Clearly, a Woman Leader in Paul’s Churches (by Dalaina May)

Clearly, a Woman Leader in Paul’s Churches (by Dalaina May) October 6, 2015
Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 7.12.24 AMDalaina May lives with her husband, Dan, and four young sons in Southeast Asia where they are involved in local anti-trafficking efforts. When she isn’t working, stepping on Legos, or breaking up light saber fights (in other words, after bedtime), she is usually geeking out on theology or advocating for Christian involvement in social justice issues. Her first novel, Yielded Captive was recently published.

Using these biblical texts and the insights of ancient church historians, we can learn about the early history of the Christian community in that city. A close study of early church history reveals both the challenges faced by the Ephesian church at the time and a living example of church leadership devoid of manmade hierarchies.

The leaders that Paul initially appointed in the house church network were some of his most-often mentioned co-workers, Priscilla and Aquila. Acts 18 identifies them as Jewish exiles from Italy after the edict from Emperor Claudius forced them to leave their home. Priscilla and Aquila relocated to Corinth, where they met the apostle Paul on his first journey there. Paul, joined by Timothy and Silas, lived and worked with them for a year and a half–while he preached to both the Jews and Gentiles in that city.

When Paul left Corinth for Ephesus three years later, almost the entire group joined him on his voyage, but Aquila and Priscilla remained in Ephesus. During this time, they became leaders of a house church (1 Corinthians 16:19, Acts 20:17, Acts 20:31). It was in Ephesus that they took Apollos, a Jewish teacher and disciple of John the Baptist, into their home and taught him “the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26).

Eventually, Priscilla and Aquila made their way back to Italy where they again became church leaders (Romans 16:3). However, it appears that they may have traveled back and forth to Ephesus at least one other time, because Paul later sends his greetings to the couple in Ephesus through Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:19. We don’t have any other conclusive information about their lives and ministry after this point other than that they had the ongoing gratitude and respect of Paul and other “churches of the Gentiles.” They were honored as leaders who risked themselves on his behalf (Romans 16:3), and they may have been included in the group of “elders” who received Paul’s final commission before his execution (Acts 20:17).[1]

There are those who would like to place Priscilla in her husband’s shadow as though she was not a leader in her own right, but merely served under her husband’s authority. However, there are a number of reasons why this is inaccurate.

First, the placement of Priscilla’s name in front of Aquila’s in four of the six times they are mentioned (every time their ministry is specifically highlighted) in the New Testament is very important. It is widely hypothesized that this writing convention was used by Paul because Priscilla had the more prominent ministry of the two.[2]

Second, Priscilla’s involvement in the teaching of Apollos is extremely significant. The word used in Scripture is ektithēmi which has a plural tense in Greek, indicating clearly that it was both Aquila and Priscilla who taught him. The word, translated best as “explain” in English, was used exclusively by Luke in the Bible. Aside from Priscilla and Aquila’s interaction with Apollos, Luke used this verb two other times in Acts. In Acts 11:4, Peter “explained” that God had chosen to include the Gentiles in salvation. The second instance of ektithēmi is found when Paul preached to the Jews in Rome “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus” (Acts 28:23). The teaching that Priscilla did should be seen as authoritative, and the use of this word implies that she was not merely in the background assisting her husband with his ministry.[3]

The next church leader on the Ephesus timeline is Timothy. Timothy was the recipient of two of Paul’s letters. He is also the same Timothy mentioned in multiple books of the New Testament (Acts, 1 & 2 Timothy, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Philemon, and Hebrews). The son of a Greek father, Timothy was a young man when he first became Paul’s travel companion and beloved protégé (Acts 16:1-3, Acts 20:4-5, Philippians 2:19-23).

Around the year 64 AD, Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to continue the work of confronting the false prophecies so prevalent in that city (because of the cult of the goddess Artemis or Diana).[4] Timothy continued to travel extensively on Paul’s behalf and endured persecutions, including a time in prison (2 Timothy 4:13, Hebrews 13:23). Scripture never tells us what the rest of Timothy’s story was, but church history suggests that he was martyred thirty years later in Ephesus for opposing a local ceremony honoring Artemis.[5]

Timothy was succeeded by another unlikely leader, a man called Onesimus. According to many ancient church historians, this Onesimus is the same slave of whom the book Philemon is written.[6] He was presumably freed because of Paul’s plea to his master (Philemon 1:14-16) and later became a traveling co-worker of Paul and Timothy (Colossians 4:7-9) before eventually becoming bishop of Ephesus. He too was eventually martyred.

This collection of leaders–Aquila, Priscilla, Timothy, and Onesimus, was tasked with building the church that was birthed from Paul’s evangelistic efforts in the city of Ephesus.

A Jewish man, a woman, a Gentile, and a former slave paint a picture of what leadership and community in the body of Christ is supposed to look like. We cannot know if Paul deliberately organized this leadership team to illustrate his earlier stated convictions against hierarchies in the church, and we also do not know how these contemporaries shared leadership responsibilities in that church network. However, we do know that they were all commended in Scripture as co-laborers of Paul and are all remembered by ancient church historians as men and women with influence, leadership, and a permanent legacy in Ephesus and in the global church.


[1] Priscilla is one of the candidates for authorship of the biblical book of Hebrews. This suggestion was originally made by Adolf von Harnack in 1900. For more information, the following article is a wonderful introduction to that opinion: Hoppin, Ruth. “Advocates for Priscilla,” in E-Quality, no. Winter 2006 (2006). Accessed September 12, 2015.
[2] Osiek, Carolyn. “The Women in Paul’s Life,” in Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture 42, (2012): 90-95.
[4] Butler, Rev. Alban. Lives of the Saints. Eds. Herbert J. Thurston and Donald Atwater. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classic, 1856).
[5] “Apostle Timothy of the Seventy.” Orthodox Church of America. Accessed September 12, 2015.
[6] Butler, Rev. Alban. Lives of the Saints. Eds. Herbert J. Thurston and Donald Atwater. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classic, 1856).

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