On Finding Places for Priscilla Other Than Wife and Mother

While considering Rachel Green Miller’s question, “Is There a Place for Priscilla in our [Reformed] churches?” I urged that we should be able to agree to valorize the functions of wife and mother for today’s ‘Priscilla,’ just as the Reformers did. We should be able to do this because we confess the cruciality of those roles for the progress of reformation.

We’re liable, however, to miss the church-historical and theological importance of those functions unless we appreciate the linkage that the Reformers discerned between the priesthood of all believers and the sanctity of marriage and family. In that linkage, we have an indispensable, though basic, reference point for locating the places for ‘Priscilla’ in our churches. Particularly as Reformed communions, we affirm that she has a place in the general office of priest that the Lord Christ bestows on all believers. In fact, we also confess her place in the general office of prophet. We affirm these truths because to every believer—every ‘Priscilla’ and every ‘Aquila’—Christ imparts the Spirit of truth, and because common to believers as general officeholders is a Spirit-given ability to communicate to others at least the basics (“milk”) of God’s self-revelation in Christ (1 Cor. 2.6–3.3; 1 John 2.20-21, 27; Col 3.16; Heb 5.12). In addition, we affirm that, when believers grow in their understanding, they become better able to communicate truth to others (Rom 12.2; Eph 5.8-10; Col 1.9-10; Heb 5.11-14; 2 Tim 3.16 17). So, even though, as Miller herself has made clear, Scripture plainly grants the special teaching office only to men (1 Tim 2.11–3.7; Titus 1.5-9), Scripture also plainly grants the general teaching office to all believers, women and men alike. In that affirmation, then, we have an initial answer to Miller’s question: the places for today’s ‘Priscilla’ in our churches are in “the general teaching office.”

As much as that answer should mean to us, we can and should say more, precisely because we know that Scripture does. We read there of older women training younger women (Titus 2.3-5), of mothers teaching their children (Titus 2.4) and grandmothers their grandchildren (cf. 2 Tim 1.5), and of unmarried daughters who prophesied (Acts 21.9; 1 Cor 11.5; cf. Acts 2.17). And, yes, we read of Priscilla and Aquila who, while they were coworkers with Paul in his Gentile mission (Rom 16.3), took the well-spoken, well-versed OT expositor Apollos aside to explain to him the way of God more accurately after hearing him speak in the synagogue at Ephesus (Acts 18.26). As we ponder these texts, we shouldn’t miss their references to the various places where Priscilla and other women were serving in the general teaching office. Yet we should also ask, are the actions prescribed and described there integrated by a framework of understanding other than that of the general office? I maintain that they are, and that framework is the analogy between family and church.

That framework permeates especially Paul’s first letter to Timothy. The apostle even cites the principles governing relationships in human households as the model for our duties within the church as God’s household (1 Tim 3.15; cf. 3.4-5). In 1 Tim 5.1-2, he distills our duties to one another into a single catch-all command, saying, in effect, “when relating to fellow church members, treat all with the respect due them by reason of their gender, age, and household status.” From this command, it’s clear enough that, like Timothy, we’re to understand that the distinct roles of family members carry over into the distinct roles of church members: as gifted and mature as they may be, women cannot be fathers, sons, or brothers and should not be treated as such; men cannot be mothers, daughters, or sisters and should not be treated as such. Just as we’re not to treat family members as identical and interchangeable, so we’re not to treat church members as identical and interchangeable. In fact, significantly, the actions we see described in Scripture are consistent with the actions prescribed in the Pastorals (1 Tim 5.2; 2.11-15; Titus 2.3-5) and in 1 Corinthians (14.34-35). For example, in Acts 18, Luke contrasts Apollos’ speaking “in the synagogue” (v 26; cf. v 28, “in public”) with Priscilla’s and Aquila’s “taking [Apollos] aside” [ESV, NASB, NKJV; “inviting him to their home,” NIV] for corrective instruction. Luke’s description of Priscilla’s actions in Acts 18 very nearly mimics Paul’s prescriptions, whether it’s the substance of 1 Tim 5.1 or 1 Cor 14.34-35 that is in mind. On that occasion, there was a place (noticably not public) for the communication of truth by a wife and husband to a man, and it caused no blurring of the distinctions either between the general and special teaching offices or between the genders.

Be that as it may, my overall point is that the phenomena we find in Scripture take into account not only the general teaching office shared by women and men but also the specific differences of gender, age, and household status. It seems to me, therefore, that we’re bound to support today’s ‘Priscilla’ as she fulfills the general teaching office in our churches in places where her actions produce no confusion about office or gender. Even at the intersection of family and community (cf. Prov 31.10-31), there are places where ‘Priscilla’ can use her gifts to benefit others, regardless of their gender, age, or household status: be a coworker in a church mission, speak at a conference; write a book, a commentary, or a blog; have a podcast. We should not, however, support actions that affirm or allow the interchangeability of office or of gender. We’ll commend women to use their gifts in the general teaching office as prescribed and described in Scripture, to devote themselves to functioning as mothers, daughters, and sisters in God’s household. These things we’ll do because we know that, though all believers hold the church’s general teaching office, they are not interchangeable, either in our families or in our churches.

One other thing in closing: as we engage Miller’s question, we can agree that our Reformed churches are always to be “working to ensure that our hearts and lives are being reformed by the Word and Spirit of God” (as Dr. Godfrey puts it). In addition, we can all “acknowledge that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church–circumstances common to human activities and societies–which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (WCF 1.6). Given that our prudence is finite and still in measure corrupt, we cannot presume to produce uniform, universally endorsed outcomes. We can, however, press ourselves not to settle for mere pragmatism but to work carefully to identify those “general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed,” those principles that should govern the full assimilation and deployment of today’s ‘Priscilla’ in our churches.

For further reading (without endorsing all that is said), see the following resources:

https://frame-poythress.org/may-women-teach-adult-sunday-school-classes/

https://frame-poythress.org/the-church-as-family-why-male-leadership-in-the-family-requires-male-leadership-in-the-church-as-well/

Posted by R. Fowler White