PART 7—THE HANDMAIDENS CONSPIRACY
by Donna Howell (partly excerpted from my new book The Handmaidens Conspiracy)
In the last entry we discussed “Internal Consistency of Scripture Supports Women Preachers, Teachers, and Prophets.” Now let us consider the principle of internal consistency as it applies to that which Paul personally wrote. This involves the verses he penned regarding service order, as well as the introductions he made regarding women he knew. (Additional examples of internal consistency from the pen of Paul, himself, will be discussed in the next two chapters in our reflection on Corinth and Ephesus.)
First, we need to revise our concepts of what “church” meant to the New Testament culture. In the first-century, Judeo-Christian religious context, teaching occurred more as a group discussion than a monologue (Christ, Himself, taught in this interactive way). Prior to the third century, before the Roman Empire was “Christianized,” Christianity was nowhere near the norm. It took many years and a lot of passionate Gospel work on the ground before believers of the true Messiah began to meet regularly in buildings dedicated to holding Christian services. This is in part due to the expectations that the Jews had regarding what the Messiah was going to be. He was not, as they anticipated, the soldier sent by His Father to crush the Gentile world and bring the Israelite nation to political and theocratic power, and so on. Believers were up against at least two major ancient influences: Jews and Rome. Both of these influences had weighty political power (Jews appealed to Roman political leaders), so many of the early Christians were scattered, outnumbered, and at risk of martyrdom. The resistance Christians faced was such that they had to meet quietly in homes, wherein the teaching and preaching of this fresh Gospel message was carried out by the homeowners. (Think back to the Jesus People/Jesus Freak movements of the 1960s–’70s.) Many of the churches that did spring into public arenas for worship, like that of Corinth, began as home gatherings.
It’s within these homes that women were sometimes known to be the chief teachers. Biblical examples of this were: John Mark’s mother Mary in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12); Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:14–15); Priscilla (alongside her husband Aquila) in Ephesus and Rome (Acts 18:19, 26; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3–5); Phoebe in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1); and Apphia in Colossae (Philemon 2). When Paul and Silas left the Macedonian prison, they went straight to Lydia’s home church and personally and directly encouraged the gathering (Acts 16:40). These female home-church leaders were viewed at the time by the early Christians around them as authoritative teachers of the Gospel, and Paul commended them for it in his epistles. This fact refutes the popular interpretation that women can only be church leaders when a man is not present—i.e., only to other women or children, or in a restricted role. It also poses significant questions about whether a woman can be a teacher, leader, or pastor in a church that initially sprouted from within her own home. If women “pastors” begin a church at home that grows to include a congregation too large to meet in that home, are they expected to then step down because their congregations got too large and now have to meet in a larger building? Or do they buy bigger houses so they aren’t “caught teaching in a church”? If that’s the case, any woman who feels called to preach or pastor can buy a mansion larger than any synagogue in the ancient world and teach congregations large enough to achieve the “megachurch” title, all whilst still being innocent of “teaching in a church.” Does a building decide who the appropriate minister is? Does the number of listeners decide who is called? If the answer to these questions is, “No, they can still preach/pastor, because they started the church from their home,” then we have to decide if other women preachers or pastors are allowed to use their Holy-Spirit-given gifts without first having to spend years opening their homes to the point that they overflow with participants. The issue really should be focused on the qualifications of the minister, not on the qualifications of a building. Correct teaching, as well as false teaching, can be carried out anywhere, and it can flow from the mouth of either gender. Many male ministers today are avidly against females being pastors, but they don’t see that Paul gives proverbial high fives all around to several female ministers in his epistles, primarily in his greetings to fledgling congregations whom he often told to assist these women.
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We shouldn’t assume that just because Paul chose not to contest the writings of his fellows, he secretly believed otherwise or was merely oblivious to his cohorts’ teaching. He proved as much when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 7 that men and women should share equal authority in their household; chapter 11 (verses 11 and 12) specifically outlines that men and women should be partners. And though many of today’s preachers like to say that women should submit to the authority of the man, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5 verse 21, states that husbands are to be equally submitting to their wives “in the fear of God.”
In the patriarchal society that had so long reigned in Jewish nations, we are befitted to pause for a moment and ask: Why would Paul, the supreme Jew of his time prior to his conversion to Christianity, ever suggest that a man submit to his wife? Wouldn’t such a concept bleed into the Church hierarchy? Yes, this verse is in regards to mutual submission, and no, it’s not about leadership within a church building. However, a student of New Testament culture—one who has read deeply about the importance that honor, patronage, kinship, and purity played in society amidst these people groups and the lesser position that deemed for women[i]—will see certain proof that Paul, by bringing a woman up to par with man in the household first, was essentially undoing eons of patriarchal authority within society as a whole as it extended outward from the household. Cultural norms and standards begin with what is taught in the home, because children of tomorrow are raised with that line of thinking and perpetuate it into future generations. Paul saw headship within a home as needing a woman’s equal guidance, and anyone in his authoritative position would not have pushed that way of life upon his generation if he didn’t think it should be adopted as the new norm for the future. So, inasmuch as Paul was redefining societal norms for a woman as a mother and wife, we know he viewed men and women as equals. And that is no surprise to our modern culture, because today’s Church has long since accepted that women can teach their children. But in Paul’s day, a statement of mutual submission would have been a revelatory concept.
Might Paul have been a trailblazer for true equality of women in all spheres of Christianity, not just those relating to the home? I think that’s obvious, considering the ministerial partners he chose.
One example is Priscilla. Scholars postulate that she hailed from Roman nobility, which would have meant she was trained in philosophy, rhetoric, and oratory skills, as was the prized training for students of both gender in ancient Roman culture if their parents were wealthy enough—i.e., she was a well-educated female. She and her husband, Aquila, were living in the city of Corinth (having fled there after Emperor Claudius exiled the Jews from Rome) when Paul came there to minister, and they allowed Paul to stay with them and build and market tents to fund his missionary endeavors. (Many interpret 1 Corinthians 16:19 to mean that the church at Corinth originated from within Priscilla’s home.) Priscilla and Aquila’s authority as ministers of “the Way” (the Gospel) is vetted by Acts 18:24–26, which states that they corrected the “eloquent” Jew Apollos’ theology. Apollos was documented in this section of Acts as a man “mighty in the scriptures,” “instructed in the way of the Lord,” and “fervent in the spirit,” so this speaks highly of Priscilla’s influence: She, alongside her husband, took Apollos aside and “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.” (Read: “She—a woman—perfected the theology of a man; she taught him.”)
But maybe Aquila was really the one “expounding” and correcting Apollos’ theology while Priscilla stood beside them smiling and nodding, as is a woman’s place. Right?
No, not really… Evidence points to the opposite, actually.
It was customary in New Testament times for men to have the first position in nearly everything, as they were the central focus in society. When someone introduced a group with both men and women present, the introduction would begin with the men and end with the women. However, in Romans 16:3, Paul writes to the Gentiles of Rome, “Greet Priscilla [some translations say “Prisca”] and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers notes this peculiarity: “It is rather remarkable that the wife should be mentioned first. Perhaps it may be inferred that she was the more active and conspicuous of the two.”[ii] Maclaren’s Expositions also notes this oddity: “Did you ever notice that in the majority of the places where these two are named, if we adopt the better readings, Priscilla’s name comes first? She seems to have been ‘the better man of the two’; and Aquila drops comparatively into the background. Now, such a couple, and a couple in which the wife took the foremost place, was an absolute impossibility in heathenism. They are a specimen of what Christianity did in the primitive age, all over the Empire, and is doing to-day, everywhere—lifting woman to her proper place.”[iii] Bengel’s Gnomen commentary, yet again, comes to the same conclusion: “The name of the wife is put here before that of the husband, because she was the more distinguished of the two in the Church.”[iv] In this case, then, scholars (these mentioned and countless others) agree that Priscilla, in whatever function she held for the Church, was more than an equal partner in the “work of Jesus Christ” (the spreading of the Gospel). And, as we all know, spreading the Gospel requires one to open her mouth and “speak in the church.” When Apollos’ theology was “expounded…more perfectly,” we can’t irrefutably prove that Priscilla was the head theologian over her husband, but neither can we prove otherwise. Further, cultural evidence suggests Priscilla was a prominent teacher of the Word, even to such learned men as Apollos. At the very least, we know the Bible says that when the act of correcting Apollos’ theology occurred, “they,” Aquila and Priscilla, carried out the act. Priscilla was at least her husband’s equal—and likely the leader, in this moment.
The question is then raised of whether Priscilla was an “official” pastor in the early Church or merely a pretty face to compliment what the men were doing—and thus Paul merely meant to honor her with flattery or encouragement in a glittery introduction. Paul’s phrase, “fellow worker,” is the English translation of the ancient Greek synergos: “a companion in work” (derived from: syn “together” and ergon “work”[v]). From synergos we gain the English “synergy”: “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.; synergism.”[vi] Paul would not have referred to Priscilla as such if she were not considered his equal partner in an effort greater than the sum of the individual contributors. As stated prior, Paul was a student of patriarchal training under Gamaliel, so he wouldn’t have risked using such a word to describe a woman if he were opposed to complete gender equality within the Church hierarchy. Paul recognized Priscilla’s value as a fellow minister, and introduced her as such.
We can’t assume that by “fellow worker,” Paul was referring to Priscilla as a pastor, preacher, or teacher, but that is a nonissue since those exact terms hadn’t yet originated. The historical etymology of the word “pastor” dates to circa 1325–1375; likewise, the word “preacher” dates to 1175–1225. Both words derive from Latin originally, so he couldn’t have referred to her that way even if the duties of Priscilla’s work were a precise match to that office. In his day, the word for “pastor” or “preacher” likely would have been “shepherd” (poimen) as it related to the cultural understanding of a church leader. But Paul, perhaps because “shepherd” was associated with Christ as the ultimate Shepherd for all, wasn’t accustomed to using that terminology either, even when referring to those in his company whom we know were serving as pastors in his generation. An example of a similar term is “the Way,” as mentioned earlier, which was what “the Gospel” was called (Matthew 22:16; Acts 9:2; 18:25; 19:9; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Back then, we would say something like, “a shepherd of the Way,” whereas today, we would say, “a preacher/pastor of the Gospel.” So, since the original terminology is so profoundly different from our Western expressions, we have to try to fill in the blanks throughout spans of history and culture. We cannot conclude that Paul saw Priscilla only as a pretty face just because he did not use a modern, Western word to introduce her—especially when the word modern ministers are looking for didn’t exist at the time. Poimen is used eighteen times throughout the New Testament, and only once is this “shepherd” term translated as a Christian leader in Ephesians 4:11.
“Was it a man or a woman in that case?” one might ask. The answer is both. This instance, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors (poimenas, “shepherds”) and teachers” occurs within the context of the gifts given to the Body of Christ, and it is inclusive of both genders.
This brings me to a side note, and I’ll make it brief: For those who say women can preach, teach, and be leaders in certain offices, but they cannot hold the title of “pastor,” what argument do they hold for why Paul just used poimenas—translated here as “pastors”—as a reference over the Body of Christ as a whole, including women? These gifts are irrefutably gender-inclusive. Naysayers have only two options: 1) believe the original Greek, which uses the word “shepherds” for women as well as men in the highest office a church today can hold; 2) believe the English translation, which uses the word “pastors” for women as well as men in the highest office a church today can hold. Either way, women can be pastors. Those who oppose women as pastors might argue that Ephesians 4:11 says this gift is given to “some,” and that this “some” would naturally be men. That might be a valid point if it weren’t for what Paul said just a few verses earlier in Ephesians 4:8, rendered thus in the KJV: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto anthropois.” The word anthropois is translated in the KJV as “men,” which is misleading (and again should be read as “mankind”), because anthropois is a gender-inclusive reference that means, generically, “people.” The NIV says “gave gifts to his people.” If these gifts—including the title of “pastor”—were intended to refer to men only, Paul would have used gender-specific terminology in the authentic Greek, but he didn’t. The translators of the KJV made that decision instead.
Women can be pastors, friends.
Back to Priscilla… What might “fellow-worker” mean for her?
We must: a) begin with Paul’s cultural linguistics, b) discover what the original words meant to Paul as a definition of duties (the fulfillment of a function), and then c) conclude a rational equivalent of that same definition of duties within today’s English language, before we d) boil the issue down to what title belongs to whom.
So, if Paul didn’t call the pastoral figures of his time “pastors,” he would have referred to them by the description of their function. Was there a man in a pastoral role whom Paul referred to with the same “function” term as Priscilla (synergos)?
As a matter of fact, there was…
We read in Romans 16:21: “Timotheus [Timothy] my workfellow…my kinsmen, salute you.” The word “workfellow” here is, again, synergos. Timothy was perhaps Paul’s most highly praised and revered colleague, and was even referred to as Paul’s spiritually adopted son (1 Timothy 1:2). In fact, two of the letters Paul penned to Timothy are widely known today as “Pastoral Epistles.” Timothy was the pastor at Ephesus, one of the most important churches of antiquity within Christianity (more on this church later). Yet, Paul did not call Timothy a “pastor” or “preacher” (for reasons just stated; those terms didn’t exist yet); he called him synergos: the same word he used to identify Priscilla. (He also used this word to identify himself, as well as other males such as Barnabas, Luke, Demas, Clement, and Epaphroditus, as ministers of the early Church.)
Thus we know for certain that, by his introduction of Priscilla using the same word in his greeting, she was at least equivalent in ministerial function to one of Paul’s most trusted and beloved pastors/preachers/teachers via his own assessment. Additionally, she is acclaimed to this day for “more perfectly” correcting the theology of a respected and learned individual, Apollos (a man).
In case you’re wondering whether this is a one-time fluke…it’s not. Paul also referred to Euodia and Syntyche—female “fellowlabourers,” “fellow-workers,” or “co-workers” (depending on English translation)—as synergos in Philippians 4:2–3: “I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life.” Additionally, the English words “laboured with me” or “contended at my side” (NIV) are from the Greek synatheleo, which was a common Pauline descriptor of the ministerial function carried out by men. Here, it is used in reference to women. (Note that there is a KJV spelling discrepancy in the treatment of the name “Euodias.” The original text spelled this “Euodia,” which was feminine. When the KJV was translated, the name was changed to the masculine “Euodias,” and many since have assumed this passage is referring to a man and his wife, instead of two women. If that were the case, then it could be viewed as a man in ministerial leadership who brings his wife along wherever he goes. Therefore, establishing these two names as feminine today is important in the ongoing discussion of women ministers. And this is not the only time in the KJV that a name was given a slight adjustment to represent a male in Paul’s writing. We will continue these insights in the next entry!
COMING UP NEXT—More on Junia, Priscilla, and other women teachers, pastors and prophets from Paul’s writings…
[i] For more information on this, I highly recommend: David A. deSilva, Honor Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[v] “Strong’s G4904,” Blue Letter Bible, last accessed July 16, 2017, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4904&t=KJV.