WOMEN TEACHERS IN THE EARLY CHURCH
by Rev. Kathryn J. Riss
Prisca (also called Priscilla) and her husband Aquilla, two of Paul's
"fellow-laborers" in the Gospel, instructed Apollos in the way of God according
to Acts 18:24-26. That this instruction was not "out of order" is clear
from the context, the beneficial results, and Paul's commendation of Prisca's
ministry. The record in Acts tells us that Apollos was well-versed in the
Scriptures and had been instructed in the way of the Lord. He both taught
and preached in the synagogue at Ephesus where Priscilla and Aquilla, having
heard him, took him and "expounded to him the way of God more accurately."
This account is an interesting one for a number of reasons. It is the only
occurrence after the Gospels in which the New Testament records that a Christian
woman taught an adult male religious leader. The phrase "to them" found in
the Western text and the use of the term "expounded" imply more than a single
occurrence, suggesting that Prisca and Aquilla took Apollos into their house
church and grounded him thoroughly in the faith.
Also it is clear from the rest of the passage that their teaching prepared
Apollos for outstanding effectiveness in his preaching and evangelistic
ministry. Acts 18:28 says that after Apollos left Ephesus with the
encouragement and recommendation of the "brethren," which means the Christian
assembly, "he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures
that Jesus was the Messiah." Here we see an account of a woman teacher,
along with her husband, educating an already learned man of great ability and
preparing him for his greatest accomplishments in the Gospel. This example
would seem to set a good precedent for women and seminary professors and Bible
In the article on women pastors, we have already discussed the prominence Paul
and Luke give to Prisca as the more outstanding leader as compared to her
husband by naming her before him, contrary to universal ancient cultural
practice. In light of this fact, it cannot be maintained that Aquilla was
really the one who taught Apollos and led their house church. The most
likely scenario is that Prisca was the main teacher and pastor with the
assistance and support of her husband.
This occurrence creates a difficulty for those who believe that Paul taught in I
Timothy that Christian women are not qualified to teach on the basis of the
creation order and the Fall. That difficulty is intensified by Paul's
commendation of the many women who labored with him in the Gospel since one can
hardly labor in the Gospel without preaching or teaching the Gospel. This
thinking also runs contrary to the words of St. Peter on the day of
Pentecost, who interpreted the women proclaiming the mighty works of God
publicly, as the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy that "Your sons and your
daughters shall prophesy." A study of the ministry of Biblical prophets
shows that prophecy was not limited to telling future events, but also included
expounding God's Word and exhorting His people to turn to God and repent.
So, for women to prophesy necessarily means that they preach and teach God's
Word under His authority.
For example, Huldah spoke a prophetic word to the king and the high priest
regarding the interpretation of the Scriptures found in Deut. 29:25-27 which had
been troubling the king. (II Kings 22:8-20, II Chron 34:14-28) It also
occurred in the prophecy of Mary (Lk. 1:46-56), who quoted several psalms and
applied them to her divine pregnancy. Many other examples could be given,
but these should suffice to demonstrate the relatedness of prophecy, teaching
and proclaiming "God's Word." As a side note, it is interesting that both
Mary and Elizabeth prophesied the inspired words of Scripture in Luke 1:39-56 at
a time when Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband and a Jewish priest, was unable to
speak due to his lack of faith in the angel's inspired message.
It is evident to anyone who will observe with an open mind that God does,
indeed, empower and call women to teach and preach His Word and that His Spirit
abundantly blesses their efforts with good fruit. Therefore, since God
does not forbid what He Himself initiates, another explanation of the puzzling
New Testament passages must be found. Extensive research of these puzzling
passages and a summary of possible interpretations will be given in a later
article. For now, let us look more closely at the accomplishments of women
teachers in the early church.
In Paul's letter to Timothy (II Timothy 1:5) he tells us that the apostle
Timothy followed the faith of his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.
Chapter 3:15 tells us that from childhood Timothy had learned the sacred
Scriptures. Timothy's mother was Jewish, but his father was a Gentile.
We may infer that Lois and Eunice taught Timothy the Scriptures, introduced him
to Jesus, and brought him up in the faith. Evidently they did a good job,
for Timothy became Paul's closest assistant, accompanying him on his missionary
travels and eventually becoming bishop of Ephesus.
Many women in the early and medieval church brought up their children to become
major religious leaders by their prayers, example and teaching, Probably the
most famous was Emmelia, mother of ten, four of whose children were canonized as
saints. Her mother, Macrina the Elder, was a Christian martyr. Her
sons, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and Peter became bishops. Her
daughter, Macrina the Younger (327-379 A.D.), was a brilliant thinker and
educator who greatly influenced her brothers' development, becoming fully
responsible for Peter's education after her mother's death. She and her
brother Basil founded a double monastery for men and women. There she
taught, healed and prophesied for many years and established a hospital as large
as a walled city. All four were declared saints by the Catholic church.
Some other women who followed in Priscilla's footsteps include Marcella (325-410
A.D.), whose Church of the Household in Rome became a center of study, prayer
and charity. Marcella assisted Jerome in combating heresies and settling
theological disputes. She inspired another woman, Fabiola, to establish
the first hospitals in Rome, and Marcella established the first retreat for
Christian women on the outskirts of that city. Under Marcella's
leadership, Paula and her daughter Eustochium assisted Jerome in his Latin
translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew. These women traveled to
Bethlehem and dedicated the rest of their lives to translate, revise, and
correct the manuscripts, several of which Jerome dedicated to them. There,
Paula founded three convents and a monastery, establishing the model for
Scripture study and copying in monasteries which continued until the
Many other important women teachers could be mentioned. One of the most
outstanding was Hilda (614-660 A.D.), abess of the convent at Hartlepool, County
Durham. In 657 she founded a double monastery A.D. for men and women at
Whitby in Yorkshire, which became renowned as the leading school of theology and
literature in 7th-century England. Five of Hilda's monks became bishops.
One of them, John of Beverly, baptized the Venerable Bede, a medieval historian.
A sixth, Caedmon, was the first known English poet. When Hilda heard his
gift, she took him into the monastery from serfdom, taught him Bible stories,
and encouraged him to write poems about them. Caedmon's lyrics in the
Anglo-Saxon tongue brought the faith alive to many who did not know Latin.
Hilda also raised the king's daughter, Aelfled, from infancy and educated the
princess to become her successor. Bede wrote of Hilda, "She never failed
to return thanks to her Maker or publicly or privately to instruct the flock
committed to her charge." May the same be said of us.
Perhaps the most important consideration in favor of all Christians becoming
teachers of the Christian faith is the need for maturity and growth in the
church. Hebrews 5:12 says, "For though by this time you ought to be
teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of God's
Word." Those who remain perpetual students without passing on their
knowledge to others are rebuked by God's Word, not commended. It is
natural, proper and the duty of those who have learned the truth to teach others
also. The church can hardly spread the Good News of salvation if the
majority of its members are prevented from doing so on account of their gender!
Learning without a goal to teach results in lesser achievement. The best
students are future teachers because the best way to learn something really well
is to take responsibility for teaching it to others. In that way, you will
have to learn it thoroughly, be able to put it into your own words, and commit
yourself to living the message you teach. You will not be able to get away
with paying lip service to the Gospel, for your students be watching you! While
less is expected of a student, a teacher must set a good example.
I believe God wants ALL mature Christians to teach His Word. Our society
allows women to teach. It's high time the church caught up! The world
isn't refraining from teaching all the evil it can, so why should Christian
women refrain from teaching what is good? It is foolish to waste the
knowledge and teaching gifts of Christian women while the lost fill the airwaves
with filth. The Great Commission was given to all, and all who are able
have an obligation to our Lord to teach and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.