Can women be pioneering church planters?

I am in the process of writing a Grove Biblical booklet with the title ‘Women and authority: key biblical texts’ which aims to explore all the key texts in 28 pages! Due out later this month. I am aiming to cover Gen 1, 2, 3, Luke 24, John 20, Acts 18, Romans 16, 1 Cor 111 Cor  14, Eph 5 and 1 Tim 2.

Here is the section on Acts 18.

This passage relates Paul’s first visit to Corinth and the establishment of a congregation there, followed by his first visit to Ephesus. His partners in ministry are named as Priscilla and Aquila, believing Jews with Latin names who have come from Rome following the Emperor Claudius’ edict expelling the Jews. There are some uncertainties around the dating of this edict, and whether Acts matches other contemporary accounts. But the most likely dating for the edict is 49 AD, so Paul’s visit should be dated to around 50, since Priscilla and Aquila had arrived in Corinth ‘recently’.[1] The passage is rather compressed, giving a briefer account of Paul’s 18-month stay than of his visit to other cities of similar importance.[2] It might be that Luke is not working from other sources (as he probably is elsewhere) but there is sufficient agreement in terms of events and people with 1 Corinthians to give confidence in the episode’s historical reliability.[3]

It seems very likely that Priscilla and Aquila were already followers of The Way, since no mention is made of their conversion in Acts, and it seems unlikely that unbelieving Jews would offer Paul hospitality so readily.[4] The account of Paul’s visit to Ephesus, from which he hurries on leaving Priscilla and Aquila to establish a congregation, is rather confused. In Acts 18.19, on arriving in Ephesus, Paul is said to leave them there, before going on briefly to recount his visit to the synagogue. The grammar is sufficiently awkward to suggest that verse 21b originally followed on from 19a, but that Luke then went back and added in the details.[5]

Several things are notable about this episode. The first is that, although Luke is clear that Paul was the first to speak to the Jews at Ephesus, there is no doubt that it is Priscilla and Aquila together who found a church/congregation; it is apparently already established by the time Paul returns.[6] Secondly, Priscilla and Aquila are together responsible for teaching Apollos, a Jewish believer from Alexandria, ‘explaining the way of God to him more accurately.’ Since he only knew the baptism of John, this presumably included an explanation of Pentecost, the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit, and baptism in the name of Father, Son and Spirit.

Thirdly, although Luke introduces Aquila first of the couple in Acts 18.1, thereafter Priscilla comes first in order, either because of her higher social status, or because of her greater prominence amongst the believers.[7] The only exception to this in the New Testament is in 1 Cor 16.19, where Paul, writing to Corinth from Ephesus, passes on greetings from ‘Aquila and Prisca’, the latter a variant of Priscilla, and the ekklesia that meets in their house. Later, when Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, he greets ‘Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers (synergoi) in Christ Jesus’, who by now have returned to their native city, as he does in writing to Timothy (2 Tim 4.19). It might be that the order was reversed in the greeting from the couple at Priscilla’s request, presumably to safeguard Aquila’s social standing.[8]

What is striking about this account is the way that, rather exceptionally in Acts (see comment on Luke 24.11), neither Luke nor Paul appear to show any embarrassment about portraying a woman as an equal partner both with her husband and with Paul in engaging with the Jewish community, establishing a congregation, continuing in leadership of it, correcting the teaching of someone who then became an important leader amongst believers in Corinth, and being described as a fellow worker with Paul. In fact, at most points, the texts appear to give her the lead role in the partnership.

This makes it difficult to see that Luke thought of certain roles of leadership to be prohibited to women, or that he (or Paul) have here worked with a general principle that women should not exercise a teaching ministry or have authority in defining and correcting faith amongst believers.

[1] Witherington p 536, and Marshall p 292, who believes it is the same edict mentioned by Suetonius, arising ‘on account of Chrestus’

[2] Williams, p 326

[3] Witherington p 537

[4] Witherington p 545, Marshall p 293.

[5] Williams p 326, Marshall p 293

[6] Williams p 323.

[7] Witherington p 539, Marshall p 292, Fernando p 504.

[8] Fernando citing F F Bruce’s intriguing suggestion in The Pauline Circle, 1985


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14 thoughts on “Can women be pioneering church planters?”

  1. If you look at Christians for Biblical Equality on Facebook there is 5 mins of Tom Wright on women’s ministry…

    Assuming all your titles in the booklet are like this – don’t like questions like this where one can answer no!

  2. See the helpful discussion in Joy Tetley’s article, ‘Ordained Married Couples: A Theological Reflection,’ Anvil 9 (1992) 149-156.

  3. Steve, thanks for the reference. A number of commentators note that this is an unusual case.

    Sally, asking the question this way is a large part of the point! I suppose I am inviting those who might want to answer ‘no’ to try and offer a different exegesis. And I hope you are encouraged that the text seems to say ‘yes’! (oh, and these titles won’t be in the booklet…)

  4. Iain, I think you mean they should publish the names of their leaders, followed by the names of the leaders’ husbands…?

    Richard, let me consult the Grove Director of Publishing… He says:
    1. Prepublishing raises awareness and generates anticipation prior to publication.
    2. Comments on the blog might lead to a revision of the text for the better (see the example of the Undefended Leader).
    3. You won’t get the whole text online, or in one place, so I don’t think (sorry, ‘he doesn’t think’) that demand for the text will diminish…

  5. Hi Ian,
    just a follow on comment from the facebook comment…Rachel Jordan, who works at Church House, London, did her PhD on Women and Church planting in the last century – I’m fairly sure that’s not the ‘official’ title though, but it so relates to your question that I thought I should flag it up.

  6. Didn’t phrase it well Ian but I meant what I said. They list the Vicars (they call Lead Pastors) followed by their wives presenting them rightly as a leading partnership, but they way they do it infers it is the husband who has ultimate authority. The wives often are responsible for an area of ministry (often women’s) in their churches so rightly should come under the leadership of their husband but in the New Wine publicity for the leadership team, there isn’t one woman listed alone and not one woman who isn’t listed after her husband. I’m a New Wine delegate myself but it does grate slightly to say the least!

  7. Hi Iain….Can’t resist replying to your comment as it seems to me to be inaccurate! I am looking at our N&E programme from last summer where the leaders include two women listed before their husbands: Rosie and Tim Bunn (Rosie is a vicar in Norfolk); and Liz and Stuart Gregg (Stuart is ordained; Liz is not but they co-lead the church in Bradford). In terms of women listed alone, in the LSE programme you will find amongst the list of leaders Jane Morris, a vicar in London. Jane was previously on our Northern team before she moved to London.

  8. Nad, thanks for the response, that’s helpful. I think it is interesting that all your examples come from North and East, and it is something that has struck me as a significant difference from New Wine in the South. I think there is quite a wide perception that folk would like to see more women in ordained leadership in New Wine generally.

    When John Coles was here a couple of weeks ago, I gather he made a distinction between ordination and anointing. I think he is quite right that ‘office’ without anointing does not necessarily count for much. But I think that most people would find the converse–anointing but without denominational recognition–raises other questions, not least how anointing is recognised.

    Going back to my Grove text, what I have found interesting from Paul is that he went with both–recognising gifting but also not withholding ‘office’-like terms for women, including ‘apostle’, ‘deacon’ and ‘leader’, which has come as a bit of surprise to me. Post on Romans 16 to follow!

  9. There are all sorts of interesting points of interest in Romans 16 regarding the ministry of women.

    1. ‘Mary’ (v 6) mentioned first of those who are not already known personally to Paul already, who ‘worked for’ the church (a description Paul uses of himself in a church-planting role). Apart from the mother of Jesus, it seems to be that there is no other Mary who needs no further description. I unfashionably follow John Wenham is seeing Mary Magdelene and Mary of Bethany as the same person, and there is an ancient tradition that Mary preached before Tiberias (i.e. in the 30s) and secured Pilate’s recall.

    2. The apostle ‘Junia’ (despite later attempts at textual emendation). To be an apostle, one needs to be a witness of the risen Lord. Latin cognomens were often similar sounding to the Hebrew original, and it is Richard Bauchham I think, who has argued taht this is Joanna, the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod.

    According to Luke 8:1-3, Joanna and Mary Magdelene were among the group of wealthy, female aristocrats who financed Jesus ministry.

    One might argue tha both Mary, probably, and possibly Joanna, were involved in planting the church in Rome in the 30s. Peter may have been in Rome between 42 and 44, but he was mainly based at Antioch, only going back to Rome again not long before his death, so that neither he, nor Paul, can properly be seen to be the founders of the church of Rome. The irony is, that the Church of Rome, which now forbids the ordination of women, was quite possibly founded by women! But they have all been airbrushed out of the tradition apart from these fragmentary clues.

    But I should be interested to see what you say. I bow to superior scholarship.

  10. Thanks for these observations, Jeremy. I will have a section on Romans 16 in the booklet. It is also interesting to note the language Paul uses in Phil 4.2 of Euodia and Syntyche as ‘contending at my side’ and as ‘co-workers.’ My impression is that previous generations have seen these terms as Paul’s generosity of language to junior partners, whereas now these are almost technical terms for apostolic partners…


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