Ministry of Women: The Priscilla Model
Dr. Jessy Jaison
Ministry is ‘service’. It refers to a way to serve our Creator God and one another. God gives ministry to each person just by virtue of being created by Him. Women too, therefore, have ministry. Any consideration of ministry must be much broader than the official and ordained ministry of the church. Ministry is simply service (diakonia), and takes place when the gifts of God’s grace (charismata) are employed in the service of others, and when the functions of ministry are fulfilled (ICor.12:1-11). The New Testament stresses that Christians should mutually minister to one another (Gal. 5:13; 6:2; Eph. 4:2, 32; Col. 3:16; I Thes.3:12; 4:9,18; I Pet. 4:9; 5:5; I Jn.3:23). This may happen in formal or informal settings and involve those who are with ordained and lay people. This paper is a humble attempt to excavate a biblical perception of the ministry of women through a case study. There may be hundreds of other ways to approach this topic, yet this distinct model is selected for precision and purpose. However, for both the writer and the reader, the route of thinking is facilitated better as the writer’s premise is made clear. Let me, at the very outset, state my theological premise:
- Men and women are equal in their personhood and worth as they are created in the image of God.
- Men and women are different in their roles and have different strengths.
- According to the creation and biblical order, man has been given the ‘head role’ in family and ministry under the given authority
- Women’s function is to facilitate mutuality and complementarity in submission to the given authority
- There are women exceptionally gifted and called by God to serve in unique capacities and their service is approved as they do it in a team context and in no manner, usurping a domineering approach
Ministry in Jesus’ pattern is service. The biblical image of ‘ministry’ consistently refers to ‘self-investment’ in service to God and to our fellow beings. Apostle Peter views ministry this way, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in various forms.” (I Peter 4:10). In the Old Testament, we see women in the role of prophetesses like Miriam and Huldah and in the role of judge and administrator like Deborah. Let us discuss the ministry model of Priscilla to identify some forms in which women can administer the grace of God to others.
Priscilla and Her Prominent Ministry Model
Who was Priscilla? Wife of Aquila and a co-worker with the Apostle Paul. (Acts 18:1-3, 18; Rom.16:3; I Cor.16:19; II Tim. 4:19). Aquila was a Jew of Pontus in Asia Minor and a leather maker/merchant by trade. Both of them lived in Rome until they were driven out by the edict of Claudius in AD 49. Possibly, they were already Christians when they came to Corinth and met Paul. It is held that after the eighteen months of Pauline mission in Corinth, he followed this trusted couple to Ephesus around AD 51. Scholars unanimously opine that this ardent Christian couple exemplified the virtues of friendliness, hospitality and generosity.
The Helper-Companion Model
Eve, the “Mother of all Living”, was created as a companion and helper to man, to share the responsibilities in the Garden of Eden. They had to work it out in togetherness and complementarity. In no way was that an insignificant role because, without the companion, there was a sense of incompleteness. The ‘Helper’ role is of great worth in the design of God for women and acting sincerely upon that role is enormously fulfilling. Paul had women ministers who sincerely helped him. His female correspondents are approached as fellow workers for the Lord, loved for their service, not for their roles as mothers and grandmothers. He calls them “helpers”. In Romans 16 he mentions Phoebe, Prisca and Mary as ‘helpers’ and ‘fellow workers’. Women who are willing to embrace their God-assigned roles in family life always see the path of God in ministry clearly. According to Paul, there is neither a want of ministry opportunities nor is there a lack of gifted people. Rom. 12: 6-8 says, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion of his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” We are admonished to have our perception and practice aligned with the standards of the Scripture. Any form of Christian ministry requires upholding the foundational principles recorded by Paul in the immediate preceding verses in this section of Romans, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Rom.12: 3-5. Priscilla was someone, who efficiently worked out an approach to ministry that discovered the power of the helper-companion role.
The Pioneer- Missionary Model: In spite of the many shifts in life, Priscilla ministered as a pioneer and a strong supporter to pioneers like the Apostle Paul. Apostle Paul testified that the couple risked their lives for him. Rom. 16:4. Moreover, along with him all the churches of the gentiles were grateful to Aquila and Priscilla. Paul invited his readers to greet the church that meets at the couple’s house. Rom. 16:4. Pioneers are often multi-talented visionaries. We can think of Priscilla in those terms. Christianity is blessed with many such women missionaries. The world mission records estimate that overall, probably two-thirds of the missions force has been, and currently is, female. History has seen how women, including missionaries’ wives, volunteered to face up with the hazardous scenarios in mission. David Yonggi Cho, who found women as the best choice for difficult, pioneering work said, “We have found that in these situations, women will never give up. Men are good for building up the work, but women are best for preserving when men get discouraged.” Selfless service of the women missionaries has been explained by Jane Hunter who said that the vast majority of women missionaries were motivated by a deep sense of commitment to God, far more than by any desire to attain personal recognition or power. Apparently, those who safeguard their service from power-games, make lasting impact of servant leadership as envisioned by the Lord Jesus Christ.
J Hudson Taylor, Founder of China Inland Mission once wrote about how he ‘manned’ his cross-cultural mission stations with ladies in the latter part of the 19th century. When theological positions or cultural factors slowed down the involvement of women in native ministries, women in the history of Christianity ventured out into cross-cultural missionary endeavors with insightful commitment. Visionary women of all times realize that God’s mission is too vast to be accomplished without all God’s people serving in a wide variety of capacities and callings. Interestingly, such charisma of godly women missionaries was highly honored later in their life or sometimes after their passing away. John Stott wrote “If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which He does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which He does), then the church must recognize God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women…to exercise their God-given ministry, at least in team situations.” It is perhaps most interesting to note that Priscilla’s role in cross-cultural service, leadership and teaching were perceived as so normal they did not require special comment or explanation by the writer of Acts. She was a woman used by God across at least three nations such as Rome, Greece and Asia Minor. Her case stands out as an example for many to emulate in the mission of God.
The Teacher-Builder Model
Building people in the Lord Jesus Christ is perhaps the essence of all what we term as ‘ministry’. Priscilla’s entire account testifies to this commitment someway. She is mentioned as both host and missionary (Acts. 18:1-3, 18) as well as someone who took initiative (along with her husband) in instructing Apollos (Acts.18:26). Women can make excellent teachers to their children at home and in the church. But here, the scenario is different. The couple met with Apollos, a Jew born in Alexandria came to Ephesus. He was eloquent, mighty in the scriptures, instructed in the way of the Lord and fervent in the Spirit. They saw him speaking and teaching diligently the things of the Lord in the synagogue but knowing only the baptism of John (Acts. 18:24-25). Having felt the need for instruction, the couple expounded to Apollos the way of God more perfectly (some versions say ‘more accurately’). As a cross-cultural missionary and teacher, her contribution was recognized rather than exceptional by the Apostle Paul and the author of the Book of Acts. Together Aquila and Priscilla hosted Paul in Corinth, led a house church and moved with Paul to the work in Ephesus. We might contend that she worked out her individual call and gifts in ministry in perfect match with the sovereign authority of the word of God in the context of her family as well as the believing community. This is, perhaps, the essential critical balance that women need to maintain in ministry.
In conclusion, Priscilla presents to us an insightful prototype for women in family and society. The names Aquila and Priscilla are always mentioned together, making a prominent ministry team. The story shows us the ways in which God can use a woman who will be responsive to His call in submission. Along with her husband, she exemplified the gift of service in extraordinarily influential manner to impact lives and communities for the sake of Christ that in three places her name was mentioned before her husband’s name, which was quite unusual in the Greco-Roman practice. Remarkably, her model of ministry never appeared controversial; rather, her style, content and context of ministry were fully accepted and valued. Due to the complementarian-service style employed and the vital balance maintained in making the tendency to ‘rule over’ stands off the way, she won the honor of God and His people. Her style was supportive as well as authoritative (and NOT authoritarian), to the extent that her references in the Bible were perceived as normal even in a general context that needed to set a number of restrictions on women’s behavior, appearance and involvement as seen elsewhere in Pauline writings. History of Christianity and Christian Mission might work out an extensive list of women, who took part actively in facilitating maturity in one another and building them up in Christ by a variety of methods such as encouraging, helping, nurturing, guiding, healing, correcting, rebuking and providing for the work of the Lord. Their ministries were more of ‘charismatic and informal’ rather than ‘institutional and public’ and the body of Christ finds it as a benefit rather than a threat to her very existence. There is no greater vocation than being channels of His grace to our families and communities and no greater sense of fulfillment than doing our part within the God-assigned roles. Pricilla set an example of constancy, industry and a spotless name in the work of God. Thanks to God for the millions of women, who selflessly served the Lord and risked their lives for His name, and for the many more millions, who will only be known to us when they receive their crowns before the throne of God Almighty.