The Role of Women In the Christian Faith: It's Complicated

Leah at the International Women's Day Event hosted by the Pacifica Institute, March 9, 2017

Leah at the International Women's Day Event hosted by the Pacifica Institute, March 9, 2017

This is the manuscript of the talk I prepared for an Interfaith Evening of Dialogue hosted by the East Bay Area Pacifica Institute in honor of International Women's Day. The event featured a female Rabbi, a Muslim female thinker, as well as myself, representing the Christian faith. The theme of the event was "The Role of Women in Abrahamic Faiths". Below are my remarks.

I’ve been asked to give a brief reflection on the role of women in the Christian faith. As a female leader of a Christian faith community, I, as much as anyone, have a stake in this conversation. But even I, if I’m going to be completely honest, have to admit that when asked about my faith’s perspective on the role of women, I have to say: “It’s Complicated”.

I didn’t always have an active faith in Jesus. It wasn’t until my college years that I began to connect with God in a real way and pursue faith as a meaningful part of my life. And in the contexts I found myself in at that point, women were encouraged to actively pursue faith, to use their gifts in many different ways, but there were also clear limitations, at least in practice, on where those gifts might take someone. In many contexts of my young life before coming to faith, I had experience and natural aptitude as a leader. But in the church, I had no models of women in the highest level of church leadership, because in my church that wasn’t a role women generally played. 

In the church I was a part of as a young Christian, we gave weight to discerning the communication of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and allowing the Spirit to lead us as it would. We were encouraged to try to listen to the voice of God and follow God’s leading in our lives. It was about fifteen years ago when I first sensed that perhaps God’s Spirit was speaking to me about someday starting a church. I was engaged to be married at the time, and in what particularly powerful prayer experience, I believed I sensed God say “Someday you guys are going to start a church”. I assumed at that point that God was saying that God was going to someday call my future husband to be a pastor. “Ugh. That means I’m gonna be stuck being a pastor’s wife”, I thought, admittedly annoyed at the idea. (To be fair, I know many amazing women who are pastor's wives, and I'm so grateful for them! But that wasn't the picture I had for my life at the time.) I had no context at that point for a community in which I would be the chief leader. I didn’t get at that time that it was not my husband that would call forth, but myself. My husband was never made to be a pastor; he is happily a software engineer. I say all this from the outset to give context to the reality, that embracing my own vocation as a female faith leader has been a process; a process of delving into the complicated nature of this question of the role of women in the Christian faith.

Faith, at least the Christian faith, at its core celebrates connection and relationship between finite humans and an infinite, immortal God. In that premise alone is a paradox: it necessitates a God who reveals God’s self to human beings through means and through cultures that do not represent all of who this God is, but speaks to human beings where they, themselves are in languages and metaphors that they themselves can perceive and comprehend. When it comes to women and other persons who are marginalized, this creates complexity in sorting out,  what social structures, roles, and identity markers reflect the character and nature of the Creator God and God’s divine order, and what reflect the characteristics and norms simply of the people to whom God is speaking at any given point? When it comes to women, where we see patriarchy in the practice of faith, is that something God instituted and upholds, or is it part of the reality, perhaps a broken part of the reality, of human culture that God is seeking to transform and redeem? 

This complexity is reflected in the stories our Bible tells and the diversity of thought from sincere Christians on what they mean. Some point to male leadership throughout much of the Bible, from the line of forefathers Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, to leaders like Moses, kings like David and Solomon, to male prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, and then, in the time of Jesus, who our faith upholds as God in the flesh, God in human form, Jesus chooses a band of his twelve closest followers to invest particular time and authority in, and all of them are men. For some Christians, this upholds the narrative that women are perhaps beloved creations of God, perhaps even made, along with men, in the image of God, but are not intended to have roles of leadership in the work of God. "Men lead, women support," they might say. That’s one way of reading the story of our faith and you can trace lines of churches that have upheld that view in some form or another for centuries.

But there are other views as well. There are counter voices that point out that even in the Hebrew Bible we had examples of strong women leaders: women like Miriam, Deborah, Esther. These counter voices might also point out that there were other culturally relevant characteristics that Jesus’ closest twelve disciples shared. Yes, they were all men, but they were also all Jews living in Palestine in the first century. Most scholars think they were all relatively young. Does that mean leadership in the Christian church should be forever confined to Palestinian Jewish men under thirty? If so, the church is gonna have a harder time recruiting pastors than it does now.

These voices also point to the patriarchal norms of the world Jesus inhabited. We have to acknowledge that the documents we call Sacred Text were composed in a world where women were often regarded as property. Where they had limited opportunities for education. Where they were typically confined to domestic duties. And against this backdrop, Christians like myself see Jesus countering the norms of his day in regards to women. He speaks to women in public despite the cultural taboos against it. He invites them to follow him; women travelled with Jesus’ disciples, and while the twelve closest named followers were indeed men, there were many women amongst their broader group of itinerant disciples. He taught women like Mary as a rabbi instructs a pupil, correcting her sister Martha who was frustrated with Mary for neglecting domestic work, praising Mary for choosing what was for her, in that moment, “the better thing.” 

We can point to the fact that women were the last people at the cross, the only ones of Jesus followers who remained faithful to him to the end. The men largely scattered in fear, the women stayed on. They watched his last breaths. They attended his brutalized body. And it was to these same women that Jesus gave the ultimate honor, to be the first witnesses of the event which is at the heart of the Christian faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus, as our story tells it, appears first to the women, and commissions them to tell their brothers, their male counterparts that Jesus has risen. These women, whose gender meant that their testimony carried no weight in a court of law in the culture of their day, were given the role of testifying and bearing witness to what our faith upholds as the central event in human history. 

Perhaps no Biblical woman’s story reflects the complexity of working out the roll of women in the Christian faith as much as the story of Junia. Chances are Junia is a name you may have never heard, even if you were raised Christian. Her appearance in the Bible is brief, but what it attests to is powerful. Much of the Christian New Testament is composed of correspondence written by a first century Jewish Jesus-follower named Paul, also known as the Apostle Paul. Paul helped establish Jesus-following communities, or churches, throughout the Ancient world, and then he’d write letters of advise to those churches. At the end of his letters he often gave shout-outs, specific greetings to particular individuals in the community his letter was intended to address. In the letter to the church in Rome, Junia is one of these individuals.

We see her in just one little verse, a verse that’s easy to pass over. “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.” This passing remark to these two characters Andronicus and Junia was likely not meant to be revolutionary in any way, but it points to a reality that many Christians have been unaware of, that women were included in the highest levels of leadership of the early Christian church. Junia was a female Apostle.

What was an Apostle? The term comes from the Greek “Apostolos” meaning “sent one” (a person who has been sent). It was used for those particular leaders in the early church who were centrally involved in the work of spreading the good news of Jesus and establishing new faith communities. The closest current equivalent would likely be a person like myself, a founder and Senior Pastor of a church. We see from this verse that not only was Junia, along with her friend, or perhaps brother or husband Andronicus, an Apostle, she was one who Paul, considered the hero of the Christian faith for many to this day, thought worthy of the highest esteem. “Outstanding among the apostles,” he called her. She suffered for her faith alongside Paul in prison. She was in the faith before Paul himself. 

Yet many of us are unaware of her story or even her existence. This is in part true because history has not known what to do with a woman like Junia. She seems to defy the norms that were likely adopted once the church moved from being a rugged, organic, subversive crew of Jesus-followers meeting underground in houses to a cultural and civic institution, and the established religion of the Roman Empire. And so somewhere along the way as the story of the church in Rome was told, this female apostle disappeared. Andronicus was praised along with his male friend. Junia the woman became Junias the man, and for centuries, translations of the Bible reflected this change.

It is not clear exactly when this change happened or what was the cause. Was it simple a scribal error, someone incorrectly copying a manuscript, and not noticing the change they had made? In Ancient Greek, the difference between the male version and female version of the name comes down to one accent mark. Or was it perhaps more intentional? More political? Perhaps it was due to church leaders who thought they were correcting what was likely a mistake in the text, because they simply had no imagination for a female apostle. Perhaps it was something more sinister,  an agenda to suppress any indication that exclusively male leadership was not always the norm? We can never really know. 

But thanks to the work of modern scholars, anthropologists, and historians, we do know that Junia was indeed a woman,  and the supposed male apostle Junias never existed. We know that Junias was not actually a name known in the Ancient world, it appears to have been essentially made up at a later time. Junia, on the other hand, was an extremely common female name in 1st Century Rome. We know that the earliest church fathers understood Junia to be a woman, and wrote words of praise about what an astounding woman she must have been to be included amongst the apostles and praised by Paul himself. 

Why do I tell this story? Because history matters, and the stories we tell in our communities matter. Junia reminds us of the complicated nature of women’s roles in the Christian faith. She reminds us first and foremost that our faith is one in which women (as well as men) have long been empowered to fully participate and bring all that they are, even if the world they inhabit doesn’t always understand them or know what to do with them. Stories like Junia's remind us that God has long been participating in dismantling structures of inequality, and that God’s Spirit often shows up most powerfully when those who have been previously excluded and devalued because of their gender, their race, their religion, their orientation, are centered and affirmed.

Junia Martens

Junia Martens

Just over seven years ago, I gave birth to my first daughter. We named her after one of my heroines, Junia. My prayer for her, and for all of us women, is that as we pursue faith and the connection to God we seek in it, we experience ourselves made in the image of a good, loving God, and we are empowered to bring all we have into the work of participating with that God in the healing of our world. Women and Men. Young and Old. Muslim, Jewish, Christian. One family of God. Thank you.