Priscilla versus John Piper

Priscilla versus John Piper

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?

Probably.

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.

Namely:

“[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.

A CAVEAT

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:

  1. It resides on the same (non-existent) email server as all those Bible verses that say women can’t be seminary Profs.
  2. 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

 

Dear John,

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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…”).
  4. 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.
  5. 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 womenwill 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.

PROFESSOR” 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.”

 

Sincerely,

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).

The other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter

The other Phoebe: Why an alleged chauvinist chose an ordained woman to deliver the world’s most influential letter

“Sexist.”

For many moderns, this is a fitting description of the apostle Paul.

After all, there are a couple of famous passages in Paul’s letters that have been taken as forbidding women from positions of leadership and teaching in the church.

In fact, such texts are more complex than they appear.

And as folks like Ben Witherington have argued (here), they need not be seen as barring women from church leadership and preaching.

Thus my own tradition (The Wesleyan Church) has long affirmed both men and women in ministry, while also maintaining a high view Scripture.  And I am proud of that.

To arrive at this conclusion, however, one must deal not just with the so-called “problem passages” (e.g., 1 Cor. 14; 1 Tim. 2), but also with the real life women who were used by God and affirmed even by the likes of Paul himself (that supposed chauvinist!).

As just one example, there is Phoebe of Cenchreae.

I add her un-hooked-on-phonics town of origin to distinguish her from the more famous Phoebe—the one from Friends (see here).

phoebe
“If you want to receive emails about my upcoming shows, please give me money so I can buy a computer.” ~Phoebe Buffay

OUR SISTER PHOEBE

The other Phoebe—the one from Cenchreae—was tasked with delivering what may be the most influential letter ever written: Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

We meet her in chapter 16.

Here, she appears alongside two other female leaders. First, there is Priscilla, who helped to teach the orator Apollos about the way of Jesus. And second, there is Junia, who (according to the best translations) is called an “apostle” in her own right.

But my interest in Phoebe.

As Paul writes:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a diakonos of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me (Rom. 16.1-2).

While it was always assumed that Phoebe was the one to take this letter  to Rome—probably tucked inside a heavy cloak, aboard an ancient ship—the discovery of a 9th century manuscript (Codex Angelicus) now adds further confirmation to this belief.

THE FIRST INTERPRETER?

And the delivery was no menial assignment.

As N.T. Wrights states:

The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. [Thus] the first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained traveling businesswoman.

While some such terms (“ordained”) may be anachronistic, imagine a possible scenario:

After a dangerous journey, Phoebe arrives in the world’s most famous city.

Her hope is to bring gospel unity to a fractured church, divided along ethnic lines. And once there, she proceeds to shuttle between the various house-churches to get Paul’s message out.

Here, in living rooms and upper balconies, Phoebe reads the letter—start to finish—and fields questions on the parts that (still today!) are difficult.  Questions like:

Phoebe, what does Paul mean by “dikaiosune Theou”!?

Phoebe, what does it mean when it says: “God gave them up”!?

Phoebe, how exactly will “all Israel be saved”? And why is Paul so cryptic!?

Phoebe, is the apostle an Arminian or a Calvinist!? *sarcasm

With such possibilities in mind, Michael Bird asks the following in his new Romans commentary:

Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?

And for some 3rd century support, Origen of Alexandria states this of Chapter 16 as a whole:

This passage teaches that there were women ordained in the church’s ministry by the apostles’ authority … . Not only that—they ought to be ordained into the ministry, because they helped in many ways and by their good services deserved the praise even of the apostle.

CONCLUSION 

In the end, it is possible that Phoebe did little more than hand off the letter, and then return to Corinth.  After all, Romans 16 is hardly sufficient to develop a full theology of women in ministry.

And to be fair, many complementarians have attempted to read the Scriptures faithfully as well.  Not all who disagree with me on this are—to quote the movie Little Rascals—“He-man-woman-haters.” (Some are.  But not all.)

Regardless of one’ position on that question, however, all Christians can be thankful for the brave and crucial service of “our sister Phoebe.”