EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
Obviously, as the name of the letter implies, this congregation would have been located in Rome. The literature contains words that clarify the congregation was brand new to the doctrine of the Risen Christ, and even some of the Jewish roots behind it, which means that Paul’s audience would have been primarily Gentiles, with Jews as a minority audience.
Some scholars believe that the expelling of Jews from Rome mentioned in Acts 18:2 would prove there were no Jews among the congregation of Rome at the time Paul wrote this letter. However, a deeper look at when the Jews were allowed to return to Rome helps us understand that although they left for some time, the expulsion event was short-lived. Thus, Jews would have influenced the church in the beginning, maintained contact through their dismissal from the area, and, within less than three years, they were back. Paul irrefutably addressed a tension between the Hebrew nation and the Gentiles in much of his letter—a bit of a “who worships better” question captured well in his instruction to Gentile readers to “boast not against the branches” (Romans 11:18), the “branches” being the Jews, who were the root of the Christian system. This indicates that even if the Jews were not physically present amidst the brethren, they were still a part of the congregation in spirit and must not be involved in a holiness competition.
Paul, subsequent to his conversion, did not have the opportunity to personally travel to the church in Rome prior to writing his letter, but he had heard of it. In fact, the things he had heard were actually very good (Romans 1:8)! But as the Romans were so young in the faith, there was much they did not understand regarding heavily theological concepts, so they were in need of illumination. A central theme of this book is salvation through grace and our faithful response to it. As such, it is considered to be one of Paul’s four “soteriological” letters. A secondary theme is that of justification by faith. (It was this very book [verses 1:17 and 8:1] that led Martin Luther to oppose the Roman Catholic Church with his justificatio sola fide or “justification by faith alone” doctrine, which eventually triggered the Protestant Reformation. Readers who hope to someday be apologists should acknowledge that Romans 9–11 also holds the passages that certain Reformed theologians [like John Calvin] interpreted to support the doctrine of predestination, leading to the Calvinist denomination. Though we will not address predestination in this section, there are many fair arguments against that theology, and it should be stated on record that these authors do not agree with the doctrine of predestination.)
Romans covers the plan of salvation throughout Israel’s history, showing that God had always intended to provide salvation through a Lamb whose blood provided the ultimate sacrifice for sin. The Law or Old Contract was not enough to provide total justification, Romans collectively teaches.
There is a “road map” to salvation that’s often used; it’s called “Romans Road.” A more appropriate phrasing would be “Romans Road to Salvation.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it, due to its enormous popularity. It frequently appears in tracts that originate from Christian organizations with sidebar commentaries or Bible studies as well. In essence, the Romans Road is comprised of a set of verses that explain on the most basic level the existence of sin and our very simple response to it in order to be saved. New believers can read these verses, or “walk this road,” and be led to Christ with the assurance of a guaranteed salvation (assuming they are sincere). Without the distracting ellipses (the “dot, dot, dot” that represents omitted material from a manuscript), the following is the total message of this “road”:
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Romans 3:23; 6:23; 5:8; 10:9–10, 13)
For the sake of academic comparison (and because parts can be difficult to understand in the KJV), here is the same collection of verses from the NLT:
For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standards. For the payment of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Whereas no true Christian would ever question the validity of this “road,” Paul said more to those followers of Christ than simply, “have faith and be saved.” Romans—the longest Epistle—heavily stresses the importance of righteous living. In fact, a fairly unanimous opinion of scholars is that the book of Romans includes the most thorough teaching of righteousness in the New Testament. The letter teaches that blamelessness before God doesn’t come by accident or by merely believing in a doctrine, but through a thriving, active faith in Jesus that goes deeper than external expressions of piousness (10:3).
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Early on, after explaining the need for righteousness and its sovereign origins, Paul went on to express the innate human need for righteousness. Every person who has ever lived has a deep core of sin within that must be cleansed, and this purification rests in the simple act of submitting to Christ and His Gospel. In chapter 2 Paul made the statement: There is no excuse for sin; nobody can escape the judgment that it brings on his or her own, and this is true for the Gentile as well as the Jew. In the chapter following, he visited the Jewish ways of life and pointed out that no ritual or custom, such as circumcision, could purify the heart. All within mankind are by nature slanderers, bringers of war and destruction, feeders of the flesh, and disobedient to conviction. So, who can boast? The Jew? The Gentile? The Roman? The man who follows the Law? The man who does good deeds? “Nay: [none can boast] but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith…. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles?” (3:27b–29a).
Jesus didn’t die “for the Jews,” “for the Gentiles,” or “for the Romans,” despite the tension created by attitudes of superiority between those groups. His redemption brought the same opportunity for every man, woman, and child to come to the light through His sacrifice, no matter their race or cultural background. Even Abraham, the very patriarch of Israel, Paul said, was not counted as righteous by works. If he had been, then he could boast, but that’s not the plan God put in place for man. Abraham was counted as righteous before God because of his faith (4:1–3), even before he was circumcised (4:10). In this same way, Abraham was the forefather also of those who come to Jesus just as they are, not in outward show, but from internal transformation (4:11–12). Anyone—meaning anyone—who embraces and applies this truth will be guaranteed to receive the free gift of salvation (4:16). When all looked hopeless for Abraham to have a son, he still believed in the promises of God, which established him as righteous, and this is the example the Romans should all follow. It was for both his own benefit and theirs that this story lived on as a model for the Romans to believe in the promise of Christ’s sacrifice for their sin, and who “was raised again for our justification” (4:18–25).
Being justified in our faith brings peace and hope even during trials, because hard times produce good character (5:3–5). It would be one thing if Christ had come to die for just the “good” people, but He came for the sinners, and that beautiful message is one the Romans could be sure would save them from all condemnation. God sent His Son as the Savior of mankind while we were enemies of God, and now, because of the Son, we are considered the friends of God (5:6–11). Every man since the time of Adam has sinned, and because of the sin of Adam, all perish. But through the Sinless One, Jesus the Christ, we have victory over the snares of sin (5:12–17). “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (5:19). The Law was given to show mankind what sin is, and though it didn’t stop people from being corrupt, God’s grace through this arrangement of salvation made the new system of eternal life more abundantly merciful (5:20–21).
By now, you can see the pattern Paul used to express the efficacy and limitlessness of the Gospel: God does not favor Jew over Gentile, or vice versa; all are doomed alike, or saved alike, through the act of faithfulness, which is shown in godly behavior. He went on in chapter 6 to stress that sin brings death, and we need to commit to living in submission to the guidelines of righteousness—in Christ, the power of immorality is broken. Chapter 7 states that although the Law is useful for revealing degeneracy, the idea that service to the Law creates moral virtue is incorrect. Even Paul, himself, struggled with the sin nature. He wanted to do what was right, but he kept making a mess of things. The answer to such struggle is found in Christ, who doesn’t demand constant perfection, but in whom lies all forgiveness and a consistently fresh start.
Chapter 8 contrasts the flesh with the life the Spirit brings. God literally predestined this freedom from condemnation, and nothing on this earth can separate us from the love of God if we accept salvation. In chapter 9, Paul addressed the stumbling of the Jews—simply being a son or daughter of Abraham did not automatically make them sons or daughters of God. Wouldn’t God be sovereign enough to implement His own system of grace? Yet He knew, as He spoke through Isaiah, that only a remnant of the Jews in the end would find their way. In chapter 10, Paul expressed how even the Scriptures showed the difference between Law and faith, and showed both the Jew and the Gentile to be equal inheritors of the gift that faith brings. Not all of Israel would be lost, he said in chapter 11, and just as Jews were not the elite, Gentiles should not believe themselves to be better than the children of Israel. Therefore, he stated in chapter 12, we should all present ourselves as a living sacrifice, modelling our lives after Christ: holy and blameless; truly loving; refusing to hate; holding tightly to all that is good; honoring others; working hard; remaining confident in hope; being determined to stay faithful during troubles; praying always; assisting brethren in never-ending hospitality; blessing our persecutors; rejoicing with those who are happy, and weeping with those who are sad; enjoying the company of others; avoiding the egotistical idea that we have all the answers; denying the temptation to seek revenge; living in a peaceful way; and conquering evil through intentional acts of goodness. We must always respect our authorities, chapter 13 teaches, and while time is running out, it is crucial to remember that love fulfills God’s law.
Readers can feel the “pulse” of Paul’s letter slowing down at the beginning of chapter 14. He has taught so many lessons already, and his letter is almost finished. But Christians cannot follow all the instructions of this letter and still squabble amidst themselves over menial things. Believers who think they know more than their neighbors and is willing to pursue such meaningless endeavors only show themselves as foolish as one who judges another master’s servants. What one does to honor God (such as choosing a certain “holy” day to worship or eating only “clean” foods) is that person’s own business. It simply isn’t worth fighting about. We will all be judged in the end, so we should never cause a brother or sister in the same faith to fall or stumble over something negligible. The one who ignores his own convictions is guilty of sin, while the one dedicated to doing what he or she thinks is right before God is blessed, and we should be willing to see that. (What Paul was not saying here is that we can continue to do what we think is right, even when that idea contradicts what the Word of God says. He debunks that in this same letter; 5:19; 12:1–2; 13:1.)
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In the second to the last chapter, Paul brought it home: We are to live to please others, for this is the witness of Christ. This does not mean we shouldn’t help others find their way if they are struggling, but that we should live in complete harmony, allowing petty disputes and differences to die in the central cause of Gospel work.
Paul then addressed his reason for the letter: He already knew the recipients were aware of its contents, but they needed a reminder, a sharpening of the truth. Then, he discussed his plans to travel in person to see them as soon as he could.
Chapter 16 presents Paul’s closing greetings to the believers, several of whom he named specifically. The final verses of the book contains a warning to avoid people who have no interest beyond causing division in the Body: “Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the [innocent]” (16:17–18). From there, he signed off through his scribe, Tertius (16:22).
Before we wrap up Romans and move on to Corinthians, there are three women from the book of Romans we would like to take a moment to highlight: Phoebe, Junia, and Priscilla. As you will see in the following paragraphs, these women were not only beloved leaders of the Church in their time, but Paul publicly commended them for this work (which supports the idea of women’s ability to be leaders in the Church in our time).
Paul’s very own writing is the source of today’s prohibitions against women teachers, preachers, pastors, deacons, and many other leadership positions within Christianity. But those prohibitions are not sourced from his original writing (stay with us for a minute). We will take a brief look at these three women leaders here, and then, in our following studies (primarily 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), we’ll address the “trouble verses” that led to the interpretations against women leaders.
(If you’re wondering why a project that shows Jesus in every book of the Bible would address this issue, the answer is bulging over the cup here: Women are equal inheritors of the Great Commission charge, and when their power and ability is limited by misinterpretations of the Word, they are not carrying out that call on their life. Another reason is that it’s one of the most hotly debated topics in today’s Church, and if we can help some folks in this work on both sides [women and men], we want to.)
In the closing statements of Romans, Paul said: “I commend unto you Phebe [or “Phoebe,” the deliverer of the letter to Romans] our sister, which is a servant [diakonos] of the church which is at Cenchrea” (16:1). Typically, “servant” in the New Testament is the Greek doulos. The different Greek word diakonos, here used of Phoebe, literally translates “deacon.” When the Bible was translated to English in the KJV, in an overwhelming twenty-three other instances, the translators chose to use “deacon” or “minister” in place of this Greek word. A deacon or minister, in New Testament context, was always, without deviation, a mature leader of the early Christian Church in biblical contexts. Yet because this verse was referring to a female during a time when most scholarly work was approached through a male-dominated culture, translators of the KJV chose “servant” as the word to describe Phoebe. (It’s very likely this was not done on purpose, but as a means of truly trying to preserve Paul’s intent in a day and age when translators were still approaching Pauline literature through the traditional patriarchal lens. Note that the KJV was translated in the year 1611. Many lingual experts who transferred what they read into a second language would have naturally, and innocently, chosen “servant” instead of “deacon” because, at that time, it was unthinkable for a woman to be a leader. However, the freedom for women that Christ brought and Paul documented in the Word of God should be prioritized above anything that happened over fifteen hundred years later when the KJV was released.)
Because this is such a new idea to some readers, we will offer a few proofs from scholars here:
[From F. F. Bruce’s Romans: An Introduction and Commentary by InterVarsity press:] She was a diakonos, “a fellow-Christian who holds office in the congregation at Cenchreae” (NEB); in a church context the word should be rendered “deacon,” whether masculine or feminine. That the duties of a deacon could be performed by either men or women is suggested by 1 Timothy 3:11, where “the women” are to be understood as “deacons” (like the men of verses 3–10).[i]
[From the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition:] [W]ith the official-sounding addition of the church of Cenchrea it is more likely that Paul is identifying Phoebe as holding the office of “deacon” (see Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8, 12; many understand 1 Tim. 3:11 as a reference to female deacons).[ii]
[From The Bible Knowledge Commentary:] Phoebe…was Paul’s emissary to deliver this letter, so he wrote officially, I commend to you our sister Phoebe.… Phoebe was a servant of the church in Cenchrea…. The word diakonon, “servant,” is used for the office of deacon…. Use of the word with the phrase “of the church” strongly suggests some recognized position, a fact appropriate for a person serving as Paul’s emissary.[iii]
[From the sixth volume of Romans by Broadman & Holman Publishers:] Her designation as a servant…not doulos, bondservant, but diakonos…implies a position of responsibility in the church at Cenchrea…[iv]
Phoebe’s official position in leadership is also shown in Paul’s very next words: “That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also” (16:2). The word “succourer” derives from the Greek prostatis (sometimes translated in ancient literature as “patroness”). Prostatis is formed from the prefix pro, “before,” together with the verb istemi, “to stand.” In other words, “to stand before” (or “over”) others, like the word “overseer.” A “patroness” had much authority in the world at this time, and prostatis regularly identified church leaders.[v] But even without all this word study, the context of Paul’s statement is clear, as this letter was sent to the superiors of this congregation in Rome: “That the leaders receive Phoebe well and assist her in whatever she needs.” Why would Paul ask male chiefs of an early church to obey, support, or aid a woman if females were not allowed to be leaders, themselves? The answer is simple: He wouldn’t.
Therefore, we have no choice but to see in Paul’s writing the appointment of a female diakonos, or, “deacon/minister.”
Junia is mentioned in Romans 16:7. The name is feminine. Paul wrote, “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” Though responsible academia has restored her to her proper identity as a woman, early Latin translators thought Paul’s words about her here were so lofty that they had added an erroneous “s” to the end of her name, making her “Junias,” as that one letter functioned to “masculinize” some names in Greek. (Martin Luther’s Bible commentary, a famous and widely distributed work, helped solidify the idea that Junia was male. Thankfully, most translations in the 1980s corrected this, and most Bibles today use simply “Junia.”) That said, there is absolutely no record of any instance of the male name “Junias” in Greco-Roman history.[vi] Since we know this person was female, our attention now goes to said “lofty” words of Paul: “of note among the apostles.”
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This phrase could be interpreted two ways: “she is known by the apostles,” as in they were familiar with her, or, “she is one of the apostles.” It’s the difference between whether “of note among” is exclusive or inclusive, grammatically speaking. Some of the celebrated, historical, and scholarly names who openly wrote of Junia as “a woman apostle” were: Origen, Jerome, Hatto, Theophylact, Peter Abelard, John Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, John Damascene, Haymo, Oecumenius, Lanfranc of Bec, Bruno the Carthusian, and Peter Lombard (and this is in no way an exhaustive list).[vii] (Note that some who hear this teaching quickly determine that it is feminist doctrine. That statement does not take into consideration the fact that the overwhelming majority of folks who have concluded Junia’s female apostleship are today, and were throughout history, male scholars. John Chrysostom, himself, one of the most important early theologians and Church fathers, famously wrote: “O how great is the devotion of this woman that she should be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle!”[viii])
Early on, the question forms:
How are there more than twelve apostles? I thought that was a sacred number… I mean yeah, Paul was technically the thirteenth, but his was a special case.
There appears to be more than just one “special case,” here. The Greek word for “apostle,” apostolos, means “delegate,” “messenger,” or “one sent with orders.”[ix] The Bible also directly refers to Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James (Galatians 1:19), and Silas and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 2:7) as “apostles” as well, bringing the number to seventeen, even without counting Matthias as additional when he replaced Judas. The qualifications of an apostle (that we’ve already outlined twice—in the story of Paul’s conversion and the appointment of Matthias) could have technically applied to more people. In fact, under those same requirements, Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, Salome the disciple, and many men alongside them could have fit the bill, as they all followed Jesus, learned from Him, and witnessed His resurrected form. (We don’t know enough about this mysterious figure, Junia, to say whether or not she was there with Him from the beginning.) Nevertheless, we do see in Acts that Peter reestablished the twelve, an important number, so it could be that there were twelve “main apostles,” and the rest of them were servile to those. (If this is true, then either Paul really was a “special case,” or he, too, was subservient to the “main” apostles, and internal biblical evidence does not appear to support that conclusion. In fact, Paul rebuked Peter in Galatians 2:11–19. That said, we are not offended by the idea that “main authority apostles” could have been “twelve plus Paul.” No matter how we assign who has the top spot here, the focus is on whether Junia could have been “one of them” [not merely “known by them”] who earned the title just as Barnabas, James, Silas, and Timothy did.)
As to the “known by” or “one of” interpretations, it boils down to the Greek en (English “among”). This term is “a primary preposition denoting (fixed) position (in place, time or state).”[x] Thayer’s Greek Lexicon teaches that the first meaning of en is “I. Locally; 1. of Place proper; a. in the interior of some whole.”[xi] In the case of a person, it identifies a member of a group. To say it refers to an outsider of that group who is simply appreciated by them is not likely. The KJV also translates en as “in” 1,902 times and “among” only 117 times. Additionally, PhD professor of biblical studies, Linda Belleville, considered this term not just as a word-study, but also in context of its usage in the New Testament writings. Her conclusion was that, in Greek, the “primary usage of en and the plural dative (personal or otherwise) inside and outside the NT (with rare exceptions) is inclusive ‘in’/‘among’ and not exclusive ‘to.’”[xii] Her deduction—based on a rather extensive and meticulous sweeping over Greek nouns, plural nouns, genitive personal modifiers, dative personal adjuncts, and the variations/comparative senses of the language in use during the New Testament times—was that Paul’s words “bear the inclusive meaning ‘a notable member of the larger group.’”[xiii]
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[i] Bruce, F. F., Romans: An Introduction and Commentary: Volume 6 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1985), 266.
[ii] Moo, D. J., “Romans,” as quoted in: D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, & G. J. Wenham (Eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (4th ed., Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; 1994), 1,158.
[iii] Witmer, J. A., “Romans,” as quoted in: J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures: Volume 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books; 1985), 499.
[iv] Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W., Romans: Volume 6 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers; 2000), 458.
[v] Dr. Deborah M. Gill and Dr. Barbara L. Cavaness Parks, The Biblical Role of Women (Springfield, MO: Global University, 2008), 120.
[vi] Eldon Jay Epp, Junia: The First Woman Apostle (Kindle edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), location 346.
[vii] Rena Pederson, The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia (Kindle edition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006) Kindle locations 2470–2484.
[viii] “Junia,” The Full Wiki, last accessed August 3, 2017, http://www.thefullwiki.org/Junia. However, note that this quote can be found in almost every discussion on Junia anywhere. A simple Google search of the words “Junia Chrysostom” reveals hundreds of references.
[ix] “Strong’s G653,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed March 20, 2022, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G652&t=KJV.
[x] “Strong’s G1722,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 17, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1722&t=KJV.
[xii] Eldon Jay Epp, Junia, locations 955–956.
[xiii] Ibid., location 958.