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

10 Comments

  1. Steve Drake said,

    February 27, 2020 at 10:37 am

    The title of this post, RF, is somewhat leading, is it not? I would argue that Rachel Green Miller’s original post is leading as well. ‘Other’ than wife and mother?

    As if wife and mother are not sufficient? Not honorable> Not ‘chief’ and of ‘first order and primacy’, and not to be praised with the utmost regard and extolled as well-pleasing to God?

    This is now the 3rd(?) post you have written here on this topic in the last year. If I was a conspiratorial man I might think you have somewhat of an agenda. Of all the topics you could choose to post here, you choose Rachel Green Miller’s post and expound upon it? Yes, you have written on other topics, and I do understand the nature and crises in our churches on this very issue, of which your discussion above is important.

    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.

    Yes, but let us not be confused, nor not be forewarned. Let us not think that a place for ‘Priscilla’ in our churches with titles such as ‘Women’s Minister’, ‘Youth Minister’, ‘Singles Minister’, ‘Director of Women’s Ministry’, ‘Ministry Director’, or any of a number of similar titles, does not convey the same authority and positioning in a church as that of the elders or pastor yet without the distinction of having that title.

  2. rfwhite said,

    February 27, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    1 Steve Drake: Thanks for the feedback.

    As for the title of the post, by using the expression “other than,” I meant no more than “in addition to.” In both the previous post and the opening paragraphs of this post, I wrote expressly that we should be careful to valorize the roles of wife and mother. Those words address directly the “as if” concerns in your second paragraph.

    As for the topic of the post, perhaps you have settled opinions on it and, as a result, no continuing interest in discussing the arguments being put forth in favor of the differing positions. That’s fine. Others do have that interest. That said, yes, this is the 3rd post I’ve written on this topic for Green Baggins. I see no reason to apologize for engaging it among the others on which I have posted or will post. I have no agenda other than to contribute what I can to the ongoing discussion of this and other topics, just as I’ve done for three decades in this and other venues and formats. My focus as it pertains to this topic is that our thinking at key points has been purely pragmatic and not principled (as I stated in this post). So, yes, you are right that the nomenclature for the places where our wives and mothers serve in the church should not be at odds with biblical (i.e., presbyterian) polity. Meanwhile, for better or worse, Rachel Green Miller and other women are being published on the topic of this post. I intend to engage sober-minded thoughts from sober-minded people.

  3. Steve Drake said,

    February 28, 2020 at 7:37 am

    perhaps you have settled opinions on it

    And your opinions are not settled?

    My focus as it pertains to this topic is that our thinking at key points has been purely pragmatic and not principled

    Not principled in that our wives, sisters, and daughters, are not constantly battling the curse in Gen. 3:16? Not principled in that the pulpit in most churches refuse to even address this portion of Scripture? Not principled and naive enough to think that if this curse on the woman in Gen. 3:16, “yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” is ongoing within the family relationship, it doesn’t translate and is of no effect within the church relationship?

    I intend to engage sober-minded thoughts from sober-minded people.

    Only those who don’t bring up Gen. 3:16 and ask that we directly deal with it and its implications, I reckon.

  4. rfwhite said,

    February 28, 2020 at 7:00 pm

    3. Steve Drake

    With regard to whether my opinions on this topic are settled or not: yes, my opinions are settled, and, more to the point I was making, I have a continuing interest in discussing the arguments being put forth in favor of the differing positions.

    With regard to our thinking being pragmatic and not principled: I made it clear enough what principles I had in mind for the posts I’ve put up so far. Yes, you are right that there are additional principles that are relevant and need to be considered in a broader discussion, including that which is taught in Gen 3.16. For now, perhaps you’ll agree that in sin the wife had desired to lord it over her husband; therefore in God’s judgment the husband would desire to lord it over his wife. Maybe too you’ll agree that the Fall introduced distortions into the relationship between wives and husbands. In the family, the husband’s responsible, self-sacrificing headship tends to be replaced by tyranny or by passivity; the wife’s intelligent, willing submission tends to be replaced by usurpation or by servility. In the church, sin inclines husbands toward a worldly lust for power or toward an abdication of spiritual stewardship; it inclines wives to resist distinctions between their roles and those of husbands, or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.

    For more on the role of women in the church, I’d highly recommend for anybody’s reading the following report from the Mississippi Valley Presbytery of the PCA:
    https://www.theaquilareport.com/report-of-the-pmv-study-committee-on-the-role-of-women-in-the-church/

  5. Steve Drake said,

    March 21, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    For now, perhaps you’ll agree that in sin the wife had desired to lord it over her husband; therefore in God’s judgment the husband would desire to lord it over his wife.

    No, I would not agree. The curse in Gen. 3: 15-17 says nothing about the man desiring to lord it over his wife. There is no judgment on the man that he would desire to lord it over his wife. Just the opposite, however, per Scripture, the wife desiring to lord it over her husband. Do you not see this?

    Maybe too you’ll agree that the Fall introduced distortions into the relationship between wives and husbands.

    Yes, Paul is clear in Eph. 5:22-33.

    In the church, sin inclines husbands toward a worldly lust for power or toward an abdication of spiritual stewardship; it inclines wives to resist distinctions between their roles and those of husbands, or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.

    No, sin inclines towards men and women universally. But the curse on women in Gen. 3:16 and Paul’s commandment per the Lord in 1 Tim.2:9-15 stands out singularly as a warning and admonition. One must not overlook this part of Scripture.

  6. rfwhite said,

    March 21, 2020 at 7:33 pm

    Steve Drake: Regrettably, we disagree about Gen 3.16, though we agree about 1 Tim 2.9-15. The exegesis of Gen 3.16 has been discussed elsewhere, on this blog and others as well as in many commentaries and sermons by many capable shepherds and teachers. Suffice it to say that you should submit your views to a shepherd or teacher whom you trust to discuss them further.

  7. Steve Drake said,

    March 21, 2020 at 8:05 pm

    No need to discuss them further with anyone RF. Already thoroughly digested, dissected, and discussed with many competent theologians. Your views on Gen. 3;16 are your views only and we obviously disagree. Next time you post, post something other than OWN (Ordain Women Now), and/or other related topics. Perhaps post your view on the Creation Doctrine and it’s 6-day recent maturation and what it means for geology and astronomy and for the layperson today.

  8. rfwhite said,

    March 21, 2020 at 8:14 pm

    Steve Drake: As I said, submit your views to a shepherd or teacher you trust. I’ll take advice on what to post about from the proprietor of this site.

  9. Steve Drake said,

    March 21, 2020 at 8:15 pm

    I’ll take advice from Scripture RF.

  10. rfwhite said,

    March 21, 2020 at 8:48 pm

    Lest there is any confusion, I have not posted and will not post anything on OWN. I believe and teach the ordination of qualified men only to church office.


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