Couples and Convention
Quick: what are the names of the popular members of the royal family who will one day serve as King and Queen of the United Kingdom? Now, what are the names of the famous married couple whose Depression-era gang became the scourge of the FBI? And finally, what are the names of the husband-and-wife pop duo that was so popular in the 60s and 70s that they go by their first names even to this day?
If you said William and Kate, Bonnie and Clyde, and Sonny and Cher, props on your excellent pop culture knowledge. But I wanted to start this article with those questions in an attempt to prepare you for a more important question: did you notice how you gave those answers? Chances are you didn’t think, “Kate and William.” You thought, “William and Kate.” You didn’t think “Clyde and Bonnie,” you thought, “Bonnie and Clyde.” Why? Because that is how you think about those people. There’s an order to their names, there’s a reason that you think about them the way you do. It might seem like a minor detail. But, sometimes, minor details are important.
The same is true of a couple named in Scripture—a couple who was always named as a couple, and a couple who was almost always listed in a particular way: Priscilla and Aquila. Interestingly, Priscilla and Aquila are almost always listed in that order in Scripture, as Priscilla and Aquila. And the question I want to think about today is what that means. Why does Priscilla appear ahead of her husband?
Priscilla and Aquila in the New Testament
Priscilla and Aquila appear in several places in the New Testament, including the book of Acts and three of Paul’s letters. From these accounts, we learn that Priscilla and Aquila lived in Rome for a time before being kicked out, along with others of Jewish heritage, by the Roman emperor Claudius in the year 49 CE. Eventually, the couple made their way to Corinth, where they worked alongside Paul, both during their day jobs as leatherworkers and also while sharing the news of Jesus. Acts records the following interaction between Priscilla and Aquila and another follower of Jesus, Apollos:
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18.24-26)
In this quick story, we see that Apollos—who was apparently a pretty good speaker and had some familiarity with at least the beliefs of Judaism if not Christianity—came to Ephesus and began teaching. But then, Priscilla and Aquila show up and correct him on some things. And while this is a short story that seems to only briefly talk about Priscilla, I think there’s an important message there: who we are and what God has called us to is more important than the conventions of our world. Let me explain.
The Power of Convention
You see, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, there were a lot of societal expectations. As in any culture, there were norms and rules—certain ways that you do and don’t do things. We see this today in our world too. Not too long ago, I was catching up with a friend who had visited Australia, and he was talking about how he struggled with driving on the wrong side of the road (they drive on the left like in the UK). But then he mentioned how the weirdest thing was that as he was driving down the highway, people would be walking along the side of the road and pointing at the ground.
At first, he assumed that they were pointing out things in the road, so he would veer around it and then wave at the people pointing. Eventually, however, he noticed that these people would give him dirty looks as he did this, so he asked an Aussie friend what was going on. And it turns out that in Australia, if you’re a hitchhiker, you point at the road to ask for a ride because (wait for it) giving someone a thumbs up like we do here in the United States is the Australian equivalent to flipping someone off.
This illustrates the larger point that we need to keep in mind: norms and expectations are different from culture to culture. And that’s especially true when we go back to the time of the Roman Empire. There were some very embedded cultural ideas, particularly regarding the relationship between men and women. For centuries, Greek and Roman philosophers argued about the roles and requirements of men and women. And in early Christian times, the general cultural view was that men were more important, reasonable, and honorable than women. Greek philosophers and Roman rhetoricians, in particular, were clear on these expectations: Men should speak; women should be silent. Men should lead; women should follow. Men are of first importance; women are second class citizens.
Which brings us back to Priscilla’s role in our story from Acts. If you don’t think about the culture in which this story happens, you might miss what verse 26 says: when Priscilla and Aquila heard [Apollos], they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. Priscilla spoke. Priscilla corrected Apollos. Along with Aquila, she took him aside and in so doing, violated the cultural conventions about the relationship between women and men. And this isn’t the only time that we see this with Priscilla. In fact, one of the most noteworthy things about Priscilla and Aquila is the order of their names. Four times in Scripture, Priscilla is listed before her husband (Acts 18.18, 26; Romans 16.3; 2 Timothy 4.19). Now, that doesn’t always happen (cx. Acts 18.2; 1 Corinthians 16.19). But the fact that it happens at all is a significant indication that Priscilla wasn’t limited by the cultural conventions of her world.
But that’s not even the most important point of this story. Because Priscilla is not a third-wave feminist intent on dismantling the patriarchy. She’s not being different for the sake of being different. She’s speaking and acting in a way that’s contrary to the culture of her time for two really key reasons: because of who she was and because of what God had called her to do. Her identity and her calling were more important than the expectations that people put on her.
The Importance of Identity
As a follower of Jesus and friend of the Apostle Paul, Priscilla would have known a few things about who she was because of Jesus. She would have known that God loved her and that she was made in the image of God—ideas that we’re often familiar with, but that weren’t common concepts in the ancient world. And—very importantly—she would have known that she had equal standing before God just like anyone else who was following Jesus. Again, this is an idea that many of us assume today but would have been radically different than the expectations of the ancient world.
In a world where men were more important than women—and in a religious context where those who follow God (the Jews) understood themselves as closer to God than the surrounding nations (the Gentiles), early Christianity proclaimed a crazy idea: everyone who followed God was equal before Him. Priscilla’s friend Paul makes this crystal clear in Galatians 3.28 when he wrote, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
That is, race, social status, sex, gender, and cultural expectations don’t matter when it comes to your relationship with God. NOT that those parts of who we are don’t matter or aren’t important—but that those facets of our identity no longer are barriers (as they once were) when it comes to meeting God. As Rachel Green Miller summarizes, “In our very nature, men and women are equally made in the image of God. This is who we are.”1 People are different—men and women are different, of course—but when it comes to God, those differences don’t prevent us from following Him. That’s the first reason that Priscilla was okay with contravening her cultural conventions: because she was clear on her identity, she knew who she was in Jesus.
The Gift of Calling
Priscilla’s second reason was perhaps just as important: she knew what God had called her to.
She knew the gifts God had given her and the work He had called her to undertake. In her encounter with Apollos in Acts 18, Priscilla instructed and taught him how to follow and teach others about Jesus. In fact, this is the title by which Priscilla has been known for much of Church History: the “teacher of teachers.” In Romans (16.3), Paul identifies Priscilla and Aquila as his fellow workers, followers of Jesus who were spreading the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the coming kingdom of God just like he was. 1 Corinthians (16.19) shows that Priscilla and Aquila hosted a church in their home—in today’s language we’d call them church planters. Likewise in 2 Timothy (4.19), Paul makes it clear that Priscilla and Aquila worked alongside other leaders like Timothy, a statement backed up by the traditions about their leadership throughout the early Church. Finally, Priscilla has been talked about for generations as a possible author (or co-author) of the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. This is by no means certain and people love to speculate about who wrote Hebrews. But at the very least, this shows the important role that Priscilla played in early Christianity.
The New Testament is really clear: Priscilla had the gifts of leadership and teaching and she used them in the Church. She had gifts from God, she knew what they were, and she put them to work. She didn’t let expectations and convention stop her from using the gifts God had given her to fulfill her calling. Priscilla is an important example for us of how God calls particular people to particular roles by giving them particular gifts.
I have had a number of female friends who’ve had to wrestle with Priscilla’s example here. One friend in particular has really had a tough go of this because of her church context. She’s one of the most intelligent and pastoral people I know. She loves Jesus, she’s gotten multiple degrees in theology and church history. She clearly has gifts from God. But in a church she attended, she wasn’t even allowed to co-lead a Sunday school class because she was a woman. That reality, alongside Priscilla’s apparent counterexample, really made her question what it looks like to use the gifts that God has given her.
Now, I want us to be cautious here. Not every desire we have is good or from God. We need to be discerning, especially about any ideas we have that make us look good or lead to prestige or power or popularity. But at the same time, Priscilla provides us with an unignorable example of pushing back against conventions when God provides gifts and callings that those conventions don’t allow for. Priscilla’s example reveals that who we are and what God has called us to is more important than the conventions of our world.
Putting Priscilla into Practice
So, what does Priscilla’s example here mean in practice? What does this example from a first century Christian woman mean for us today? In short, I think there are three questions worth reflecting over as we consider how to apply this example.
First, who are you? Do you understand who you are and who you are in Jesus? Do you know, do you believe, do you live like God loves you? Because He does. Do you know that you’re made in the image of God and thus possess value and worth, no matter what you’ve done? Because you do. Do you understand that you have equal standing before God when you follow Him? That I’m not closer to Him and don’t have access that’s more special than you do? Because you can have the same kind of relationship with God that anyone else who follows Him does.
Second, what has God called you to do? What gifts and abilities has He given you? Where do your great hunger and the world’s great need meet? Serve as God has called you to serve. Everyone’s callings are going to be different based on our different gifts and opportunities and contexts. But do what God has called you to do. That’s why I serve as a pastor at a church plant—not because I always want to, but because I’m called to be at this particular place at this particular time. Where are you called to be? Because your work for God is more important than the conventions and expectations that surround us.
Finally, what convention do you need to question? What expectation or way that you’ve always done things—in life, at work, in the church, or elsewhere—do you need to reflect on and maybe even push against? Please hear me clearly here: this is not a call to reject out of hand our history, tradition, institutions, and norms. I don’t think Priscilla’s example leads us in the direction of radical deconstruction and the embrace of truthless postmodernism. What I do see here is a reminder to pursue the truth wherever it may be found. In the words of a mentor of mine, “We must remember that the enemy is not merely error and our adherence to it, it is also truth held for all the wrong reasons (or for no reason whatsoever) and arrived at in all the wrong ways.”
Where, then, can you be pursuing truth? How can you aim to be more like Jesus? What question or issue do you need to take some time to seriously reflect on?
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1 Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society, 37