I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in Asia. Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.

Romans‬ ‭16‬:‭1-7‬ ESV

This entire passage is an awkward one for Christians who do not permit women to have positions of authority in the church. It is not surprising that this translation, the English Standard Version, obscures the controversy. One of the original reasons the ESV translation project was begun was to create a contemporary translation that emphasized traditional gender roles to compete against the trend toward gender neutrality in other contemporary translations.

Of the first seven persons that Paul mentions by name at the end of his book for commendation or special greeting, four are women.

The first person, Phoebe, a woman, is called “a servant of the church”. This may seem to suggest a menial or unimportant role, until we remember that Paul frequently uses the word “servant” to describe himself in his letters, even right beside the word “apostle”. She is mentioned first, and given a lot of ink compared to many others in the list. Without an application of the belief that her gender would not allow the position, one could easily interpret this commendation and description as a pastoral or preaching role.

“Prisca” and Aquila are named “Priscilla” and Aquila in Acts. In Acts 18:2 (and elsewhere) they are described as married, and Priscilla is called the wife. Whether they pastored the church in their house together, or only hosted, we cannot be sure. However, we do know Priscilla and Aquila are an important couple to Paul in the account of Paul’s ministry in Acts. In Acts 18:26 the two of them together take Apollos* aside and teach him correct doctrine, giving a clear example of a woman in scripture teaching theology to a man, and even a man who would later become a respected minister along with Paul. In that same verse, as here in Romans, Priscilla, the wife, is mentioned first. Paul calls them “fellow workers in Christ”. We know that they, like Paul, made tents, but we also know from Acts 18:26 that they taught scripture together as well. Paul likely regarded them as fellow workers on both accounts, and in so doing called a woman a peer.

The final two sentences are some of the most problematic of any New Testament passage to Christians who deny women authority in the church. The ESV’s bias is most obvious in this verse. Compare the ESV’s translation to the NIV, and also to the RSV, the original source that was revised to create the ESV:

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.”
- Romans 16:7 ESV

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.
- Romans‬ ‭16‬:‭7‬ NIV

Salute Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.
- Romans‬ ‭16‬:‭7‬ RSV

Both the NIV and RSV differ significantly from the ESV with their use of the word “among”. In both of these translations, these partners are clearly apostles, not just “well known to the apostles". Notice how the much older RSV solves the problem of gender by simply reinterpreting Junia’s name as masculine, and then inserting the wholly unnecessary “men”, just in case we might have missed it. This was once a common way to solve the controversy of this woman clearly being called an apostle, which would demonstrate a position and responsibility of authority and teaching to a woman in the early church. Modern scholarship has largely abandoned this idea, and most newer translations and Greek scholars recognize Junia as a female name.

The NIV, with no agenda to promote, has no problem using Junia’s female name, and has no need to insert a gender as does the RSV. I am glad to see the team behind the ESV at least have the integrity to drop that old argument. However the ESV, with its explicit mission to promote an all-male view of church authority, has to aim its reinterpretation of the passage elsewhere, so Junia and Andronicus (by association) are both demoted for the sake of the teaching.

Even upon reading the ESV’s interpretation, one is still left to wonder why this couple has been jailed together, along with Paul, if not for preaching about Jesus? It seems unlikely he’d describe them this way if it were another reason, and unlikely that Junia would have also been arrested unless she was also involved.

I don’t expect any of these arguments to end this controversy. I haven’t said anything new here. I offer it especially for those who have been raised in churches where these damaging “male only” teachings are just assumed, who have hoped there is another side of the story, but have not yet been exposed to it.

ps. All of the scholars involved in the translating of the RSV and ESV were men. The 1984 translation of the NIV had only men on the translation committee. The translation committee for NIV’s 2011 update had one woman among them, and a female secretary. Progress!

*An earlier version of this post mistakenly named the teacher of Acts 18:26 Barnabas instead of Apollos.

our pastoral associate is so amazing. when my sister died, the next morning my friends asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, first, to meet with our pastoral associate and tell her what happened. she met with me every few weeks last summer to check in, pray with me, and offer guidance, direction, and small opportunities to get involved with the parish (which was exactly what I needed. I was so terrified to commit to anything and think about the future.)

she is our lay pastor, whether the church will let us call her that or not. her husband is a deacon and, as deacon’s wives do, she went through the formation process with him and took it extremely seriously. I once said I couldn’t wait to receive all the sacraments – except holy orders, and she responded, “they won’t give em to you, believe me, I tried.” please pray for a future when women like her will be recognized and ordained fully for their calling. 

then pray for the people who deny Holy Spirit’s ability to call women to holy orders

all glory to God, who is able to make you strong, just as my Good News says. This message about Jesus Christ has revealed his plan for you Gentiles, a plan kept secret from the beginning of time. But now as the prophets foretold and as the eternal God has commanded, this message is made known to all Gentiles everywhere, so that they too might believe and obey him. All glory to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, forever. Amen.

When people say there is no continuity between the Old Testament and the New, this is what I think of:

“God told the serpent: ‘Because you’ve done this, you’re cursed, cursed beyond all cattle and wild animals, cursed to slink on your belly and eat dirt all your life. I declare war between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers - He will wound your head, and you will bruise His heel.’”
— Genesis 3:14

“The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and His name will be Immanuel, God With Us.”
— Isaiah 7:14

“Jesus said to them: ‘You are of your father the devil, for you want to do his errands and chase after his whims. He was a murderer from the beginning, and there is no truth in him. When he speaks, it’s lies, which come from his own resources. For he is a liar, and the father of lies.’”
— John 8:44

“Those who serve themselves do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ. They serve their own belly; satan gives them smooth words, evil cunning and flattery with which they can deceive the hearts of the simple.”
— Romans 16:17

“Our God, the Source of Peace and the Protector of it will crush satan and his followers under your feet.”
— Romans 16:20