Almighty God, whose Son, the risen Christ, sent forth your apostles Andronicus and Junia to proclaim the Gospel and extend your reign: send us forth in your Holy Spirit, that women and men may minister as one in faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit in perfect unity, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
We all know — or should know — that men and women were created equal and in God’s image: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) That much is — or should be — clear. But, how we’ve implemented and failed to implement that equality, in society and in the Church, remains a point of contention. And it is that contention that sprang to mind Wednesday when I read of Saints Junia and Andronicus.
Wednesday was the Feast of Saints Junia and Andronicus. Theirs is not a highly-celebrated or widely-known feast. I must admit, it was my first introduction to these two first century apostles and martyrs. But, coming on the heels of my reading on Tuesday an excellent 2016 piece by Alex Mar in Atlas Obscura on the roles of the Virgins and Desert Mothers of the early church, the Feast of Saints Junia and Andronicus gave me a good opportunity to reflect again on how men and women walked and worked together in the early days of the Church, how the men of the Church fractured that sacred bond early in the days of the organized Church as we now know it, and how we are meant, I believe, to walk and serve together as coequal heirs, servants and stewards of the Body of Christ.
The only reference to Junia and Andronicus in Scripture appears in Romans 16:7 (NRSV), in the words of St. Paul: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
Paul places Junia and Andronicus — a man and a woman — on his own level. They are his contemporaries, sharing in the privations and suffering of the early church. But, even more, they are his seniors, in a way, having served Christ in the 72 disciples Jesus sent to spread the Gospel in Luke 10:
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. 3 Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.
We don’t know a great deal about Junia and Andronicus, but Eastern Orthodox accounts say they preached and served together in a vast area that now includes portions of Hungary, Austria and the Balkans. According to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, “Through the efforts of Saints Andronicus and Junia the Church of Christ was strengthened, pagans were converted to the knowledge of God, many pagan temples closed, and in their place Christian churches were built.”
It is believed the pair were martyred together — truly, lambs among wolves — and in the fifth century their holy relics were uncovered in a group of 17 blessed martyrs at the gate of Eugenius, near Constantinople.
St. John Chrysostom, writing in his Homily 31 on Romans in the late fourth century, at a time when the Church would have actively been downplaying and erasing the early female apostles, affirmed Junia’s position as an apostle of Christ: “Oh! How great is the devotion of this woman, that she should be even counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”
From traditional references to their serving at the direction of Jesus in the 72, and Paul’s reference to them, we know they worked together, as equals, it seems, in building up and serving the Body of Christ.
Today, this is by no means a universally accepted state of things in the early church. Many, needing to justify the last 16 centuries of separation and exclusion between the genders in ministry (and society), contend women could not have been apostles. Or perhaps Junia actually was a man. Or, she was just there in a complementary (subservient) role to Andronicus — presumably to make sure the early Church never lacked sufficient coffee, cookies and casseroles at first century fellowship dinners.
But, I don’t believe that was the case. From the beginning (Genesis) women and men were made together in the image of God — the same image, which encompasses us both, male and female. So why would ministry likewise not encompass that same image, both male and female? The short answer, in the early Church, was it did reflect that essential dual nature.
Again, I think Alex Mar — however you may feel about her other work, on witches and such — does a good job of summing this up:
From the beginning, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth comprised a movement that was extreme, countercultural—a revolution that embraced both men and women, even social outcasts and slaves. In those first centuries, while the religion was still defining itself as an institution, many devout women flouted cultural convention and chose Jesus himself—not bishops and bureaucrats—as their personal guide.
But, as we know all-too-well, it did not remain that way. The Church disrupted its own God-given balance between male and female in the face of ministry:
Toward the end of the third century, the emperor Diocletian ordered widespread attacks on chaste Christian women. All partner-less women who refused to marry were to be raped or prostituted. 1,000 widows were martyred in Antioch; 2,000 virgins were martyred in Ancyra.
At the same time, women’s place within the once exceptionally open movement began to contract. As Christianity expanded outward into the political realm, growing into an ambitious institution that aimed to harden its doctrine and practices, a decision was made: Women would no longer minister, prophesy, or baptize, and in the name of consistency, many of their stories would not be preserved. Church rank-and-file began to insist that women should not be ordained, should not baptize others, and should not teach the gospel—arguments that for the first 200 years had not been made, at least not on any meaningful scale. Few of these early female leaders would remain a part of the church’s history.
Again, many will argue the symbiotic and co-equal status of male and female in the sacramental life of the Church is a Progressive movement, not at all present in early Christianity. But, Paul’s letters defy this. Also in Romans, Paul addresses in his epistle an ordained woman and another — like Junia and Andronicus — woman-man ministry team.
In Romans 16:1-2 he refers to Phoebe as a deacon, one of three holy orders of ordained clergy: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.”
Some readings change her title to “servant” instead of deacon, stripping her of her place among the leadership of the Church and relegating her to the laity (not that there’s anything wrong with being a faithful member of the laity). But she is not a lay follower. She is a deacon — a faithful steward of the sacraments of the Church. And, she’s not merely in a subservient role, but serves as a benefactor “of many people,” including Paul.
In the next two verses, Paul extols the virtues of Priscilla, or Prisca: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.”
Again, Priscilla is not on a subservient level, in creation or in ministry, to Paul. She is his co-worker, his peer. And, I don’t think there’s any mistake in listing her name first — a clear indication she was at least equal to, if not superior to, Aquila in the early hierarchical structure of the Church. We can’t draw that as a definite conclusion, but it would be far more erroneous to believe her role and place to be inferior to Aquila’s, given the construct of Paul’s address.
In case we still think that order of listing the two is a mistake, we can see them again in Acts, when Luke tells us Priscilla and Aquila — again in that order — guided Apollos to a greater understanding of and position in the Church: “He (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” (Acts 18:26 ESV) Priscilla, with Aquila, is teaching and leading Apollos in Scripture and faith — an act that would have been anathema to first century Jewish society, and, *sigh*, to much of 21st century Christianity.
In each of these cases, and in the stories of the Virgins, Martyrs and Desert Mothers, we see women filling crucial roles not just in supporting, but in leading, teaching, evangelizing and building up the Body of Christ. To which, some who read this will pull from their back pocket Paul’s seemingly air-tight prohibition against women preaching and leading in the Church, in 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”
When read by itself the passage from 1 Timothy 2 seems to obliterate any “biblical” argument for women serving as coequal leaders with men in all aspects of the Church. But, we can’t read that short passage absent Paul’s clear references to Junia, Priscilla and Phoebe (who many scholars believe delivered Paul’s epistle to the Romans). Nor should it be read absent the context and questions of translation and interpretation that surround this and so many other of his passages. For an excellent unpacking of these issues surrounding Paul’s teaching on women in ministry I recommend Gail Wallace’s article for The Junia Project, “Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb.”
Of course, arguments continue to rage over this issue, and many who are smarter and far more learned than I can pick apart Paul’s letters to far greater extent than I have space in this article, time in my day or skill in my quiver, yielding equally impressive-sounding conclusions on both sides.
So, if a tie must be broken, what better arbiter than Christ? When it came time to reveal himself in the Resurrection, the Risen Lord did not appear to any of the Gospel authors, or to one of the 11 remaining (male) apostles. He appeared to, He chose, Mary Magdalene, imparting to her the role of first proclaimer of the Resurrection. And, if Christ Himself chose Mary Magdalene to fill that role, to place first in the pulpit of Christian preaching a woman, who am I to argue? Who are we to have withheld that position for so long?
Simply put, we never had that authority — to withhold authority given by God. We are made, and called, together, in the image of God. And, as we grow closer to the Kingdom of God, as we remake this world ever-so-slowly to more closely resemble Christ, I believe we must and will see more of Priscilla and Aquila, of Junia and Andronicus. Side by side, building together, we draw closer to God, who is in us all, male and female.
In closing, I offer a prayer from the Episcopal House of Bishops meeting in March, 2019:
That as we observe and celebrate the gift of women … may we always have the good mind to celebrate the gifts of every woman – created in the image and likeness of our God – to proclaim the Good News to a world in need of a Word from the Lord! May God bless the women who serve our Church in the Laity, in Religious and Monastic Life, in the Diaconate, in the Presbyterate and in the Episcopacy: may they continue to sustain, nourish and empower our world to see one another as God sees us! Amen.