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Women in Church History


Rev. Kathryn J. Riss

Scripture mentions a wide variety of women's ministries that were approved by God and praised by the early church.  New Testament offices held by women include apostle, prophet, pastor, deacon, eldress, widow and virgin.  In addition, Paul names a number of women as well as men whom he called "fellow workers."  These women were the apostle's colleagues in ministry.  The New Testament relates even more ministry activities of women, including prayer, hospitality, teaching and evangelism.


In Romans 16:7, Paul praises a woman named Junia as "outstanding among the apostles."  Despite the modern mistranslation of her name as masculine "Junias" or "Junius," no commentator prior to the 13th century questioned that this apostle was a woman.1 For example, John Chrysostom, whose writings often express misogyny, wrote of Romans 16:7, "O how great is the devotion of this woman that she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!"2 This unanimity of testimony over a milennium is particularly striking since it remained during a long period of eroding toleration of women's ministries in the medieval church.  The reason for the witness is simple: all the ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts commending the oustanding apostles in Romans 16:7 read either "Junia" or "Julia", both feminine forms.

Both Junia and Julia were very common ancient Greek woman's names, whereas the masculine alternatives suggested by modern commentators have no manuscript evidence to support them.  "Junius" and "Junianus" suggested by some, are perfectly good Roman man's names.  However, they occur in NO ancient manuscript of Romans 16:7! Of the hypothetical name "Junias," Bernadette Brooten writes, "What can a modern philologist say about Junias?  Just this: it is unattested.  To date, not a single reference in ancient literature has been cited by any of the proponents of the Junias hypothesis.  My own search for an attestation has also proved fruitless.  This means that we do not have a single shred of evidence that the name Junias ever existed."3  Note that Brooten is not only speaking of the lack of this name in NT manuscripts, but in ANY ancient manuscript, Greek or Latin, secular or sacred!

Certain early manuscripts do contain a variant name, but it, too, is feminine.  "Julia" is found in P46, it, cop, eth, and Ambrosiaster.  P46, a papyrus manuscript dating about 200 AD, is one of the most ancient and reliable Greek mss of the NT extant.  In Romans 16:7, P46 reads "Julia," which can only be feminine.  What does this mean?  That in Romans 16, St. Paul commends a noteworthy woman apostle.  It also means that translators who found a woman apostle unacceptable made up the name "Junias" to substitute their own word for the Word of God.  That is how important limiting women's freedom has been to religious legalists.  We will find that this attitude and practice have been all too common.

What does the Bible say?  Paul calls Junia his kinsman and fellow prisoner.  Like Paul, she had suffered persecution and imprisonment for the Gospel.  Evidently, her ministry and faith were known even outside the church.  Sometimes we forget what early Christians under the iron fist of pagan Rome had to suffer to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.  For Junia and Andronicus (perhaps her husband), being an apostle wasn't a matter of privilege, but prison. 

According to Romans 16:7, Junia had become a Christian before Paul himself.  Since his conversion occurred just a few years after the Resurrection of Christ, Junia must have been one of the earliest converts to Christianity and probably was one of the founders of the church at Rome.  She may have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover and witnessed the crucifixion and later, the ascension of the resurrected Christ.  Or perhaps she was one of the "visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes," who were converted by the women and men who, filled with God's Spirit, proclaimed "the wonderful works of God" at Pentecost.  We know that the Roman church was already well established before Peter and Paul travelled there (Ro. 1:7-13).

Paul writes that after His resurrection, Christ appeared to 500 "brothers" at one time and later to all the apostles, most of whom were still living (I Cor. 15:5-7).  In Greek, "brothers" is a generic, figurative term for all true Christians.5 Note also that in the I Cor. 15:5-7 passage, the "apostles" who witnessed the resurrected Christ are distinct from and in addition to the Twelve.

Paul calls himself "the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the church" but calls Junia "outstanding among the apostles."  It would be wonderful to know more about Junia, Andronicus and the founding of the church at Rome, but this seminal body of believers was largely wiped out during the persecutions of Nero, and their history died with them.

What do we know about the apostles?  According to the New Testament, apostles are given by God,6 workers of miracles,6 witnesses who proclaimed Christ's resurrection,7 founders and leaders of churches,8 preachers,9 teachers,10 disciplers, 11 and financial managers of the church.12 While not every apostle was necessarily involved in all these ministries, there is no reason to think that a recognized apostle such as Junia was barred from any of them.  Unlike many churches today, 1st century believers honored the women ministers God gave them.  Those who would diminish Junia's contribution should remember that Paul does not refer to her as a lesser apostle, but on the contrary praises her as outstanding among the apostles.  She was so outstanding an apostle that the pagan and Jewish persecutors of Christians saw her as dangerous and imprisoned her to prevent her from continuing her apostolic mission - unsuccessfully, it seems, for she and Andronicus had been released and were bravely continuing to minister in the church at Rome when Paul sent his epistle there. 

1.  Bernadette Brooten, "Junia. . . Outstanding among the Apostles" A Catholic Commentary on the Vatical Declaration. New York: Paulist Press, 1977, p. 141.
2.  Chrysostom, Homily on Romans 16, in Philip Schaff, ed, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. II. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1956, p. 555.
3.  Brooten, "Junia. . . Outstanding among the Apostles" A Catholic Commentary on the Vatical Declaration. New York: Paulist Press, 1977, pp. 142.
4.  Bauer Arndt Gingrich Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament article on adelphos p.15-16.
5. Lk. 11:49, I Cor. 12:28, Eph. 4:11
6.  II Cor. 12:12, Acts 2:43
7.  Acts 4:33
8.  Acts 4:37 and 15:4ff, I Cor. 12:28
9.  Tim. 2:7 and II Tim. 1:11
10.  II Peter 3:2 Jude 17, Acts 2:42),
11.  Eph. 4:12-13
12.  Acts 4:34-37

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