An Open Email from “Apollos of Alexandria”
Is it too much to wish that our departed saints might occasionally return to Earth in to “weigh in” on our contemporary issues?
The heavenly commute can be a doozy.
Still, I found myself wishing this past week that “Priscilla” of the early church might come do for John Piper what she once did for another gifted but ill-informed male preacher.
“[explain] to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18.26).
I speak specifically of Piper’s recent claim that women should NOT be allowed to serve as seminary professors.
Before adding yet more fuel this fire (after all, the Hebrew phrase for “Not helping” is pronounced Blogger), a brief caveat is in order:
I do not think that all so-called “complementarians” are the sexist trolls that they are sometimes painted as — many are just trying to be true to Scripture.
And I am thankful for John Piper’s ministry in certain ways.
His book Desiring God was a game-changer for me. I respect that he holds true to his convictions even when he knows they are unpopular. And I’ve greatly appreciated some of his statements on racial reconciliation and the need for evangelicals to proclaim the gospel over (say) partisan politics.
I don’t dislike Piper.
But I do disagree with what he said last week.
“I SUFFER NOT A WOMAN”
And while I understand his argument, I couldn’t help but note that it might come as a surprise to the greatest (male) preacher of the early church: Apollos of Alexandria.
As the book of Acts implies, Apollos received his “seminary education” partly from Priscilla, who took his gift for persuasive rhetoric and combined it with what he lacked: a more nuanced theology (Hmm…).
Could she not do that for someone else?
Say, a Baptist from Minnesota?
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Piper would listen to Priscilla.
After all, she is a woman.
Perhaps though it might be possible to get a letter through—or at least, an email. Not from Priscilla, but from the famous man that she helped train for ministry: Apollos.
Would Piper listen to him?
Thankfully, it just so happens that I’ve “found” just such an email.
And lest some doubt its authenticity, consider this:
- It resides on the same (non-existent) email server as all those Bible verses that say women can’t be seminary Profs.
- It came from an “AOL” account, so I know it’s from the first century.
Subject: RE: “I suffer not a woman”
Date: Friday, January 26, 2018 at 3:04 PM CST (Celestial Standard Time)
From: Apollos of Alexandria (Apollos_Creed777@aol.net)
To: John Piper
Attachments: The Book of Acts
Can I call you John?
I realize it may sound informal, but when you’ve been on a first name basis with “Paul,” you mostly drop the honorifics.
I’ll get right to it; I think you know why I am writing.
While I respect your attempt to be faithful to those passages that might seem to prohibit women from the full usage of their Spirit-given gifts, you know full well that there are other (well-supported) readings of those texts (see here, here, here).
My goal though, John, is not to swap proof-texts (of which I have my own…).
Instead, it is merely to recount my story, because as you will see—WE HAVE MANY THINGS IN COMMON:
- Like you, I was highly educated: While you got your PhD in Germany (Meine Glückwünsche!), I was trained in Alexandria. No biggie, but our old “school library” was way more famous.
- Like you, I was steeped in a patriarchal culture: If people think you value “male headship,” they should have seen me in my day! (That is, before I met a certain female teacher.)
- Like you, I became a gifted preacher—with scores of loyal “fan boys.” I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been called the greatest preacher of the early church. And while YouTube wasn’t there in the first-century, I’m confident that my “followers” rivaled yours in zealotry. Almost. (See 1 Cor. 3: “I follow Apollos…”).
- Like you, I brought my baggage with me to the task of biblical interpretation: We all do. So while you moderns often think you’re obeying the “literal” and “plain sense” word of Scripture, the reality is (sometimes) more complicated.
- And like you, I had not fully grasped the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit. As you know from the book of Acts (see attached), my great shortcoming was that I “knew only the baptism of John.”
Despite my gifting and my influence, I had not yet fully realized the change that happened as God’s Spirit was poured out “on all flesh” (Acts 2.17).
On all flesh, John.
In Acts 2, it specifically, it says that “sons and daughters,” “men and women” will join the ranks of God’s prophets. (Have you not read of the daughters of Philip? Have you not heard of Phoebe’s role as a the first interpreter of Romans? Have you not heard of Junia, the apostle?)
To be blunt, my friend, I fear that in this sense (though not in others), you too “know only the baptism of John.”
Which brings me to Priscilla.
Let me remind you about her:
She was a Gentile, high-born, and well-educated.
She was a member of the Roman nobility, and better schooled than most all women of the period. (Picture: Lady Mary from Downton Abbey. You know you watched it, John).
Yet she married a Jew, who was a former slave.
It was not only an interracial marriage, but also a union across classes.
“Aquila” wasn’t even his real name.
As ancient records show, it was likely the name of her family—which he took on through marriage
Did you catch that John? He took her name. (I know!!!)
Their marriage showed the full extent to which the Spirit transformed boundaries between race and class and (yes) gender!
The couple was, of course, from Rome—but they moved East as refugees when Claudius expelled the Jews.
Since Priscilla wasn’t Jewish, she could have stayed amongst her family, wealth, and privilege. But she didn’t. Talk about mutual, voluntary submission!
It was around that time that I met them.
As you can relate, I had come into the local “pulpits” with a heady mix of knowledge, boldness, and a penchant for robust debate (Sound familiar?).
But there was one thing I lacked—a fuller understanding of the Spirit’s work.
Ironically, given my great learning and my patriarchal background, it took a female “seminary Prof” to teach that to me.
As a fellow Jew, “Aquila” also helped. (I don’t want to discount his role!) But as you might guess, it was Priscilla who had the academic pedigree to explain to me “the way of God more adequately.”
Their union was a parable for what the New Covenant looks like.
God brings together different races, classes, AND GENDERS for the work of training and equipping Christian ministers.
Actuality implies possibility, John.
And the fact that God used this gifted and well-educated woman to train me shows that he can do it for others—even you.
In fact, to deny this (fittingly, on account of your own name!) is to prefer only “The baptism of John.”
Apollos of Alexandria
For a related post, see “The Other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter” (here).
Note: Evidence on the family background of Priscilla and Aquila was taken from Reta Halteman Finger, Roman House Churches Today for Today, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).