Priscilla: Teacher and Co-minister
by Dr Jehan Loza
Priscilla and Aquila are possibly the most influential couple named in the establishment of the Early Church. They are mentioned six times (Rom. 16:3-4; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19; Acts 18:2-4; Acts18:18; Acts19:26) and always as a couple. In ancient times, it was custom for the person mentioned first in any couplet to be the person held in greater honour (Oleson 2009), though women were hardly mentioned at all. It is, therefore, unquestionably significant that both Paul and Luke break from this custom of omission and not only mention Priscilla but each writer references her first two out of the three times each mentions the couple.
While there is no agreement as to why Priscilla’s name appears first, many commentators believe that both Paul and Luke were impressed by Priscilla’s ministry and her leadership. Indeed, some commentaries suggest that to be named first, Priscilla must have played a more prominent spiritual role in church life (Keller 2010, Belleville 2005). Others argue that the changing order of their names provides evidence of the couple’s relationship as mutual ministry partners – though it should not be forgotten that it is four times from the six that Priscilla is mentioned first (Scott 2004).
Lewis et al (1904:247): assert that:
No other married couple in the Bible appears in such complete, all-round association…We rarely see so rich an instance of true marriage as this union in heart and aim, in life and work.
With the exception of Luke’s note on Aquila’s origins (Acts 18:2), the names of the couple are never mentioned apart. It appears, therefore, that everything Priscilla did, she did with Aquila and that everything he did, he did with her.
According to Keller (2010) the fact that Priscilla worked manually with her husband as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3) is evidence enough that she neither outranked her husband in social status or wealth (as some have argued). Keller mounts an argument that Priscilla (and Aquila) belonged to the populous lower order of minor craftspeople in Corinth who earned their living with their hands.
At any rate, Priscilla was committed to the cause of Christ. As a missionary Priscilla accepted (with her husband) an itinerant lifestyle serving Christ. She was willing to do anything and travel anywhere, at any time, and with any cost. Whenever she is mentioned, she is with her husband in a different city going from Rome to Corinth to Ephesus to Rome. Priscilla was industrious sharing with her husband a joint occupation and ministry. She was willing to open her home and then work alongside her husband and Paul.
Important to note is that if Priscilla and Aquila were Christ followers when they were evicted from Rome, then the couple were already established as leaders in their own right – already active for the cause of Christ. It was what she learnt during her time with Paul that allowed her to transfer her knowledge to Apollos (and no doubt others). This was one of the most impressive aspects of her spiritual influence – guiding the Alexandrian Apollos to a deeper understanding of the Gospel.
In the ancient world, Alexandria was an established and well regarded centre of learning. Luke tells us that Apollos was “competent in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:24-25). This indicates that Apollos was an eloquent speaker and probably well read and highly educated. This was a man who had a thorough grasp of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, eloquent and fervent, Apollos was limited in his preaching. He knew only “the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). It is this that perhaps best demonstrates Priscilla’s strong leadership gift and influence. The fact that Appollos was willing to heed correction from Priscilla is evidence enough. As Grenz (1995:82-83) argues:
The text of Acts will not allow us to transform this narrative into anything other than a clear indication of authoritative teaching by a woman in the church.
Lewis et al (1904:261) go one step further and claim that:
It looks like Priscilla was the real teacher and that Aquila was only present at the lessons for the sake of the proprieties.
Whatever the case, Priscilla’s role as teacher in instructing Apollos, not to mention, leading the Early Churches of Ephesus, Corinth and Rome is remarkable, especially since she lived in an era where women were prohibited from touching the Torah scrolls or engaging in the discussions following the readings in the synagogue.
Grenz (1995) argues that despite the Old Testament warnings to gather the “men, women and little ones, and the sojourners within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of his law” (Deut 31:12); women (and children) received minimal religious instruction. Their role in Jewish worship was also limited and in the synagogues, their roles were as passive observers rather than active participants. Women’s primary contribution was to the private sphere of the domestic. First-century men, however, occupied the more privileged status of the public sphere. As a result they often considered women as having little to contribute to general public life and religion in particular. Remember Plato?
Nevertheless, some women living across locations enjoyed a more privileged status. For example, while in cities such as Alexandria and Jerusalem, women lived in domestic seclusion, women in rural Palestine had a degree of independence to move about in public. Despite the male dominance of Roman society, certain matrons had power and influence on matters of politics and culture. Such women enjoyed the freedom to pursue personal interests outside the home, including commerce. It was this greater freedom that some women enjoyed in certain sectors of society that contributed to the advance of the gospel (Grenz 1995). Furthermore, in the Early Church, women had official status in building up the body of Christ (Grenz 1995). According to Grenz, the fact that Luke records the story of the teaching of Apollos makes it reasonable to conclude that Luke was highlighting the new role of women, such as Priscilla, in the church. It is interesting to note that, in traditional times, houses were the first centers of church life. House churches were the base in which the ‘family of God’ (the ekklesia), congregated in order to study, pray and worship. These houses were also the place for instruction.
According to Keller (2010) the house church setting had an important influence on women in leadership. In fact, one commentator (Hurley 1981) suggests that five of the six passages in the New Testament that refer to house churches note women as among the leaders. In the churches of Corinth, Ephesus and Rome, Priscilla and Aquila were both hosts and leaders of the Jesus followers that met in their homes. Priscilla is not the only woman associated with house church leadership. A number of women are linked to this role. In Acts for example, Mark’s mother opens her home for the Jesus followers to gather (Acts 12:12). In Philippi believers meet in the house of Lydia (Acts 16:14-14, 40). Writing to the Colossians, Paul greets Nympha and the church in her house (Col 4:15). Giles (1992) argues it is also possible that Chloe hosted a church in her home (1 Cor 1:11), as well as some of the other women that Paul mentions in his greetings of Romans 16. Such a reading reveals that the private sphere of the home, that relegated to the position of inferior, as the female domain, was the very site in which Christ’s church was birthed and grew.
Theologically, one can therefore conclude that Paul viewed these women as sharing the function with him of church leadership.
In this context, Paul’s view of ministry does not suggest either a hierarchical or an institutional perspective. Paul acknowledges the couple as his co-workers who risked “their necks for my life“(Romans 16:3-5).
Priscilla’s and Judge Deborah’s story show how women occupied leadership positions – as leaders with a public ministry in their own right. Yet they were also co-ministers with their male counterparts. At first this seems incongruent. However, in an attempt to do away with dualisms, I will illustrate how leadership, as God ordained it, should be based on a co-ministry model where women form an integral part; not as mere supporters of men’s leading but as equal contributors to God’s kingdom work.
*Featured Art Work by Liezel van der Linde from Create Space
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