fbpx Resolving Five Complementarian Protests to Priscilla the Pastor-Teacher | CBE

Resolving Five Complementarian Protests to Priscilla the Pastor-Teacher

by Terran Williams | June 05, 2022

In my upcoming lecture, “Why Pastor Priscilla Ends Christian Patriarchy,” at CBE's 2022 International Conference, I will present a new line of biblical argumentation to support what I deem to be the near-certain conclusion that Priscilla was not only a doctrinal teacher, but also—and somehow most egalitarian literature has missed this—a pastor/elder.

You will have to attend the conference to hear this new approach to harmonizing the biblical data. For now, I will share the five pushbacks that I suspect complementarians will offer in attempt to refute my conclusion that Priscilla was a pastor/elder—not just a doctrinal teacher.

Pushback One: 1 Timothy 2:12, written by Paul, debars a woman from teaching and leading men, and therefore it is impossible that women taught or led in any church that existed under his auspices.

Perhaps the single greatest flaw in the complementarian armor is its “certainty” that 1 Timothy 2:12 constitutes a universal ban on women in senior teaching or leadership roles in churches. Without going into the specific situation in the Ephesian church that Paul is addressing, or the line of thought in 2:11–15, or the numerous word studies that lead to different interpretations, we have the hermeneutical principle of Scripture being the final interpreter of Scripture. In other words, when we can interpret a difficult passage in several possible ways, we should prefer those ways of interpreting it that harmonize with the teaching of other clear passages.

So nothing casts doubt on the complementarian interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 like finding a woman in the early church who is a pastor-teacher. As we witness Priscilla in full flight as a pastor-teacher, we must conclude that either she is sinfully disobeying God’s alleged complementarian preference or, far more likely, she is completely unaware of any divine rule that states a woman should not spiritually teach or lead a man.

Complementarians deem the meaning of “teach” in 1 and 2 Timothy to be doctrinal teaching by those in pastoral authority. In that case Priscilla may be the best biblical example of the principle of 2 Timothy 2:2. Paul, who has taught Timothy, tells him now to teach other people, who in turn will teach other people. It makes sense, then, that in Acts 18 we learn that Priscilla, having been taught doctrine by Paul, teaches it to Apollos, who goes on to be one of the greatest teachers in the early church. In my lecture I will explain further how Priscilla’s role as pastor-teacher to an adult man, Apollos, is in fact the clear teaching of Scripture, and therefore it should be decisive in interpreting the cloudy 1 Timothy 2 passage, which should then be deemed to be Paul’s situation-specific counsel.

Pushback Two: Aquila, Priscilla’s husband, was the pastor-teacher, while Priscilla merely supported him.

In complementarian circles today, it is common to speak of “ministry couples.” As wonderful as this term seems, what they mean is that the husband is the leader, and the wife is his able helper (in line with John Piper’s claim that Eve was Adam’s “loyal and suitable assistant”1). Without the husband’s leadership gifts opening the door for the couple, the wife has little chance of ever exercising her own leadership gifts. In this instance, then, Aquila was the pastor while Priscilla was merely his helper.

But the leader-helper model is extremely unlikely in the case of Priscilla and Aquila. Of the six times Paul and Luke name the pair in the Bible, they name Priscilla first four of those times.2 To modern ears that might not mean much, but in ancient patriarchal literature it is rare to even mention the wife at all, and even more rare to mention a wife’s name first. Some claim this is merely a coincidence. But the fact that both Paul and Luke name her first in their respective writings and the fact that they do so four (not merely one or two) out of six times tells us this is noteworthy.

So if it’s more than coincidence, what does it mean? Some scholars say that this merely shows that Priscilla had social prominence. Perhaps she was highborn and Aquila was lowborn, or she was a Roman citizen and he was not. But this sidesteps the more obvious meaning. Whenever the New Testament writers consistently name someone first, it is usually a testament to their ministry prominence (which, in turn, relates to their specific gifting). This is why Luke and the other gospel writers always name Peter first in the list of the apostles’ names. It is why Luke in Acts names Barnabas before Paul when referencing their ministry partnership in the church of Antioch, but when they hit the missionary road and Paul’s preaching and miraculous ministry goes to another level, from then on Luke names Paul first.

To further explore this, I reviewed all the named married couples in the Bible. I found that in only three other couples is the wife named before the husband: the judge Deborah before Lappidoth, the prophetess Huldah before Shallum, and Mary before Joseph. In all those places, mentioning the women first emphasizes their more prominent ministry. So why would this not lead us to conclude the same about Priscilla?

Pushback Three: “Elder” and “pastor” are masculine words, and therefore, no matter how gifted and honored Priscilla was, the one thing she could not be was a man and thus, an elder.

This objection misunderstands that ancient Greek was androcentric and therefore centered on the male. In that language, people-nouns are either masculine or feminine, without a neuter option. The only times a feminine form is used is when it refers only to a woman or to a group of women. When referring only to a man or men or to a mixed group of men and women the male noun form is used.

When Peter addresses the thousands of men and women in the crowd at Pentecost, he calls them by the male nouns “brothers” and “men.” Similarly, when referring to “disciples” in the book of Acts, even where females are clearly present, the male form is nonetheless used. This androcentric use of language was so common that sometimes even a solitary woman in a leadership office could be described with the male noun—for example, Phoebe, though female, is called a deacon not deaconess in Romans 16:1.

This means that when we read that Paul “appointed elders in each church” (Acts 14:23) there may have been women in the batch, or at the very least the use of the word “elder” is not in and of itself a sign that Paul did not appoint female elders. Of course in the highly patriarchal culture of the time, it would be quite likely that many churches would have an all-male team. Yet this was not necessarily always the case, especially if Priscilla was in the church at that time.

Pushback Four: The original Jerusalem church—something of a prototype church—was led only by males.

It’s true that the male apostles led the Jerusalem church (Acts 1–5), and then they appointed seven men to help them lead (Acts 6–8), but neither fact serves as a universal template for all churches. The symbolic importance of the Twelve being male aside, we must remember that, like every church, the Jerusalem church was shaped by its local situation. In Acts 6 for example, the church, not the apostles, selected seven men to deal with the major conflicts between the vulnerable, widowed women who were Grecian Jews and those who were Hebrew Jews. In that Palestinian culture, it was expected that marginalized women who needed someone to protect and advocate for them would choose free men (not other women and not slaves) to do so.

We can learn more about the apparent male-centricity of the Jerusalem church. New theological realities, unleashed by the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, nevertheless take some years to soak into the fledgling first-century church. As we read the book of Acts from beginning to end, we notice some progression in practices. At the risk of being oversimplistic, we can divide the “early church” era in the New Testament into two phases. For the first decade, the church is a primarily Jewish sect in Jerusalem. Then it rapidly spreads beyond its Jewish base into Asia Minor and Europe, where it becomes a primarily Gentile community. There is a clear movement from Jewish only to Jewish and Gentile leadership, a process that takes time even though from the outset, theologically speaking, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Gal. 3:28). Well, something similar can be speculated about the slow progress the church makes in fully deploying women, even though from the outset, theologically speaking, “nor is there male and female” (Gal. 3:28).

Which of these two phases in the New Testament church is most resonant with contemporary churches? Although we may draw inspiration from the Jerusalem church of 35 AD, we would probably be better guided by the Ephesian church of 52 AD, as it was planted and led by Priscilla and Aquila, and the Roman church of 57 AD—no longer a Jewish sect (the big idea of Rom. 1–15), and no longer male-dominated (the big idea of Rom. 16, where Paul pours accolades on more women than men for their ministry roles).

Pushback Five: In Paul’s lists of qualifications for spiritual oversight, he says that an elder/overseer needs to be a one-wife man (Titus 1:6; 1 Tim. 3:2).

This is the only evidence in these lists that Paul may only have men in mind. By using the word “whoever,” Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1 invites women, also, to desire the noble task of pastoring. Then there is not a single masculine pronoun in either of the lists of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus. Compare that with our English translations of the list about overseers in 1 Timothy 3:1–7: “his . . . He . . . his . . . his . . .  him . . . he . . . his . . . he . . . He . . . he . . . He . . . he . . .” Our English translations unfortunately force us to visualize a male in almost every line in a way the original readers would not have.

In fact, the phrase “one-wife man” is the only part of the lists that, on a surface reading, implies maleness. Yet it is actually a phrase that can be used for any generic person, male or female. Paul, like any ancient androcentric Greek writer, used the male form of a phrase when both genders were included in a group. Jesus does something similar when he quotes the androcentrically stated law about not coveting “your neighbor’s wife,” a law that surely also applies to wives who should not covet their neighbor’s husband.

Even if Paul did mean married men who oversaw a well-ordered household, including two or more well-behaved and believing children, these circumstantial factors should be treated as generally appropriate cultural assumptions not universal legislation. Surely, we are not meant to think that single, poor, and childless men like Paul and Jesus should not be allowed to lead a church. This is why even a leading complementarian scholar like Tom Schreiner writes, “The requirements for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, including the statement that they are to be one-woman men, does not in and of itself preclude women from serving as elders . . .”3

Conclusion         

With these five objections addressed, we have every reason to believe, and no good reason not to, that Priscilla was a full-blown pastor, teacher, and elder in her tenure at the Ephesian church, and quite plausibly also in the Corinthian church (before) and Roman church (after).

Now think what this means. In Priscilla we find a woman who, by God’s blessing, is doing in a highly patriarchal world the very thing complementarians say women should not do in our increasingly egalitarian one. How much more, then, should we be ready to release suitably called and gifted women into the highest levels of contribution in the local church today?

This article is from "The Fullness of Galatians 3:28," the Summer 2022 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

  1. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1991), 79.
  2. Priscilla and Aquila are named in Acts 18:2–3; Acts 18:18; Acts 18:26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; and 2 Timothy 4:19. Aquila is named first only in Acts 18:2–3 and 1 Corinthians 16:19. 
  3. Thomas R. Schreiner, “Philip Payne on Familiar Ground: A Review of Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 15, no. 1 (2010): 35.