What is the significance of Priscilla correcting Apollos’s theology?
Excerpt from “40 Questions About Women in Ministry”
A Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, made tents for a living. They met Paul, also a tentmaker, in Corinth, and the three went into business to- gether (Acts 18:1–4). Later, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the three moved their business to Ephesus. Knowing Paul, it’s reasonable to assume the three talked theology while busy at work, and that Priscilla was an astute pupil. We know from Paul’s writings that the couple was prominent in ministry in Ephesus and that a church met in their home. While Paul was away, the couple continued to minister and seemed to take an important role combating incorrect teaching in a particular situation recorded by Luke. Acts 18:24–28 reads:
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures [Old Testament]. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John [probably lacked knowledge of the Holy Spirit and possibly other important doctrines]. He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately. When Apollos wanted to cross over to Achaia, the brothers [and sisters] encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to wel- come him. When he arrived, he assisted greatly those who had believed by grace, for he refuted the Jews vigorously in public debate, demonstrating from the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (NET, additions ours)
Luke knew about this situation and decided to include it in his writings so that we may “know the certainty of the things” we have been taught (Luke 1:1–4). What can we learn about women teaching men theology from this account? Not surprisingly, hierarchs and heterarchs agree on some conclusions and disagree on others.
Authors Note on Terminology
To present the various views clearly and fairly, we need accurate terms. Complementarians do believe men and women are equal before God in sin and salvation, and egalitarians believe men and women complement one another in many ways. So their chosen terms are fraught with misdirection. So we have chosen not to use the terms “complementarian” and “egalitarian” in this project.
Instead of “complementarian,” we use the term hierarch. Complementarians differ widely in how to apply limitations to women in leadership. But they hold in common a belief that God created humankind with a hierarchical order in which men possess authority over women. Therefore, we believe the word “hierarch” instead of “complementarian” is a more honest word to label this view because it reflects the core, shared conviction of all within that camp.
Instead of “egalitarian,” we use the term heterarch, which denotes a flat structure of power and authority. Heterarchs believe that when God gave man and woman the task of ruling creation (Gen. 1:26) he did not give the man authority to rule the woman as well but rather intended them to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28) together. Authority is shared. When it comes to the church, they say, leadership depends upon spiritual gifting rather than one's sex.
The Order of Their Names
Normally, when a husband and wife are mentioned in the first century, the husband’s name comes first. Priscilla’s name is mentioned with her husband, Aquila, six times in the New Testament. In the first instance when Paul met them in Corinth, Luke lists Aquila’s name first (Acts 18:1–3), as does Paul in his early connection with the couple (1 Cor. 16:19). But in the following four instances, Priscilla’s name is listed first (Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3; 2 Tim. 4:19). Twice, Paul calls her “Prisca,” possibly a sisterly nick- name. Robert Saucy, a hierarch, writes that Priscilla’s name is mentioned first “perhaps because she was more prominent and influential in the church.” Hierarch Wayne Grudem insists that it’s not possible to be certain about the significance of the order of their names but suggests that maybe it was because she held a superior social status.
Priscilla as a “Coworker”
Fourteen men were described as “coworkers” in the New Testament, in- cluding Paul’s close associates Timothy, Titus, Luke, and Epaphroditus. In ad- dition, three women were listed: Priscilla, Euodia, and Syntyche. Heterarch Philip Payne insists that the term “fellow worker” connotes “one who labors with Paul as commissioned by God in the shared work of mission preaching.” Hierarch Saucy admits that women like Priscilla would “surely have been looked up to by the average members of the church as functional leaders in church ministry” but denies that this meant women served in the senior position of elder or overseer, as this leadership role was open only to men.
Was Priscilla’s Teaching “Public” or “Private”?
One of the key disputes between scholars is what constitutes “public” ministry from “private” ministry in the first century. The issue is complicated because, unlike today, Christians generally did not worship in public buildings, but in private homes. We can learn much about the first gatherings in Jerusalem from Acts 2:42–47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fel- lowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had every- thing in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Even a quick list of the differences between the first-century believer’s experience and the typical church worship experience today shows that their church picture was drastically unlike ours.
- The first church met in one of the outer temple courts “every day” in- stead of their own “church” building once a week for a “service.” Once first-century believers left Israel to escape persecution, they settled throughout the Roman Empire. Then they gathered in homes that were different from ours. Archeology reveals much of the “private” home was open-aired with courtyards and spaces where passersby could see and hear everything going on. The woman who wiped Jesus’s feet with her hair wasn’t invited to the “private” party but found access to the patio where they were eating (Luke 7:36–50). Did Christians meet inside, outside, or both? Were there multiple house churches as their numbers grew? Did they continue to meet “every day”? When did an actual “church service” begin on a certain day, and what did it look like? When did actual paid clergy come on the scene?
- Their fellowship was often around meals in homes where we know from Paul’s letter to Corinth that they took Communion as part of the meals they shared. Here we observe a mixture of what we consider “public” and “private.” How structured was this mealtime together? Was it a “service” where formal teaching occurred or more like in- formal discussions where everyone, including women, participated and contributed?
- What about the structure of the worship? Did the leaders teach only at “meeting times” or, like Jesus had modeled, was teaching going on all the time in various ways? We really don’t know. Did they sing and pray together at a certain time in a service like we often do now, or was this spontaneous according to needs? Without watches or clocks, concepts of time were radically different in these early cultures.
It’s easy but probably unwise for any of us to assume that worship in the early church looked like it does today. To discern truth, we would be wise to look carefully into biblical contexts without attempting to pour what we see into a modern mold, or to attempt to fit the picture into our preconceived perspectives, wherever we land on these various issues. That said, let’s look at the varied interpretations of verse 26 and then examine several scholars’ diverse views.
Varied Interpretations of Acts 18:26
In Greek, Acts 18:26 actually says, “And this man [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue. And hearing him Priscilla and Aquila took him and more accurately to him explained the way of God” (emphasis added). In the original language, Luke doesn’t say where they took him, but different translators impute their interpretations into the verse. Examples include the following:
- King James Version: “And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.”
- American Standard Version: “And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more accurately.”
- Common English Bible: “He began speaking with confidence in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they received him into their circle of friends and explained to him God’s way more accurately.”
- Complete Jewish Bible: “He began to speak out boldly in the syna- gogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the Way of God in fuller detail.”
- New International Version: “He began to speak boldly in the syna- gogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.”
Obviously, different interpreters have added their own opinions about where and how Priscilla and Aquila corrected Apollos.
Andrew Bartlett considers Priscilla a strong teacher:
With her husband, Priscilla corrected Apollos, a prominent male preacher, and taught him the way of God more accu- rately, as narrated by Paul’s companion, Luke (Acts 18:26). . . . Luke considered Priscilla’s correction of Apollos sufficiently important to include it in his short history. Teaching Apollos was no minor task. He was a forceful public exponent of the gospel, with an expansive ministry (Acts 18:24–28). When he moved on to Corinth, his ministry there was more influ- ential with some believers even than Paul’s (1 Cor. 1:12).
Stanley Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo add,
Contrary to complementarian [hierarch] opinion, the text of Acts will not allow us to transform this narrative into any- thing other than a clear indication of authoritative teaching by a woman in the church. The text gives no warrant to im- porting a distinction between private teaching in a home and authoritative teaching in the church. To pass by this incident as “unofficial guidance” as distinct from “official teaching leadership” is to draw too fine a line between authoritative and so-called non-authoritative teaching among the people of God.
Grudem counters by arguing that although “Scripture encourages men and women to talk with each other about the Bible and Christian doctrine in private discussions, to say that there is no distinction between private and public teaching is to ignore the . . . context.” He insists that the phrase “they took him” indicates that “they waited to speak to him until they could take him aside, out of public view,” and that this example “does not give warrant for women to teach the Bible in the assembled church.” Thomas Schreiner agrees: “This Scripture does not indicate ‘that women filled the pastoral of- fice or functioned as regular teachers of the congregation. All believers are to instruct one another but such mutual encouragement and instruction is not the same thing as a woman being appointed to the pastoral office or functioning as the regular teacher of a gathering of men and women.”
From what Luke actually says about Priscilla’s role in teaching Apollos, we don’t believe it’s possible to conclude with certainty where they “took him” or, for that matter, since “they” is plural, who took him. Did Priscilla and Aquila take him to their home where other believers who had heard Apollos joined them? Were they alone in their home or with “their circle of friends,” as some interpreters have surmised? Or did Priscilla and Aquila just take him aside outside the synagogue after he spoke there? The only thing we can know for sure is that Apollos listened, learned from their competent theological in- struction, and went on to become a great orator of the gospel (Acts 18:28). We contend that if Priscilla weren’t such a controversial character, all sides would be more honest in their assessments.
 Robert L. Saucy, “The Ministry of Women in the Early Church,” in Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective, eds. Robert L. Saucy and Judith K. TenElshof (Chicago: Moody, 2001), 163.
 Wayne Grudem, EFBT, 180.
 Philip Payne quotes W. H. Ollrog, Paulus und seine Mitarbeiter, WMANT 50 (Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1979), 63–72, esp. 67; cf. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, WBC 38B (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 892.
 Saucy, “Ministry of Women in the Early Church,” 172.
 Saucy, “Ministry of Women in the Early Church,” 172–73.
 Emphasis added to the following Scripture citations.
 Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (London: InterVarsity, 2019), 207.
 Stanley J. Grenz and Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 82–83.
 Grudem, EFBT, 178.
 10.Grudem, EFBT, 178.
 Grudem, EFBT, 179.
 Thomas R. Schreiner, “Women in Ministry: Response,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and James R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 191.