As president, I frequently hear from people in complementarian, male-run churches. Some find their experiences relatively positive; others share concerns for how Scripture, and specifically passages written by Paul, are mismanaged, especially from the pulpit.
After hearing years of teachings that demean women myself, it was a jolt when the “real Priscilla” burst in on my own life. I remember vividly how this epiphany radically changed my view not only of women but also of Paul.
I had accepted the male-headship premise that Priscilla (also called Prisca) respected male authority because she taught Apollos in a private setting—her home (Acts 18:26). Then, one day, it occurred to me that first century churches were all held in private homes, often in the homes of women like Lydia, Chloe, the Elect Lady, Apphia, and Nympha. It was like Priscilla herself was asking me to hear her story from her perspective. When I did, here’s what I learned.
Priscilla: Equal to Her Husband and Teacher to Apollos
In searching Bible resources, I was confused as to why so many cite Aquila without mentioning Priscilla when Scripture always referred to both together. In fact, Paul references Priscilla and Aquila more often than anyone else except Timothy. Priscilla is even mentioned ahead of her husband in four of six references (Acts 18:1–3, 18–19, 26; Rom 16:3–5; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). Her name precedes her husband’s even when correcting Apollos. Without hesitation, Apollos accepts her instruction (Acts 18:24–26)!
No longer silenced, Priscilla herself pushed back on years of prejudice blinding me to a radical truth about Paul and his closest female coworker. But there was one more hurdle!
Priscilla vs. 1 Timothy 2:11–12
Priscilla taught Apollos in a church she and her husband established in their home in Ephesus. She also corrected this prominent male leader in the very church where Paul (supposedly) tells women not to hold authority over men in 1 Tim 2:12. So was Priscilla at odds with Paul regarding women leaders in the church? No!
The word for authority used in 1 Tim: 2:12 meant to usurp, domineer, even abuse, which are not characteristics that can be applied to Priscilla’s leadership in this church. What is more, scholars believe Priscilla wasn’t even in Ephesus when Paul wrote 1 Timothy 2:11–15. She was likely with Paul in Rome as he was writing this letter! Shortly thereafter, Priscilla and Aquila return to Ephesus (2 Tim. 4:19), perhaps to help Timothy address the challenges mentioned in 1 Timothy 2. We can assume Priscilla used her teaching gifts then too, just as she had for Apollos years earlier
Galatians 3:28: Paul and Women
Reading the text through Priscilla’s vocation as an authoritative teacher, we can understand Paul more clearly. Chosen by the risen Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:19), Paul becomes an apostle to the Gentiles. His renewal in Christ eclipsed the privileges of birthright he knew as a free, Jewish male (Gal. 3:28). These he called rubbish “because of the surpassing worth of know Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). An apostle of newness of life in Christ, Paul celebrated the leadership of women made new as he was, like Priscilla, and also like Phoebe a deacon and leader in Cenchrea (Rom. 16: 1–2), Junia a prominent apostle (Rom. 16:7), women prophets (1 Cor. 11:2–-16) whose prophetic gifting Paul valued over all other spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:1).
To read Priscilla’s story through a lens of male-only leadership diminished her calling and also Paul’s. It also obstructs, demeans, and even abuses God’s welcome to women leaders and their male allies then and now! Women like Priscilla are mainstream for Paul. While there are eddies—small pools off the river—addressing specific local concerns (1 Cor. 14:33–35; 1 Tim. 1:11–15; Eph. 5: 22–24), these should be read through the demonstrated leadership of women like Priscilla.
In making peace with Paul, I had to first attend to Priscilla. I could then embrace the lived theology of other women co-laboring beside Paul as teachers, apostles, deacons, prophets, and evangelists. These women represent Paul’s deepest held beliefs: that the power of Christ is able to do more than you or I can imagine (Eph. 3:20). Scripture must renew our minds, not distort our view of God, ourselves, and others. May God’s Spirit renew the church through the story of leaders like Priscilla.
This article appeared in “Making Peace with Paul,” the Spring 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine.
Read the full issue here.