Women Whose Ministry & Leadership Paul Affirmed: Priscilla

28 Dec

Today we’re looking at another woman whom Paul mentions in Romans 16.  Her name is Priscilla, and she is listed along with her husband here:

“Greet Prisca and Aq′uila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house.” – Romans 16:2-5 (RSV)

Under normal circumstances, the mention of a husband/wife ministry team would give no one pause (Complementarian nor Egalitarian).  However, we are fortunate enough to have the back story of these two, which makes their mention a little more interesting.  It can be found in Acts 18.

There, we’re told that Paul met Aquila and his wife Priscilla, in Corinth.  They were Jewish believers who had recently come from Italy (almost certainly Rome) because the emperor Claudius had expelled the Jews from the city (around 49 CE).  They had immigrated to Corinth where they worked as tent-makers.  Paul lived and worked with them.  When Paul left, Priscilla and Aquila joined him.  The three arrived in Ephesus and began ministry, but Paul eventually left the couple there.  We know from from 1 Corinthians 16 (which Paul likely wrote from Ephesus) that Priscilla and Aquila began a church in their home in Ephesus.

While Priscilla and Aquila were living in Ephesus, a Jew named Apollos came to the city.  He was from Alexandria and was a believer.  Apollos was a powerful speaker on behalf of Christ, but he only knew the baptism of John.  In other words, he had not been instructed fully in the Way.  When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of the Lord more fully to him.  After their tutelage, Apollos left and became a very influential teacher and leader in the church (Acts 18).

ImageIt appears that Priscilla and Aquila returned to their home in Rome when the edict of Claudius expired.  At the very least, they seem to be located there when the letter to the Romans was written.

So what does this missionary couple teach us about Paul’s view of women in ministry?  Quite a lot actually.  First, we see how valuable they were to Paul’s ministry and to the ministry to gentiles in general.  The three worked (and lived) very closely and supported one another in ministry.  Even the use of “Priscilla” which is a diminutive of “Prisca” reveals how close they were [It’s like calling me Katie instead of Kate or Kathryn].  On top of that, they led churches in Ephesus and in Rome, and served as teachers to one of the most influential apostles of the early church.  They were super-duper important!  They are a testimony to how powerfully God uses marriage and married couples.  Neither Priscilla, nor Aquila, was every mentioned individually (at least not in the Bible).

Most Complementarians will stop right there- arguing that married couples indeed minister together.  They would, however, contend that Aquila functioned as the spiritual leader of the two in marriage and in ministry.  As you can probably imagine, I’m going to suggest something different.  Priscilla and Aquila are named seven times (see acts 18:2, 18,19,26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; and 2 Timothy 4:19).  In five of those seven instances, Priscilla is named first.  [If you want to check for yourself, click this link: http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch=priscilla&qs_version=NIV ] That may not seem significant, but it was, at the very least different.  Imagine if I introduced a newly married couple as Mrs. And Mr. Smith- instead of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  It’s just not how we do things.  Saying it sounds weird and wrong, because it’s not how we introduce married couples.  Now, think about how it would have sounded to Paul’s first century audience when Priscilla was mentioned first.

There are two possible explanations for this. 1) Priscilla was from a superior socioeconomic class than her husband.  I am not inclined to believe this for one simple reason.  Paul never seemed to give much preference to class anywhere else in his letters.  Why should we suppose he cared when it came to his tent-making friends? 2) Priscilla could have been mentioned first because she was the more prominent figure of the two.  Given the unlikelihood of the first possibility, I am persuaded to favor this explanation.  In addition, there is nothing in the text that indicates Aquila was the “real minister,” while Priscilla stayed in the background doing women’s and children’s ministry. Quite the opposite, actually; because the text tells us that Priscilla and Aquila offered instruction to Apollos.  I hope you find it as interesting as I do that this woman is being praised for teaching a man.

What I think it most significant about Priscilla and Aquila, though, is the fact that their ministry was done together- seemingly with mutuality and equality.  If Priscilla was more prominent, then she never chose to minister without the partnership of her husband.  If I’m wrong, and Aquila was more prominent, it’s clear he never chose to subordinate the ministry of his wife.  That’s a great picture for Christian marriage, especially for those of us in ministry.

In my own marriage and ministry, this seems especially relevant.  As far as church ministry goes, I am more “prominent” because I am the pastor, but my husband partners with me in that ministry.  His advice, accountability, and wisdom are indispensable to me.  He has been my most valuable resource in ministry.  We are equals, even if I’m the one who has the title.  I am confident it will be the same when RC ministers to the academic world.  He will be the doctor, the professor, and eventually the writer.  In the academic world he will be the prominent one.  However, he would never elevate his role in ministry over mine.  That’s mutuality.  And let me tell everyone from first- hand experience, it is much harder to live out mutuality than hierarchy. But then again, I’ve found that the Way of the Lord usually is much more difficult- yet much more beautiful- than any other way of life.

In conclusion, Priscilla and Aquila give us a great picture of God’s design for couples in ministry.  They also reveal how highly Paul viewed the ministry of both Priscilla and Aquila.

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