7 Jan 2019
A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 16:3-16. a). The diversity of the church.
The Roman Christians were diverse in race, rank and gender. As for race we know already that the church in Rome had both Jewish and Gentile members, and this is confirmed by the list. Certainly Aquila and Priscilla were Jewish Christians, and so were Paul’s *syngeneis* (7 and 11), which is less likely to mean *relatives* than his ‘kinsfolk’ or ‘those of his own race’ (as in 9:3). But it is equally clear that others on his list were Gentiles.
The social status of his Roman friends is uncertain. On the one hand, inscriptions indicate that Ampliatus (8), Urbanus (9), Hermes (14), Philologus and Julia (15) were common names for slaves. On the other, some at least were freed people, and others had links with persons of distinction. For example, commentators consider it quite likely that the Aristobulus mentioned (10) was the grandson of Herod the Great and friend of the Emperor Claudius, and that Narcissus (11) was none other than the well-known, rich and powerful freedman who exercised great influence on Claudius. It is not of course that these celebrities had themselves become Christians, and in any case they were probably dead by now, but their households had clearly remained in being, and there were Christians in them. J.B.Lighfoot concludes his interesting note on ‘Caesar’s Household’ (Phil.4:22) with these words: ‘We seem to have established a fair presumption that among the salutations in the Epistle to the Romans some members at least of the imperial household are included.
More distinguished, though in a different and nobler way, was Rufus (13), for he may well have been the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. At least Mark, whose gospel was written in or for Rome, is the only evangelist who mentions that Simon’s sons were Alexander and Rufus, and he does it in such a way as to imply that they were already well known to his readers in Rome (Mk. 15:21).
But the most interesting and instructive aspect of church diversity in Rome is that of gender. Nine out of the twenty-six persons greeted were women: Priscilla (3), Mary (6), probably Junia (7), Tryphena and Tryphosa, who may have been twin sisters, and Persis (12), Rufus’ mother (13), Julia and Nereus’ sister (15). Paul evidently thinks highly of them all. He singles out four (Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis) as having ‘worked hard’. The verb *kopiao* implies strong exertion, is used of all four of them, and is not applied to anybody else on the list. Paul does not specify what kind of hard work they did.
Two names call for special attention. The first is Priscilla, who in verse 3 and in three other New Testament verses is named in front of her husband (Acts 18:18, 26; 2 Tim.4:19). Whether the reason is spiritual (that she was converted before him or was more active in Christian service than he) or social (that she was a woman of standing in the community) or temperamental (that she was the dominant personality), Paul appears to recognise and not to criticise her leadership.
The other woman to be considered is mentioned in verse 7: *Greet Andronicus and Junias*. In the Greek sentence the second name is *Iounian*, which could be accusative of either Junias (masculine) or Junia (feminine). Commentators are agreed that the latter is more likely to be correct, since the former name is unknown elsewhere. Perhaps then Andronicus and Junia were a married couple, about whom Paul tells us four things: they were his kinsfolk, that is Jewish people; they have at some point been his fellow prisoners; they were converted before he was; and they *are outstanding among the apostles*. In which of its two senses is Paul using the word ‘apostles’? The commonest New Testament application of the word is to ‘the apostles of Christ’, meaning the Twelve (Matthias having replaced Judas), together with Paul and James, a very small group whom Christ had personally appointed and equipped to be the teachers of the church.
The much less frequent use of the term designates ‘the apostles of the churches’ (2 Cor.8:23). This must have been a considerably larger group, who were sent out by churches as what we would call ‘missionaries’, like Epaphroditus who was an ‘apostle’ of the Philippian church (Phil 2:25, literally ‘your apostle’), or like Barnabas and Saul who had been sent out by the church of Antioch (Acts 13:1ff.; 14:4, 14; cf. 1 Thess.2:6). If then by ‘apostles’ in Romans 16:7 Paul is referring to the apostles of Christ, we must translate that they were ‘outstanding in the eyes of the apostles’ or ‘highly esteemed by the apostles’, for it is impossible to suppose that an otherwise unknown couple have taken their place alongside the apostles Peter, Paul, John and James. Since this translation slightly strains the Greek, however, it is probably better to understand ‘apostles’ as meaning ‘apostles of the churches’, and to conclude that Andronicus and Junia were indeed outstanding missionaries.
The prominent place occupied by women in Paul’s entourage shows that he was not at all the male chauvinist of popular fantasy. Does it also throw light on the vexed question of the ministry of women? As we have seen, among the women Paul greets four were hard workers in the Lord’s service. Priscilla was one of Paul’s ‘fellow-workers’, Junia was a well-known missionary, and Phoebe may have been a deaconess. On the other hand, it has been said that none of them is called a presbyter in the church, even though an argument from silence can never be decisive.
Tomorrow: b) The unity of the church.