Disabusing Priscilla: Was She a Pastor?

One of my students, now a leader in the Brazilian Baptist convention, asked this question in class:

Dr. Mark, what do you think about Priscilla having participated in the discipleship of Apollos, as his teacher? (Acts 18:26)

What follows was my answer to his question:

This is an excellent question, and you have identified one of the key verses used by feminists to defend the ordination of women to pastoral ministry, and that Paul would have approved of a ministry of women teaching men. First, let’s look at the verse, and then I will answer your question.

Acts 18: 24 Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus; and he was mighty in the Scriptures. 25 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; 26 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. 27 And when he wanted to go across to Achaia, the brethren encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him; and when he had arrived, he helped greatly those who had believed through grace;

1. The focus of this passage is Apollos, and how this tremendous preacher of the Gospel (see 1 Corinthians 2-4) entered into the Church, and into Christian ministry. Aquila and Priscilla were already in Ephesus because Paul had taken them there at the end of his second missionary journey (Acts 18.21; A.D. 53). Some feminists greatly exaggerate the function of Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus. For example, one person has written, “Paul trusted Priscilla and Aquila enough to leave them in Ephesus while he went to Antioch. They opened another branch of their tent making business. They took complete charge of the mission in Ephesus.”1 This is interesting speculation, but without any basis in the text. They 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 in A.D. 55 (Acts 19.9). It was Jews from the synagogue, not a church, who asked him to stay longer, but he refused (18.20-21).

When Apollos arrived in Ephesus and began speaking in the synagogue, Aquila and Priscilla were still worshipping in the synagogue (18.26). 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.

2. It would be a great exaggeration to say that Aquila and Priscilla “discipled” Apollos. This was one isolated and specific conversation.

3. 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) other than her being the head of the household. Paul’s many orientations on male-female relationships (cf. 1 Corinthians 11.1-16, Ephesians 5.22-23) should be more than enough to contradict unwarranted extrapolations based on name order.

4. 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.

5. It is important to observe the verb which Luke used to describe the activity of the couple. They did not preach (kerusso) to Apollo, nor disciple him (manthao), nor even teach him (didasko). The verb is ektithemi, “to set forth,” a verb which in the New Testament only appears in the book of Acts. Luke used this verb to describe Peter explaining to the Jews in Jerusalem what happened with Cornelius (11.4), and to describe Paul’s setting forth the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus to the Jews in Rome (28.23). Since both 11.4 and 28.23 involved hostile hearers, it could hardly be said that these were “pastoral situations.” Today, this verb would be very appropriate for a newspaper report.

5. Consequently, the most that we can say of this text is that it was a simple conversation between a lay couple, albeit well-discipled by the Apostle Paul, and a young preacher who needed some refinement in his message. Whether in Ephesus or in Corinth (18.27-28), Apollos is the preacher in the passage, not Priscilla. 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. How many times have conversations like this occurred in our churches, in which a mature lay couple takes a young pastor aside to encourage him in his ministry? You can believe this happened with me several times when I was a young pastor!

6. We need to place this conversation between Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos in comparison with Paul’s conversation in the next chapter (Acts 19), when like Aquila and Priscilla, Paul encountered disciples of John the Baptist, who most certainly had been acquainted with Apollos. Aquila and Priscilla “informed” Apollos with greater accuracy about the “way of God,” whereas in Paul’s conversation in chapter nineteen, we find a declaration which is not only doctrinal, but provides a pivotal moment in the book of Acts: the transition from Christianity as a movement which reflects the preaching of repentance and the baptism of John the Baptist (Acts 2.38) to a movement which is based 100% on faith in Jesus. 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?

7. Nor was this the only young preacher to speak in Ephesus while Aquila and Priscilla were there. In the spring of AD 57, Paul left Corinth heading to Jerusalem by way of Macedonia (Acts 20.), and on the way to Macedonia he gave orders for Timothy to stay in Ephesus (1Ti 1.3) for the purpose of commanding specific individuals not to teach heterodoxy (1Ti 1.3; cf. Acts 20.29-30). It was in this letter that Paul used his apostolic authority to declare that women were permitted to receive instruction, but not to teach, nor to exercise authority over men (1Ti 2.11-12). Is this not an exceedingly strange command if Paul himself had placed Priscilla as a co-pastor of the church on his first visit to the city? Acts 20.30 also makes clear that the elders of the church were men, not women. Cf. 1Ti 3.11 and 5.9-13, in which the requirements for the ministry of older widows are being “dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things,” and “having a reputation for good works; brought up children, shown hospitality to strangers, washed the saints’ feet, assisted those in distress, and devoted herself to every good work.” This is in comparison with the ministry of older men in the chapter, who are to work hard at preaching and teaching (1Ti 5.17).

8. We can know, based on the fact that Aquila and Priscila were in Rome (Rom 16.3-5) when Paul wrote to the Romans in AD 57, that they were not in Ephesus when Timothy arrived to assume leadership of the church. However, when Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy at the end of the Apostle’s life in AD 67, Aquila and Priscilla were back in Ephesus (2Ti 4.19). If Paul considered Aquila and Priscilla to have been co-pastors of the Ephesian church, is it not strange that we find no hint of this in 2 Timothy, which was written as an urgent plea for Timothy to get back into the ministry (2Ti 1.6) and deal with false teachers?

In conclusion, those who appeal to Acts 18 and a private conversation between Aquila, Priscilla and Apollos as proof that Aquila and Priscilla were co-pastors of the church in Ephesus are grasping for straws. There was no church at the time, since Christians were still meeting in the synagogue, the preacher in the passage is not Priscilla but Apollos, and the verb used for the conversation between the couple and Apollos is a minimalist word for the communication of data. The decision to send Apollos to Corinth was made by the “brothers,” and not Aquila and Priscilla. It is a jarring contradiction to think that Paul would have established a church with a woman as a co-pastor, only to forbid women to teach, or to exercise authority over men in his letter to Timothy after sending Timothy to pastor that very church. There is no mention of Aquila and Priscilla as leaders of the church when Paul returned in AD 54, nor in either 1st or 2nd Timothy. To turn a private conversation between a lay couple and a young preacher into an argument for women pastors is stone soup–each one bringing their own ingredients to thicken the broth according to their preferences.

1. I have wondered, however, if Paul took them to Ephesus to establish a place of business, in preparation for financing his planned return to Ephesus.

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