarily to drive the wicked out into the open.  This is especially obvious in the book of Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 18:11-12 (and many other such places), God instructs Jeremiah to warn His people while simultaneously predicting that they will not listen.  He does this to mark them as His enemies and to deprive them of any claim that He is being unjust in destroying them.

Certainly, we should present the word to sinners as persuasively as we can.  However, when they harden their hearts against it, we should not feel like we have failed.  We have done what God intended for us to do, just as His word has done what He intended it to do. 

His purpose is worked out in the salvation of the humble, but it also is worked out in the destruction of the proud.  As His word left the wicked people of Jeremiah’s day without excuse and ripe for judgment, it leaves the wicked people of our day without excuse and ripe for judgment.  Everybody who hears His word will glorify Him.  The only question is whether His glory will come from redeeming us or putting us to everlasting shame.  

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