You can read the Bible for 20 years and miss something (or someone) “hidden” in plain sight. That’s what happened to me. But when I saw it (or her), well, it changed so much for me.
If we can find a single female pastor/elder/overseer in the first century patriarchal world, then it’s a no brainer that we should recognize female pastors in the stridently egalitarian one we now live in.
After I wrote my book—How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy (available here: https://terranwilliams.com)—I preached a message at a church on the evidence for Priscilla as a church leader. I shared that message on social media, and someone, not usually skilled in exegesis, challenged my conclusions. I soon figured out that they had got their arguments from an article by Mark Ellis, a Southern Baptist Convention missionary, entitled, “Disabusing Priscilla: Was She a Pastor?” (See: www.bit.ly/3QnNUiI)
This article contains the most dogmatically stated arguments I have yet found against the plausibility that Priscilla exercised a pastoral function. Ellis asserts that “feminists greatly exaggerate the function of Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus.” As counter-evidence to Priscilla’s significant ministry he offers these arguments:
“Priscilla and Aquila were not mentioned again after Paul arrived in Ephesus, it was Paul who preached in the synagogue (18.19), but he did not stay long enough even to plant a church. The believers in Ephesus did not establish a separate congregation, a “church,” until after Paul returned to Ephesus (Acts 19.9). It was Jews from the synagogue, not a church, who asked him to stay longer, but he refused (18.20-21).”
“Aquila and Priscilla did not invite him to their “church,” but to a private conversation, and it was not Aquila and Priscilla who encouraged Apollos to go to Corinth, but “the brothers.” This is a strong indication that Aquila and Priscilla were not the pastors of a church in Ephesus, as suggested by feminists.”
“It would be a great exaggeration to say that Aquila and Priscilla “discipled” Apollos. This was one isolated and specific conversation. This was a private conversation away from (“proslambano”) the synagogue. The only other occasion in which this verb appears in the NT are texts in which Peter pulled Jesus aside to rebuke him in private (Mt 16.22; Mk 8.32). It is impossible to extrapolate from this setting as a license for women to preach or teach in a church. She was a part of the conversation with Apollos, but there is nothing in the text which would indicate that Priscilla was acting in a pastoral or even discipleship function. Did Priscilla baptize Apollos? Did she lay hands on him so that he could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? If she were the pastor of the church, would she not have engaged in similar actions?”
Ellis’ last claim that pastors in the New Testament would be the ones to baptize people or pray for them to experience the Spirit is completely unfounded, so we will throw it out straight away. But what about all his other claims?
Having already written my book, but not having read Mark Ellis’ alleged counterevidence caused me to take an even deeper dive into the biblical data. I also turned to the two best Acts commentaries I know of: Ben Witherington’s “The Acts of the Apostles” (the top-rated commentary on Acts according to www.bestcommentaries.com) and Craig Keener’s magnum opus, “Acts: An Exegetical Commentary,” (at 4640 pages, it is the largest and most thoroughly documented Acts commentary ever written).
How crucial is the Priscilla-as-pastor argument?
In my book, I seek to show that the contemporary church’s liberty to ordain female pastors is a direction with parallel emphasis in the New Testament: given that there definitely were female evangelists, female household leaders, female teachers, female prophets, female deacons, and even a female apostle in the church, and short of a clear biblical prohibition against it, it is reasonable, not unreasonable, to affirm female elders in those situations where God raises them up and where it is advantageous to the mission—which is the case in most egalitarian cultures today. As Jamin Hubner says: “It makes no sense to relegate pastoral leadership to a separate, special category from these other functions—such that one sex could be automatically, universally, and permanently excluded from one role and yet fulfil all the other functions.” This is especially true when we also realize that:
- NO named person is described as having the church leadership office of “a pastor” or “elder” (Peter the apostle may be the exception);
- there is no explicit banning of female eldership (no, 1 Timothy 2 does NOT constitute a ban on female eldership in all churches everywhere—but you will have to read my book or Andrew Bartlett’s “Men and Women in Christ” for that);
- and we have evidence, which I will present, that Priscilla, like her husband, very probably was a church leader.
Even if we say that it is merely “possible” that Priscilla was a church leader; in fact even if we take out the last point in the list above and exclude any mention of Priscilla, there’s still a case to be made for letting women co-lead churches with men today. Even if someone can definitively prove that Priscilla was not a pastor, it’s not case closed.
As I wrote my book and immersed myself in Acts 18, I came to the conclusion that Priscilla and Aquila were VERY probably church leaders, and I present my arguments for saying this. But the degree of my claim that Priscilla was one actually goes beyond the vast majority of other mutualist works that only conclude that she was possibly/probably one. Having stepped out beyond fellow-mutualist scholars it is fair that I have taken some heat.
So, what follows is my argument that Priscilla was VERY probably a pastor…
What to look for in a New Testament pastor/elder?
In the Greco-Roman church-planting that unfolds in Acts 13 onwards, and is described in the New Testament epistles, the model we find is that generally small, highly organic churches come into existence when apostles evangelize Jews in a city, but then also Gentiles. These churches then require pastoral leaders to care for the church, who:
• have received the apostolic deposit of teaching,
• work hard and are godly,
• are able to teach good doctrine to other believers,
• are more seasoned than others in the faith,
• are able to evangelize,
• if possible, are able to host a church in their home,
• and show leadership ability by their ability to manage a household.
If we remove the blot of the complementarian misreading of 1 Timothy 2:12 from our vision, there is no reason that a pastor could not be a woman—though I assume that a female pastor would have been as rare as a slave pastor, given the subordinate status of both in that culture. The patriarchal context of the Greco-Roman world would mitigate against public leadership by women.
Paul returns to Ephesus
Now let’s jump to Paul as he returns to Ephesus from Jerusalem in Acts 19. He has 12 brand new believers in tow. Priscilla and Aquila have been there for a year, and have maintained good relations with the synagogue that Paul visited before. Luke who focuses his narrative on Paul’s evangelistic ministry, tells how Paul spends 3 months evangelizing in the synagogue, until he is booted. “He takes the disciples with him,” meaning that he takes his converts with him—as per Paul’s usual experience in synagogue preaching, some believe before the group ejects him. He relocates his public evangelism from the synagogue to a public lecture hall where he (and his disciples) host daily discussions for 2 years that sees the church grow with new converts. Does the church meet in the lecture hall? Perhaps. But we know that the church consists of house-churches. For example, Paul near the end of his stay in Ephesus writes to the Corinthian church and sends greetings from “P and A and the church that meets in their house.” (1 Cor 16:19)
Stop there. Let’s find out what we know about Priscilla and Aquila up to this point:
1. Three and a half years before, Priscilla and Aquila helped Paul to start the Corinthian church.
“After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. 4 Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 18:2-4)
Commentators are divided on whether Priscilla and Aquila were not believers or already believers when they came to Corinth. Either way, they meet Paul in Corinth and have a lot to learn from him as he no doubt teaches them “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) They are very capable people—they have their own business, presumably in the lower floor of their house. They have space to host people like Paul, and presumably their home functions as a meeting place for believers. During that time, they are part of a church whose meetings are marked by encouraging one another by the sharing of prophetic words and words of teaching (1 Cor 14:26). They witness and participate in Paul’s model of planting—first the Jews, then also the Gentiles.
Did Paul select them for the leadership team of the church in Corinth? Possibly—they work hard, they’re competent at leading a household, they eagerly receive Paul and his ministry. They are also his “first fruits”—and we remember that Clement who later wrote to the Corinthian church wrote in AD 95 that it was the habit of the apostles to appoint their “first fruits” as the leaders of the church. (Ep. ad Cor. xlii; see also Acts 14:23 and 1 Cor 16:16.) If they were already believers before Paul met them, then what a bonus—they are the most seasoned believers outside of Paul.
2. A year and a half later, Paul selected Priscilla and Aquila to launch the gospel-work in Ephesus.
“Then Paul left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. …They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” (Acts 18:18-21)
Planting a gospel presence in Ephesus is high on Paul’s priority list. “Ephesus is not just another stop in a series. It is Paul’s last major place of new mission noted in the last stage of Paul’s work as a free man.” (Witherington)
So far, there is no church there. And Paul has never been there before. Of all the people in the Corinthian church, Paul selects Priscilla and Aquila (which serves as more evidence for the plausibility they were leaders in the Corinthian church.). Priscilla and Aquila are under Paul’s direction—“he left Priscilla and Aquila there.”
In that very short stay in Ephesus, Paul re-enacts what he did in Corinth: he goes straight to the synagogue, where he has warm reception—as Luke will mention via Paul’s words in Acts 20, there are some converts. He tells them he hopes to come back to Ephesus, but he knows there is no guarantee that he will be able to. That he is still willing to leave Priscilla and Aquila in this city speaks of his high confidence in their ability to do mission in Ephesus, which (we can infer) will run parallel to the work in Corinth—preach the Gospel where you can and gather converts in a home.
It is also reasonable to infer that Priscilla and Aquila get straight to purchasing or hiring a home, where they can live, run their business and host people.
3. Priscilla and Aquila attend synagogue as part of their outreach.
Acts 18: “in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him” (v26)
Priscilla and Aquila evidently continue to attend the synagogue that Paul preached in. It is reasonable to infer that the synagogue are aware of their association with Paul who had earlier preached there. As Jews, Priscilla and Aquila no doubt enjoy the reading of Scripture. But they are also there on mission.
Do Priscilla and Aquila preach in the synagogue? There’s no evidence that they do. However, there is evidence that Priscilla whose name comes first in Acts 18:26 is the better teacher, and women would not be allowed to teach in the synagogue. This doesn’t stop them from building relationships, hosting people in their home, and evangelizing outside of the formal synagogue services.
4. Some time after Paul leaves, Priscilla and Aquila “take in” the new believer Apollos.
Priscilla and Aquila one day meet a fellow-believer and fellow-foreigner who arrives at the synagogue, “boiling in the Spirit,” knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures, knowing much about Jesus, and skilled in rhetoric. One can only imagine how exciting this is for Priscilla and Aquila!
Having met and heard him at the synagogue, what’s the first thing they do? Acts 18:26: “When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos, they invited him to their home.”
At this point, good translation is crucial. What the NIV translates as “invited him into their home” is the Greek word “proselabonto.” The precise form of the word is used by Luke here and also in Acts 27:36 and 28:2. Related cognates of the word are used 9 other places in the New Testament.
Translators divide on what its meaning is here in Acts 18:26. Some opt for “Priscilla and Aquila took him aside,” some for “Priscilla and Aquila took him to themselves,” some for “Priscilla and Aquila took him into their home.”
Those translators who opt for “took him aside” do so because of a cross-reference to the use of the word in Matt 16:22/Mk 8:32 where Peter “takes Jesus” who is telling the disciples of his imminent death, and rebukes him. The implication there is that he is being taken “aside” by Peter. However, we must distinguish between the word itself and its particular usage. KJV for example says that Peter “took Jesus” and rebuked him. In other words the idea of “aside” in Matt 16:22 is inferred in the context, but is not necessarily inherent in the word’s core semantic domain. In fact, only in Matt 16:22/Mk 8:32 do translators infer the word “aside”—all the other usages have the core idea of “taking” or “receiving.”
The alternate translations—“Priscilla and Aquila took him to themselves,” or “Priscilla and Aquila took him into their home”—are to be preferred. This is especially confirmed when we study the other two places that Luke uses the exact same word. The hermeneutic principle is to establish first how a single New Testament author uses a word, before finding out how other authors use it. Luke in Acts 27:36 speaks of people on a ship in a storm who gratefully “take in” what might be their last meal. Luke’s final use, however, is more helpful for our translation of 18:26 because it has a parallel register: “Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed (“proselabonto”) us all because it was raining and cold.” (Acts 28:1-2).
Here shipwrecked people are “taken in” and welcomed by the island tribe. This is parallel to its usage in Acts 18:26, and therefore should be understood to have the same sense. Craig Keener says that it means in this context “to take into one’s home or circle.” This is why many translators opt for “into their home”—however, I note that it is not impossible that it also infers “into their circle”—which would make sense of why the very next verse Apollos is interacting with the other believers in Ephesus, also. (More on that soon.)
5. Priscilla and Aquila teach Apollos.
So they take him in—then follows the word “kai” which means “and.” So, there’s a second thing they do—“they explained to him the way of God more adequately (NIV) / accurately (ESV)”.
Without going into exactly what is deficient in Apollos’ understanding, we note that there were gaps—which Priscilla and Aquila seek to fill. After a lengthy discussion on the matter, Craig Keener concludes: “These pieces of information together may suggest that Apollos had heard about Jesus incompletely from some source or sources yet had little contact with those whose knowledge of the Jesus tradition and Jesus movement were more complete.”
But not just the Jesus tradition—he is deficient also in the Pauline tradition. Craig Keener posits that, based on evidence in Paul’s later letter to a church that churches began to pit Paul and Apollos against each other, Luke seeks to show his readers that the well-known Apollos was introduced to Paul’s teaching ministry by the teaching of Priscilla and Aquila, who were in Paul’s closest circle of co-workers. To merely treat Priscilla and Aquila’s teaching of a 30 minute teaching session and nothing more after that thus misses authorial intent.
It is also reasonable to infer that the same way that Paul had once taught Priscilla and Aquila “the whole counsel of God,” they are eager to pass on the favour to Apollos. Paul’s teaching strategy, we know from 2 Timothy 2:2, was to teach people who would in turn teach people who would in turn teach people. This teaching chain of Paul > Priscilla and Aquila > Apollos > those Apollos would later teach is about the most perfect example we have in the New Testament of 2 Tim 2:2 in play.
Was this a once-off moment of teaching to one man and to no one else? Very probably not. It is reasonable to infer that if Priscilla and Aquila are able to teach, and that they will teach others who are also lacking in knowledge of Paul’s “whole counsel of God.”
6. Priscilla and Aquila take Apollos into a gathering of fellow-believers.
“When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.” (Acts 18:27)
Contra Mark Ellis’ translation of “brothers” not “brothers and sisters” we are reminded of the need for a good translation that factors in the present meaning of English words. “Adelphoi,” though masculine in form, unless specified as only men, usually refers to men and women. For example, in Acts 16, we read that Paul and Silas … went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the adelphoi (literally “brothers”) and encouraged them”—all the while, Lydia and many other women are part of that mixed-gender group, which is nonetheless described with a collective male noun. But see, Ellis’ translation is even ready to exclude Priscilla from having a say in this community.
Luke has now spent more time on the ministry of Priscilla and Aquila and their interaction with Apollos than he spends on the description of most churches in the book of Acts,. Usually we have a sentence devoted to a church in a city, with no names mentioned. It is understandable that he wants to hurry this story up—and get to the real point for including it in his narrative, namely that though the teaching and approval of Paul’s disciples Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos was launched into his teaching ministry in Paul’s churches.
But still we thank Luke for what sparse detail there is.
Though Priscilla and Aquila were the first believers in Ephesus, there are now more believers. Who were these “brothers and sisters”? We reasonably infer that P and A have managed to “take in” some synagogue attenders, especially those that Paul may have led to faith in the short time he ministered in the synagogue. (There’s some evidence for this in Acts 20, which I will come back to.) One of them is Epaenetus “the first convert in Asia” (Rom 16:5). It’s also possible there are other people—for example, perhaps Priscilla and Aquila have interacted with people in their business activities.
Are these believers related to Priscilla and Aquila? By reasonable inference, absolutely. “The believers in Ephesus, … surely must include Priscilla and Aquila, perhaps especially them.” (Witherington) Adding weight to Witherington’s conclusion is that this group of believers write a letter of commendation to the Corinthian church—but see, Priscilla and Aquila co-founded the Corinthian church with Paul.
Those translations that say that Priscilla and Aquila merely took Apollos “aside” for a quick teaching obscure the connection. But when we see that Priscilla and Aquila took “in,” the connection is more obvious. It turns out that cognates of the word “proselabonto” (“take in”) is the word most commonly used in the New Testament to refer to graciously including or welcoming someone into a church or relationship. (See Philemon 1:17, Rom 14:1,3, Rom 15:7). Apollos is a foreigner in Ephesus. He is evidently a churchless believer. His ministry is isolated. P and A are very kind, then, to welcome him in.
So, how do we draw a line from verse 26 (P and A teaching Apollos) to verse 27 (Apollos sharing his ministry desire with unnamed “brothers and sisters”)? One possibility is that Priscilla and Aquila, after teaching him, introduce Apollos to their circle of believers. Another one, is that when it says Priscilla and Aquila “take in” Apollos and teach him, they do so in combination with introducing him to the circle of other believers. Taken this way, Priscilla and Aquila may even be teaching Apollos in the presence of these other believers.
What is the time span between verses 26 and 27; between Priscilla and Aquila’s first meeting with Apollos and the believers sending him out with commendation? It is reasonable to infer that this does not happen over one or two days—surely it takes time for 1) the disciples get to know someone’s character, and to know (and upgrade) their theology well enough to be willing to commend him to churches, and 2) for Apollos to, now introduced to a small faith-community, to come to “want to go to Achaia” in order to partner with the church there in its ministry to the Jews. In fact the language (“When Apollos wanted to go…”) suggests that the idea comes to him after P and A first interact with him. All this takes time.
7. This group of believers in Ephesus connected to Priscilla and Aquila is either a church or the first tributary that will become a church.
In Acts 18:27 it does not mention “church”, only “adelphoi” (i.e. brothers and sisters). However, Luke does not always use the word “church” to describe one. Sometimes he merely describes a church community as “the disciples” or “the brothers and sisters.”
For example, consider the planting of the Philippian church in chapter 16. All we have to go on there is the following two verses: “When [Lydia] and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.” (v15)
Then some time passes, and Paul and Silas land up in prison, where they lead a jailer and his family to the Lord in prison, then they are released and—here’s the second verse—“they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.” (v40)
That’s all we’ve got—no mention of “church”. Yet who would deny that this describes the launch of the famous Philippian church. There’s one convert in verse 15, then some more in verse 40. And they meet somewhere. Wallah!—a church has been born. Craig Keener, for example, says of verse 40: “Given the presence of believers at Lydia’s home, we may assume that she was now hosting a house congregation.”
In fact, in the verse that leads into this section describes the established church in Corinth in the same way: “Then Paul left “the brothers and sisters” … accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila.” (Acts 18:18). But see, this is the precise language used in Acts 18:27—first there was P and A (v19), but now there is Priscilla and Aquila and more “brothers and sisters.” (v27)
They evidently must be gathering somewhere (though it does not matter where, for a church is by definition “the called-out assembled ones” (i.e. ekklesia) not a location). That said, I’d put my money on it being at Priscilla and Aquila’s home. (And we have specific mention, two years later, of a church meeting in their home.
Whatsmore, this small gathering of believers are acting like a church should: 1) They have welcomed someone in (“Welcome one another as Christ welcomes you.” (Rom 15:7)—interestingly the word for welcome here is a cognate of the “proselabonto” in which Priscilla and Aquila first “took in” Apollos.) 2) They are encouraging Apollos (“Let us not give up meeting together, … but let us encourage one another.” (Heb 10:25)) 3) Gifts are being recognised as per Rom 12: “If your gift is teaching, then teach”. 4) They are mobilizing people for mission—they are commending Apollos to the church in Corinth.
We make the mistake of imposing modern definitions onto the New Testament churches, that were far more organic and informal than most anything we know of today. It is very plausible that Luke has, though not the purpose of this section in his narrative, given us enough detail to help us identify that Priscilla and Aquila are not only witnessing to non-believers; they are also gathering believers. If however, we do impose modern standards or we express maximal doubt (for no good reason) the least we can say is that these few believers are the first tributary that will become a church.
But either way, there is evident INTENTION in Priscilla and Aquila: they have either “planted a church” (to use modern language) or they are working towards the establishment of one.
It’s true that when Paul arrives a year or however long after Priscilla and Aquila have been there, that the church will become much larger and more public, but the effect of Paul’s remarkable gifting should not cause us to overlook the humble plodding away of Priscilla and Aquila BEFORE he gets there. (And we’re in for a big surprise when we find out more about this small gathering of people in Acts 20.)
And another thing, it’s also reasonable to infer that Priscilla and Aquila, being the seasoned Jesus-followers in this group, and who have relocated to Ephesus expressly to fulfil the Great Commission to “make disciples,” are caring for this group of new believers.
8. Priscilla and Aquila help Paul with the church in Ephesus for the two or so years he is there.
We have already said that it’s near the end of Paul’s time in Ephesus that Paul mentions the church that meets in P and A’s house. “Priscilla and Aquila remain in Ephesus at least until the year before the events of Acts 20:3.” (Craig Keener) Do we know anything else about the nature of their ministry during this time?
Yes! Years later, Paul will reflect on the couple’s ministry in Corinth and Ephesus and say that “Priscilla and Aquila, [are] my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.” (Rom 16:3–4)
This description is telling. Paul uses the Greek word for “co-workers” of Timothy, Apollos, Urbanus, Titus, Epaphroditus, Mark, Epaphras, and Luke— these are his chief partners in his venture to see the gospel spread. The difference between Priscilla and Aquila and these others at this stage is that that the others are doing TRANSLOCAL ministry, mainly travelling with Paul or being directed by him to go from church to church, whereas Priscilla and Aquila buy homes in a place, and settle down into LOCAL ministry in a church usually for years at a time. It is also interesting that another place the word “co-workers” is used of people IN a local church, Paul says that these are the kinds of people the church should be ready to submit to. (1 Cor 16:16–17)
Although Priscilla and Aquila’s gifting is not as public as Paul’s, their ministry impact in these two churches is great enough to warrant the gratitude of “all the churches of the Gentiles”!
Also, their role must be public enough that when non-Christian authorities in Corinth or Ephesus or both clamp down on the church, their lives are at risk. “They risked their lives.” If they were merely members of the church, and not thought of as public leaders of the community, it would have been exceedingly unlikely that they would have been targeted for such serious persecution.
Let’s not forget that they do lead a house church in Ephesus. The entire group that meets in their house is called an “ecclesia.” No where does the New Testament ever speak of the a church being “their” church, as if a pastor could own a church. The closest we come is to a description like this in which “the church” meets in “their” house. In my book, I make the case that household leaders who had a church in their house were ideal candidates for pastoral leadership, but it’s too much to include here. We need to understand that this was not like being a home group leader for a 21st century church. In first-century Mediterranean culture, householders were responsible for what went on in their houses. (For an example, see Acts 17:5-7.) Since Priscilla and Aquila hosted the congregation, they had to be responsible for what went on. That indicates a high probability that in practice they fulfilled the role of eldership when they hosted the congregation.
9. Priscilla and Aquila later relocate to Rome.
Luke never tells us when Priscilla and Aquila depart from Ephesus. But Paul writes to the Roman church in AD 57, and greets Priscilla and Aquila as well as “the church that meets at their house.” (Rom 16:5). It seems they have also taken the first Ephesian convert, Epaenetus, with them and that he is part of this house church (Rom 16:5).
Their faithfulness and fruitfulness in Corinth then Ephesus opens doors for them in the Roman church, too. In fact, of the 27 people Paul knows by name in the Roman church, he mentions their name first—this shows his highest commendation of their ministry to the Roman church. Note again that they are now exercising a local not itinerant ministry in Rome—hence the plausibility of them being included in the leadership team of the Roman church.
They stay in Rome for many years—Paul writes to Timothy in Ephesus in AD 63–64 instructing him to intercept the false teaching and its effects underway in the church. There’s no mention of P and A. However, by the time Paul writes a second letter to Timothy Priscilla and Aquila, have evidently made their way back to the Ephesian church (see 2 Tim 4:19), no doubt to assist Timothy in the difficult task of re-ordering a seriously damaged church. That many women have been at the forefront of the false teaching in the church, means that Priscilla especially will be of immense help.
So … that’s all we know about Priscilla and Aquila. But, my goodness, it’s a LOT!
In fact, of all Paul’s ministry partners, we only know more about Timothy.
Let’s return to Mark Ellis’ alleged counterarguments to the significant ministry Priscilla had. Notice that they have been proven wrong:
- Priscilla and Aquila ARE mentioned again after Paul arrived in Ephesus.
- The believers in Ephesus did likely establish a separate congregation, a “church,” before Paul returned.
- Aquila and Priscilla DID introduce him to their “community.”
- It was NOT only “the brothers” (correction, “brothers and sisters”) who encouraged Apollos to go to Corinth, but also Priscilla and Aquila who were in their midst.
- It is NOT a great exaggeration to say that Aquila and Priscilla “discipled” Apollos.
- This was likely NOT one isolated, private conversation away from (proslambano) the synagogue.
- It is NOT impossible to extrapolate from this setting as a license for women to preach or teach in a church.
- There IS much in the text which would indicate that Priscilla was acting in a pastoral or even discipleship function.
In fact, the evidence all points the other way…
Priscilla and Aquila are perfectly suitable for pastoral leadership.
Let’s recap. The Ephesian church, like all Paul’s churches, needs some designated leaders. I ask who might these leaders be? And I conclude that the evidence points to the probability that Priscilla and Aquila were included in this leadership scrum:
- They know how to care for a church.
- They have received the apostolic deposit of teaching.
- They work hard.
- They know how to gather believers.
- They are amongst the people they lead.
- They are able to teach good doctrine to other believers.
- They are able to evangelize.
- Their leadership ability is evident in their ability to run a business and to manage a household.
- By calling them “co-workers” Paul, who never calls anyone a “pastor,” gives them the highest ranking ministry designation he uses—and given their local ministry, it is precisely this that makes them worthy of followership.
- Their ministry has been public enough for the authorities to take note and persecute them.
- And their long service has been public enough for even other churches to celebrate it.
All of this makes it probable that they are part of the leadership team.
But wait, there’s much MORE: There are FIVE more crucial details that make it VERY PROBABLE that P and A are pastors:
First, surely church planters like Priscilla and Aquila automatically become church leaders when converts start to gather.
I have showed that they worked intentionally to establish a church in Paul’s absence. In fact, having written a church-planting course, I happily referred to this couple as the best biblical example of ordinary people (not apostles) planting a church. I have never seen a church planter not be thought of as some kind of a church leader once people joined that church—why then would we allow Priscilla and Aquila to be church planters but not church leaders?
Second, Priscilla and Aquila were the most seasoned believers in the church.
They are the “first fruits” of the church—as Clement said, they are just the kinds of people apostles selected for leadership teams. After Paul, they are the most seasoned believers in the church. Although Paul at times was forced to select elders who are new converts, this was not his preferred practice. In fact, besides Priscilla and Aquila, it seems that everyone else is a new convert: 1) There’s the brothers and sisters who were evidently added to Priscilla and Aquila AFTER they arrived as the sole resident believers in town (Acts 18:27). 2) There’s the 12 men who Paul lead to Christ on the way to Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7)., 3) There’s the new Jewish converts that Paul takes with him when he is no longer invited to teach in the synagogue (Acts 19:9). “When Paul left the synagogue, he did not leave alone, but rather took his converts with him to a new venue—the “hall of Tyrannus.” (Witherington) 4) There’s all “those [Gentiles] who believed” after that (Acts 19:10-21). My goodness, there’s a lot of new believers. Clement makes the point that some “elders” were not chosen for their age, but for the relative length of their service of Christ. Is there anyone outside of Priscilla and Aquila more seasoned and thus more suitable for the task of pastoring and discipling others?
Third, Priscilla and Aquila hosted a church in their house.
Brian Capper, an expert in the early Greco-Roman setting and shape of the first century churches, notes that a church in a city would consist of one or more house churches, and concludes that “from the ‘cellular’ structure of the Pauline congregations … emerges the reason for the plurality of local leaders. Each sub-group met within the house of a leader in the Christian community; each such leader is an elder/overseer, of which there were a plurality in each city,” and, “For the elder, the church was quite simply an extension of their own household, for they hosted the church in their own home.” [see www.rb.gy/cmxtqm] But see—there’s no person or couple in the New Testament more famous for their hosting of churches in their home than Priscilla and Aquila—in Corinth (for 18 months), Ephesus (for 3 or more years) and Rome (for over 7 years).
Fourth, Priscilla and Aquila probably helped to form the eldership team.
When Paul later addresses the Ephesian elders, he tells us something about them: “You [the Ephesian elders] know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from THE FIRST DAY I came into the province of Asia.” (Acts 20:18). Again we have evidence of “the first fruits” becoming pastors—Paul implies here that his first converts in Ephesus were chosen to care for his later converts.
But we know by name two people who were with Paul on the very first day he came to Ephesus—Priscilla and Aquila!
The OTHER pastors may then be the very first crop of believers that met Paul on the day he first preached in the synagogue. Craig Keener writes, ““The first day” Paul entered Asia probably refers to his ministry summarized in Acts 18:19–21, suggesting that, as we would expect, a number of these elders originally belonged to the synagogue in Ephesus.”
Do we know for sure that Priscilla and Aquila are still in Ephesus when these elders are summoned? We can say that they probably were, for only the year or two before did Paul acknowledge in a letter their leadership of an Ephesian house church (1 Cor 16:19). But if they had just recently left for Rome, it doesn’t change the fact that they perfectly fit the identikit of an Ephesian elder.
But even more significantly, they likely helped to form man (or all) of the Ephesian elders. The initial small group of “brothers and sisters” (18:27), which included Priscilla and Aquila, were not only the genesis of the Ephesian church. Though more people would later be added, and perhaps not all of them would be, they were also likely the embryonic phase of the Ephesian team of elders. But think: if Paul was away, and Priscilla and Aquila were the only seasoned believers during that time, the others were being prepared by Priscilla and Aquila to care for the imminent influx of converts when Paul would return. All that to say, they were probably for a time the carers/disciplers/pastors of the soon-to-be Ephesian pastors! (And if the way those in the eldership team earlier took in, encouraged, taught and sent out Apollos on mission says anything about the way they would later pastor the new converts, they must have been a remarkable team indeed—which should cause us to commend the couple who in Paul’s absence shaped them from the get-go.)
Fifth, Priscilla and Aquila exercised a high-ranking form of teaching.
John Chrysostom the Church Father, when discussing Acts 18:18–19, is surely right to treat the couple’s teaching of Apollos as a sample of their teaching ministry: “Paul sailed to Syria … “and with him Priscilla—Lo, woman also—and Aquila. But these he left at Ephesus with good reason, namely that they should teach.” Also, in his Homily 73 on Matthew 23:14 he contrasts the women of his own time with New Testament women who, without bringing evil report upon themselves, “went about with the apostles, having taken unto themselves manly courage, Priscilla, Persis, and the rest; . . . even travelling into far countries. … [T]he business of those women was to spread the word.”
What a significant teaching ministry Priscilla had! Teaching Apollos was no minor task. He was a forceful public exponent of the gospel. When he moved on to Corinth, his ministry there was more influential with some believers even than Paul’s (1 Cor. 1:12). Calvin in his commentary on Acts 18:26 admits: “We see that one of the chief teachers of the Church was instructed by a woman.” Complementarians like to talk about the difference between (mere) teaching and the exercise of “authoritative teaching.” If we accept this differentiation, in the entire book of Acts is there an example of a non-apostle who exercises a more authoritative kind of doctrinal teaching to other believers than this? And, surely the one who teaches (and corrects) other teachers has the highest rank of teaching? This is evidence that they not only were “able to teach,” but they also had a senior teaching ministry within the Ephesian church, evidencing something of the local “pastor-teacher” office that Paul later mentions in Ephesians 4:11.
All that to say, I conclude—now with extreme probability—that…
Priscilla and Aquila were on the pastoral team of the Ephesian church.
Pastor Aquila and “his lovely wife”?
Now, of course, one could then argue that Aquila was a pastor while Priscilla was merely his supporter.
Mark Ellis offers one last counterargument: “It was not Priscilla who spoke with Apollos, but Aquila and Priscilla took him aside as a couple. There is no statement regarding the degree to which Priscilla participated in the conversation. Nor is it true that Priscilla is presented as the dominant member of the marriage. Aquila and Priscilla are first mentioned in Acts 18: “1 After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla.” Here the emphasis is on Aquila, and Priscilla is presented “as his wife.” That her name appears first in Paul’s letters could have many explanations (principally cultural).”
But the evidence is against his claim…
Of the six times the pair is named in the Bible, four of the times she is named first. To modern ears that might not mean much, but in ancient patriarchal literature it is rare to even have one’s wife mentioned at all (think, for example, how few wives are named in the New Testament). It is even more rare for a wife’s name to be mentioned first.
Some say 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, shows that this is no coincidence. In contrast, a few verses after the mention of Priscilla and Aquila in Romans 16, Paul mentions another couple and reverts to the standard practice of putting the man’s name first.
Some say that this merely shows that she 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 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 apostles’ names. It is why Luke names Barnabas before Paul when referencing their ministry partnership in the church of Antioch, but then when they eventually hit the missionary road and Paul’s preaching and miraculous ministry goes to another level, from then on he names Paul first.
In my survey of 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 is named before Lappidoth; the prophetess Huldah is named before Shallum, and Mary is named before Joseph. In all those places, their being mentioned first clearly emphasises their more prominent ministry. So why would this not lead us to conclude the same about Priscilla?
It’s precisely this fact of her equality with her husband that caused later copyists to either omit Priscilla in Acts 18:3, 18, 21 or to place Aquila’s name before hers in Acts 18:26, ensuring that its readers will assume his leadership.
What gifts made Priscilla more prominent than Aquila?—Craig Keener, commenting on Acts 18:26, surmises it was her teaching gift by saying, “Luke normally mentions first the dominant member of a pair; the mention of Priscilla’s name first suggests “her primary role as Apollos’ tutor.” Then again, her evangelistic or leadership gifts may have trumped his, too. But the point I make is that she was no mere sidekick to her husband’s ministry. If he was a pastor, then so was she.
Glad to get that out of my head! Of course I may have made some mistakes here and there in my argument, but I have tried not to. Besides, I doubt any of them are serious enough to tear down this entire web of arguments for Priscilla as probable pastor.
And if I may ask a question, why would you want to tear it down anyway?
But now, after pondering the story of Priscilla and Aquila so much for so many days, I am ready to move on with the rest of my life. And one of the things I’d like to be part of going forward is laying hands on some women who are called and gifted to lead and teach churches alongside men.