Is There a Place for Priscilla in Our Churches?
Mixed-gender theology classes should be taught by men. It is illogical to say a woman should train men to be Bible teachers and pastors when she shouldn’t be one herself. If women shouldn’t be pastors or elders in churches, then they should also not have that role in other contexts.
Should women teach theology to men? The role of women in the church and the wider Christian community has been the focus of debates for decades. The battle lines have been drawn, and both sides have made their positions clear, at least for one aspect of the debate.
The question of ordaining women to offices of pastor and elder has been asked and answered. One side says the ordained offices in the church should be filled by men and women who have been gifted and called. The other side says only qualified men should be ordained. I stand firmly in agreement with the latter group. But is ordination the only question we should ask in the discussions over women in the church?
Within the conservative, Reformed world, the opinions on whether or not women can teach theology to men cover a wide spectrum. Some believe that women can do anything in the church that a non-ordained man can do. Others believe that women can teach theology to other women and children but not to men in any setting. A few believe that women shouldn’t ever teach theology.
When it comes to writing and speaking about theology outside the church, opinions vary even more. Should a woman speak at a theological conference? Answers include “Yes, but only if the audience is all women,” and “Depends on if she’s teaching theology or speaking from her own experience.” Should a woman write a book or blog or have a podcast? Answers include “Yes, as long as the book/blog/podcast is intended for women, it’s OK if a man comes across it and learns from it,” and “Books provide a separation between author and reader so a man isn’t learning directly from a woman.”
In all these discussions, I wonder what the modern Reformed Christian community would make of Priscilla if she lived today. In Acts 18, Luke tells us about Priscilla and her husband Aquila. They were Jewish believers who had left Rome. Paul, who shared their occupation as tent-makers, stayed with them in Corinth. They traveled with Paul to Ephesus and stayed there when Paul continued on his missionary work. Verses 24-26 tell of how they instructed Apollos in the faith:
Now a Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus, being acquainted only with the baptism of John; and he began to speak out boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
At the end of Romans, Paul commends Priscilla and Aquila as his “fellow workers in Christ” (Romans 16:3-5a). This was high praise from the apostle. John Calvin called this “a singular honor … especially with regard to a woman, ” and praises Paul for his willingness “to have a woman as his associate in the work of the Lord; nor was he ashamed to confess this.”
Commentaries from church fathers and Reformers make note of the significance of Priscilla, a woman, teaching Apollos. Jerome, in defense of his teaching women, wrote, “Aquila and Priscilla educate Apollo, an apostolic man learned in the law, in the way of the Lord. If to be taught by a woman was not shameful to an apostle, why should it be to me afterwards to teach men and women?” Chrysostom wrote of Priscilla’s excellence in “receiving Apollos, and instructing him in the way of the Lord.”
Calvin is even more explicit: “We see that one of the chief teachers of the Church was instructed by a woman.”
Matthew Henry sees this event as an example of younger scholars learning from more knowledgeable and experienced believers. According to Henry, “Here is an instance of a good woman, though not permitted to speak in the church or in the synagogue, yet doing good with the knowledge God had given her in private converse. Paul will have the aged women to be teachers of good things.”
Several commentaries, like Henry, emphasize that Priscilla taught Apollos not as an ordained leader but as an educated and equipped lay woman. Her work as a lay member of the church is to her credit:
In what appears to be the true reading of this verse, Priscilla is put before Aquila … she being probably the more intelligent and devoted of the two. … We see here also an example of not only lay agency (as it is called), but female agency of the highest kind and with the most admirable fruit. Nor can one help admiring the humility and teachableness of so gifted a teacher in sitting at the feet of a Christian woman and her husband.
The same commentaries praise Apollos for his humility and willingness to learn, especially from a woman. How many men in our churches are willing to listen to and learn from women like Apollos or, like Paul, to call women fellow workers or co-laborers in Christ? I’m thankful to know some who are, but many express attitudes about women that are not so encouraging.
Please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I do not want women to be ordained leaders in the church. But outside the ordained offices, there should be many places in our churches for women to serve and to use their gifts of discernment, encouragement, and teaching. As we see in the New Testament, both male and female believers have been called to discernment and to teach, encourage, and admonish each other (see Phil. 1:9, Col 3:16, and 1 Thess. 5:11,14).
Priscilla is one example of a woman using her gifts to benefit the church, but there are others throughout history. During the Reformation, many women supported the work being done to reform the church. Some provided financial support, others corresponded with the Reformers providing encouragement and counsel:
The movement(s) flourished and endured from roots that were both male and female: the product not just of the male theologians but of women, who as daughters, sisters, spouses, mothers, widows and as believers espoused the new faith and “taught” it and “preached” it in their own domains, so participating concretely in the Protestant mission.
A few women, like Anne Dutton, published their theological writings for the public to read and had to defend themselves for doing so:
Anne’s published work (about fifty volumes of poetry, letters, hymns, treatises, and an autobiography) attracted the censure of some who thought it was improper for a woman, especially because many of her letters contained advice to men—including leaders as John Wesley and George Whitefield.
In her defense, Anne Dutton explained the difference between her writing as a laywoman and the “public authoritative teaching in the church” that Paul restricts to qualified ordained men in 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. She also reasoned that Romans 14:19 calls for all believers to edify each another: “And unless women were excluded from being members of Christ’s mystical body their usefulness, in all due means, ought not to be hindered.”
Michael Horton makes the same distinction between the teaching with authority by ordained church leaders and the teaching that laymen and women are called to in the Scripture. In a recent podcast, he explains that Paul restricts ordination to qualified men but also speaks of women teaching and prophesying:
If the apostle, who represents Christ, in infallible, inerrant Scripture says women cannot exercise authority in the church, meaning, as you say, pastor or elder, but he gives an example of them teaching with their head covered, prophesying, under the authority of the elders then, if that’s what Scripture teaches, I can’t raise an objection to that. Scripture is the last word on this.
I do understand the concerns with upholding the qualifications for ordained leadership, but in our zeal to defend qualified male ordination in our churches, we need to be careful not to restrict women beyond what Scripture teaches. All men and women in the church have gifts and talents that should be used to bless the church, advance the gospel, and glorify God. It’s time to consider, “Where is the place for Priscilla in our churches?”
Rachel Green Miller is the author of Beyond Authority and Submission. She is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a popular blogger at A Daughter of the Reformation.
Wayne Grudem quoted in “Should Christian Colleges Let Female Faculty Teach Men the Bible?” by Ruth Moon, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/may/should-christian-colleges-let-female-faculty-teach-men-bibl.html.
John Calvin, Commentary on Romans 16, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/romans/16.htm.
Jerome, “A Letter from Jerome (397),” https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/letter/425.html.
Chrysostom, “Homily 30 on Romans,” http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/210230.htm.
John Calvin, Commentary on Acts 18, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/calvin/acts/18.htm.
Matthew Henry, Commentary on Acts 18, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/acts/18.html.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary, Acts 18:26, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/jfb/acts/18.htm.
Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 214, as quoted in Leah Baugh, “How Women Helped Bring Us the Reformation,” https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/articles/how-women-helped-bring-us-the-reformation
Simonetta Carr, “Anne Dutton and Her Reasons for Writing,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/anne-dutton-and-her-reasons-for-writing.
Anne Dutton, Selected Spiritual Writings of Anne Dutton: Autobiography, ed. by Joann Ford Watson (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2006), xlvi, as quoted in Simonetta Carr, “Anne Dutton and Her Reasons for Writing,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/anne-dutton-and-her-reasons-for-writing.
Anne Dutton, xlvii, as quoted in Simonetta Carr, “Anne Dutton and Her Reasons for Writing,” https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/anne-dutton-and-her-reasons-for-writing.
Michael Horton and Adriel Sanchez, “Can Women Teach in the Church,” podcast, Nov. 29, 2019, https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/episodes/can-women-teach-in-the-church.