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A Brief Case for Supporting Female Theologians in the Local Church

Moody Bible Institute (my alma mater) recently hired their first ever female faculty member within the Bible and Theology department. Susan Rieske, though certainly not the first female faculty member (and not the first to be teaching theology in a classroom setting), is a first within the department. Naturally, this brought about some discourse on whether or not it is consistent for Moody, a complementarian institution, to appoint a women to teach theology and there is disagreement on this even within the complementarian world (see John Piper's critical take on this subject as well as Mark Thompson's rebuttal). However, this does get me thinking, what place is there for female theologians?

Now, I should be up front and say that I agree with both Piper and Thompson in their understanding that the Bible teaches the roles of elder and deacon to be designated for men only. However, I want to ask a different question than what that answers; a question that, when answered, we can discern the conversation in which Piper and Thompson are engaged... do female theologians have a place in the life of the local church?

Notice two things about this question: 1) this does not ask whether women have a place as leaders in the local church (I have already mentioned my position on this) and 2) this does not yet ask whether women have a place as faculty members of a theological institution. I think answering this question, though the title of this post has already given the surprise away, will give us proper tools to discuss what Piper and Thompson are discussing. And, to this end, I will look at the New Testament person of Priscilla.

Priscilla Talks Theology

The account of Priscilla and Aquila is one often used by egalitarians (those who view that church leadership is open for both men and women) to argue their case. What we know about Priscilla (sometimes written as Prisca) is that she was the wife of Aquila and that both of them were tentmakers with Paul for a time (Acts 18:1-3). Both her and Aquila were the hosts of a congregation in Rome (Rom 16:3-5, 1 Cor 16:19). Paul has a very warm opinion of them as he refers to them both as fellow workers and Paul even recalls a time when they saved his life (Rom 16:3-4). However, though there are many times where Paul mentions them, there is but one narrative account which directly concerns Priscilla and Aquila and that is found in Acts 18:24-28.

In this account, we find Apollos teaching to a crowd at Ephesus. Readers of Paul's letters will be quite familiar with Apollos as he eventually becomes a prominent teacher and the receiving of his teaching in Corinth was a point of controversy. Nevertheless, Paul considers Apollos to be a teacher alongside himself (1 Cor 3:4-9). However, in our Acts 18 text, it does not seem that he was yet the developed teacher that he later became because after he was finished speaking, Priscilla and Aquila together pulled Apollos (who is specified in verse 24 as an eloquent man who is competent in the Scriptures) aside and "explained to him the way of God more accurately" (Acts 18:26).

It is at this point that the egalitarian theologian will attempt to make a case that by virtue of this event, Priscilla necessarily had spiritual authority over Apollos by which we could liken her work to that of an elder. That does not seem to be what is taking place here. Rather the more simple (and consistent with the rest of the NT) answer is that Priscilla simply engaged in theological discourse with Apollos. Though we cannot and should not carry this to mean that Priscilla held a spiritual authority over Apollos that an elder might, we simply must recognize that Priscilla had theological things to say to Apollos and that she did indeed say them.

To some this may seem like an anticlimactic conclusion... Priscilla said theological things to a man. And yet, in the greater complementarian world of which I am joyful to be a part, this sort of discourse is not always encouraged. Often times women feel as though they have theological things to say but fear as though saying them would be irreverent. Much of this concern stems from good caution inspired by 1 Cor 14:34-35 where Paul instructs women to be silent in the gathering for worship (Denny Burk has a great article on this). However, I think it is an unnecessary move to bring what Paul says about worship gathering into the entire ecosystem of the local church especially considering what seems to be a very evident instance of a woman engaging in theological discourse in Acts 18.

Though I am persuaded by the complementarian interpretation of the various leadership texts in the NT, I also want to dream of what a church culture might look like that respects the designation of leadership while also empowering women to be theologians.

Note: My view on female instructors in Bible and theology in seminaries and Bible colleges has since changed in considering the argumentation of Wayne Grudem in Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth

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