The second reason Synod Meppel gave for admitting women to the office of elder is: “They [women] could be called thereto [i.e. to participate in governing and judging] by God, as is evident from Micah 6:4 where the LORD addresses Israel and says: ‘I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam.’”
Miriam’s leading Israel refers to an event after the Israelites had left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and the LORD had drowned the pursuing Egyptian forces. Then “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea’” (Exod 15:20-21). Miriam led the women in song. She is identified as “the prophetess.” What does this mean?
With respect to her identity as a prophetess, it is possible that Miriam received revelation from God (cf. Num 12:2) as one would expect from a prophet (cf. Exod 7:1-2), but Scripture nowhere indicates that she publicly proclaimed new prophecy. The public prophetic act of this prophetess was singing with a musical instrument and exhorting praise to God.
There are also indications elsewhere in Scripture that praising God and declaring his great deeds constitute prophesying. Take, for example Saul. He met a procession of prophets with musical instruments prophesying and the Spirit came on him and he prophesied as well (1 Sam 10:5-11). This prophesying can best be understood as praising God. Another example that can be mentioned is when David set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun for the ministry of music in the temple. This ministry is then described as “the ministry of prophesying” and the singers are described as prophesying when they thank and praise the LORD (1 Chron 25:1-3). Consistent with the nature of this musical ministry, the leaders of the temple song are called seers or prophet (1 Chron 25:5; 2 Chron 35:15) and the poet Asaph is also called a seer or prophet (2 Chron 29:30).
Miriam’s prophetic task can therefore be seen in her music and singing ministry – an activity also associated with Deborah, the prophetess, when she with Barak, sang a song extolling God’s deliverance (Judg 5:1). And like Deborah, Miriam as prophetess gave needed leadership to Israel, along with Moses and Aaron (Micah 6:4). Her leadership was for the women of Israel since they were the ones who followed her (Exod 15:20). In his sermon on Micah 6, Calvin notes that even though Miriam was a woman, God gave her this leadership role “in order that she might strengthen women.” In his commentary on this passage, he notes that “it was an extraordinary thing, when God gave authority to a woman … no one may consider this singular precedent as a common rule.” Indeed, how true. It is noteworthy that the Dutch decision ignores the fact that God punished Miriam with leprosy when she challenged the leadership of Moses (Num 12). Furthermore, Micah 6:4 is the only time that Miriam is mentioned as a leader along with Moses and Aaron. She is not mentioned in other places where the LORD says that he sent Moses and Aaron as leaders (Josh 24:5); 1 Sam 12:8; Ps 105:26). Her leadership in leading the women in singing at the one exceptional event cannot function as an argument for ordaining women to the ruling and leadership offices of the church.
Older women who teach
A third argument for synod to justify ordaining women to the office of elder is: “While the New Testament names older men as elders, older women are also called upon to be an example and to spiritual care (Titus 2:3-5)”.
The point of this argument seems to be that while older men are called to be elders (their qualifications are given in Titus 1), older women are addressed in chapter 2 and charged to do certain things which to the Synod seem to intimate that they too had an office. But this sort of logic does not hold. After giving the qualifications for the office of elder in chapter 1, the apostle next addresses different groups in the congregation. He first mentions the duties of older men “to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (Titus 2:2). The apostle then continued that “older women likewise are to be reverent in behaviour, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train young women to love their husbands and children” and so forth (Titus 2:3-5). After that the apostle addressed the younger men and slaves (Titus 2:6-10). There is no talk of office in Titus 2. Here the apostle gives instructions to the entire congregation. To seek justification for female ordination to ecclesiastical offices from the admonition that older women should be an example of Christian conduct to others simply does not hold.
Junia and Priscilla
The fourth ground for the Synod’s decision is articulated as follows: “Paul’s description of Junia and Andronicus as apostles who were greatly esteemed (Rom 16:3) and his mentioning couples and a brother and sister in whose home a congregation meets (Rom 16:5, 15) create the impression that man and wife gave leadership in Christ’s congregation in positions of equal standing.”
It is difficult to understand how this fourth ground can give any support to the notion of women elders. In the first place, to suggest that Andronicus and Junia are a man and wife couple is saying more than what the text states. It does say that they are fellow Jews who were in prison with Paul. Furthermore, it is far from certain that Junia (or Juinias as it can also be written) was a female. There are strong arguments to insist that it could be a man’s name.[i] In addition, it needs to be ascertained what exactly is meant by the term “apostle”? Before discussing that it should also be noted that the text can not only translated as “they [Andronicus and Junia] are outstanding among the apostles” (NIV 2011) but also as “they are esteemed by the apostles” (footnote in NIV 2011). The translation that they were apostles is one interpretation of the Greek, but other translations which remove Junia’s identity as an apostle are also possible and indeed may very well be preferable.[ii]
So what does the term “apostle” mean here? It should be stressed that the term can mean different things. It does not need to refer to the apostolic office such as Paul had. The first meaning of the original Greek term is “messenger.” Paul used it in this sense in 2 Corinthians 8:23 and Philippians 2:25. So why could he not have used it with the sense of “messenger” here as well? The indications are that this is the case if the translation “among the apostles” is chosen. After all, the apostles were all personally chosen by Christ. And they were all male.
In summary, Romans 16:7 cannot be used to prove that there was a female apostle in the days of Paul. There are too many uncertainties to make this claim.
The Synod also referred to a couple mentioned in Romans 16:3, namely, Priscilla and Aquila. This Christian couple had taken Apollos aside in Ephesus “and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). This was clearly private instruction and not official ecclesiastical work. Priscilla did not participate in this teaching as a female office bearer (cf. 1 Cor 16:19). The references of Synod Meppel to Romans 16:5 and 15 prove nothing with respect to women in ecclesiastical office in the apostolic church.
One gets the impression that Synod Meppel had determined to open the elder office to women due to pressures from churches influenced by the egalitarian culture of the day. They thus cast about looking for a biblical warrant to make that happen. Synod ended up grasping at straws as any neutral reader of Scripture can see from the above evidence. Furthermore, Synod’s apparent refusal to let the full weight of the clear apostolic teaching on the requirements for a male eldership in the church (1 Tim 3 and Titus 1) come to bear on their decision making process is unreasonable. Synod ended up recommending women for ordination to the elder office contrary to the clear teaching Scripture.
by Cornelius Van Dam (professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario). This is the second and final instalment. The complete article is published in Clarion (Canadian Reformed Magazine) July 28 2017, pp. 423-426.
[i] See especially Al Wolters, “IOYNIAN (Romans 16:7) and the Hebrew Name Yehunni,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127 (2008): 397-408.
[ii] For a summary of the debate and defence for the translation “well-known to the apostles” or something similar, see Michael Burer, “Romans 16:7 as ‘Well Known to the Apostles’: Further Defense and New Evidence,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 58 (2015): 731-56. ESV (2016), NET Bible (2005) render “well known to the apostles”; Christian Standard Bible (2017) translates “noteworthy in the eyes of the apostles.”