Steve Chalke is Wrong About Junia (but right about some other things)

January 15, 2013 in Theology · 0 comments

Steve Chalke

Steve Chalke — the so-called “Billy Graham of England” — recently came out in support of same-sex marriage. This is huge news. It is exciting news. It is hopeful news.

Chalke wrote an article for Christianity magazine espousing his views — you can read the short version of his article here and the longer version here.

The articles are packed chock full o’ great food for thought. And while I applaud the general conclusion Chalke arrives at, I did find one of his statements to be factually lacking. Regarding the female apostle Junia (Rom. 16.7), Chalke says:

although some suggest that the import of Paul’s greeting is to name her as an apostle, once again the overwhelming evidence is that the easiest reading of these words, and the one that is, of course, in line with the rest of his thought, is that the phrase simply means Junia was ‘esteemed by’, ‘well regarded’ or ‘greatly respected’ among the apostles.

This simply isn’t true. The “overwhelming evidence” doesn’t support this position, nor does it represent the “easiest reading”, hence the translations of Romans 16.7 by the CEB, NIV, NKJ, NLT, NRSV, RSV, NASB and NAB, all of which describe Junia as being “among the apostles.”

Regarding this passage, N.T. Wright says:

Paul says they are “well known among the apostles” — “ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις” — and some people have tried to say that means they are well known to the apostles. But actually it’s been shown quite recently that it cannot mean that. Junia is — she is a woman and she is an apostle.

Where Wright says “it’s been shown” I believe he’s referencing Linda Belleville’s article in NTS, which offers the decisive conclusion that “ἐπίσημοι ἐν plus the plural dative bears without exception the inclusive sense ‘notable among’.”

Chalke’s position is that the Bible does present women in a largely negative light and places severe restrictions on their role in the church — but that despite those clear Biblical mandates “the vast majority of Christians now recognise that women can, and should, teach and lead.” And he goes on to argue that if we can dismiss prohibitions against women in ministry as cultural products that are not true to the underlying message found only in Christ, then we must be consistent and dismiss prohibitions against homosexual behavior as well.

But the Biblical case for full inclusion of women in ministry is much stronger than Chalke acknowledges. I do not dismiss supposed Biblical limitations on women’s roles merely on cultural grounds. Rather, I think there is sound Biblical evidence that women held pivotal leadership roles in the nascent Church. Proper understanding of the Bible’s teachings about women relies not just on a proper understanding of Ancient Near East culture, it also relies on a proper exegesis of the text.

Chalke essentially says that we must allow a hermeneutic of love to supersede a hermeneutic of legalism. While such a plea is likely to remain unconvincing to those who believe “in the Bible alone“, I think it remains a powerful argument that must be brought to bear in the discussion of homosexuality and the church. I am not yet convinced that all of the purported Biblical admonitions against homosexuality can be sidestepped by proper exegesis as can the prohibitions against women in ministry — though I am intrigued by those who claim to do so through extraordinary feats of exegetical prestidigitation.

But in the end, regardless of our minor exegetical differences, I stand with Chalke in his declaration that “I am called to offer support, protection and blessing in the name of Christ, the king of justice, reconciliation and inclusion, who beckons each one of us out of isolation into the joy of faithful relationship.”

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