I want to start by saying to my colleagues in the nursery: I have heard your cries; I have felt your pain. We’ll be done on time!
I’m a Sunday school teacher, not a preacher. So this will probably have more of the flavor of the former. I’m a substitute, but not the kind you can shoot spitballs at. I hope. You just have to bear with me.
A History Lesson
Let’s begin with some history. In the late 20’s AD a twenty-something young man by the name of Saul made his way from the important capital city of Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey) to Jerusalem. The purpose of his journey was to study under Gamaliel, the greatest Pharisee (or at least the greatest teacher of Pharisees) of his day. Saul was of an elite family. His name was most likely a tribute to the fact that he was a Benjamite and King Saul was the most illustrious member of that tribe. He was also an aristocrat. His father was a Roman citizen and so then, by inheritance, was Saul. He valued his Roman citizenship highly. His Roman name was Paullus and it is by the English version, Paul, that we shall call him.
Tarsus was no backwater; Paul himself would later boast that it was “no mean city.” His family, however, did not speak Greek at home, but Aramaic. Thus Paul did not regard himself as a Hellenist, but, proudly, as a Hebrew. Later, writing to the church at Philippi, he would describe himself this way: "a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law,a Pharisee;" By“Hebrew of Hebrews” he may of meant that he was a "Jew’s Jew," so to speak, or it may mean that he came from a Hebrew family.
So Paul becomes Gamaliel’s student, in the late 20’s AD, at the time the early Christians were starting to make noise in Jerusalem. They were beginning to break out of the “weird but tolerable sect of Judaism” protective cocoon in which God, in his providence had placed them. As a sect of Judaism they stayed under the radar. As a new religion they'd be front and center.
The student lacked the master’s patience. Gamaliel had given wise counsel that if the upstarts, Nazarenes, as they were called, were not of God they would scatter and vanish into the desert sands. Paul, on the other hand, saw them as a threat to all he held dear. He allied with his teacher’s rivals, the Sadducees, who advocated persecution of the Nazarene threat, although their reasons were political while his were theological.
We are now in the early 30’s AD, and Paul, his education complete, was sure of one thing: the Christian claim that the Messiah had come only to get himself crucified was ludicrous. Surely the Messiah would receive divine favor. To be hung on a tree was to be accursed. (Deut. 21:23)
About this time Paul encountered a young Hellenistic Jew who had embraced these strange blasphemies and could proclaim them in a manner like no other. The Galilean peasants were bad enough. But at least they seemed to proclaim a form of Paul’s own religion, albeit it an irreparably deviant one. They still used the temple for devotions. But this young man, Stephen, made it clear that the temple was obsolete and that the two religions were utterly incompatible. This was too much, and Paul willingly approved of the stoning of Stephen, even guarding the clothes of the executioners.
Emboldened by the execution of Stephen, the young Pharisee first went to the synagogues in Jerusalem to arrest the Christians. They could renounce their faith or stand trial before the Sanhedrin. With the persecution came an example of the law of unintended consequences. Some believers fled to Syria and other lands outside Palestine were they began to tell others of Jesus.
Eventually Paul sought to arrest even those outside the borders and bring them back to face the Sanhedrin. But on his way to Damascus, Paul encountered a bright light, which his companions saw, and he saw Jesus and heard his voice, which his companions did not. Blind, he was lead into the city where on the third day he was visited by a Christian, a visit which also occasioned the return of his eyesight. The Christian instructed him to get baptized, and that he, Paul, was to bear the good news to Jews and Gentiles.
This is the greatest Calvinistic conversion recorded in scripture. Paul was not seeking Christ. Christ was not wooing Paul. Paul was not considering the truth claims of Christianity and weighing them against the evidence. One second he was not a Christian, the next second he was. And he had nothing to do with it. As with all of us, his only contribution to his salvation was his sin.
Bearing letters of access signed by the High Priest by which he was to arrest Christians, Paul instead used his credentials to enter the synagogues to proclaim Christ. The authorities were not amused. But he had a riddle to solve. The bible does indeed teach that accursed is he who is hanged on a tree. But he had seen the resurrected Christ—surely a sign of divine favor. God had reversed the curse. Why? We know Paul grasped the solution, for later he would write about it to the churches of Galatia: Jesus was cursed on the tree, but it was our curse he took upon himself, not his own, redeeming us from just wrath of God. He could bear our curse, but remain the son in whom the father was well-pleased. Mystery solved.
Paul spent about three years in Damascus and then, with some daring (for some were out to kill him), returned to Jerusalem. This was delicate—his old ways were not easily forgotten. He met only two of the leaders: Peter and James the brother of Jesus. Those meetings would have been fun to attend. It is likely that they filled Paul in on many details of the teachings of Jesus. Ultimately, though, the reaction against Paul from those of his former life who considered him a traitor was too much. In a vision Jesus told Paul to leave Jerusalem.
Paul returned to Tarsus and obscurity for a mysterious period of about three years. He was probably disinherited by his family, for it is likely that Phil 3:8, Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ refers not just to a loss of status, but also a loss of family wealth. He was given the maximum 39 (40-1) lashes more than once. And toward the end of this quasi-exile he was caught away into heaven, hearing unutterable words.
About the year 45 his sort-of house arrest would end. Barnabas had arrived in Tarsus. The church had work to be done in Antioch. It had drafted Paul for the job. The year was about AD 45, and Paul was about 40 years old.
Let’s jump ahead about five years, to AD 50. At this time the city Corinth in Greece was about 100 years old. It stood on top of an old Corinth that was destroyed in 146 BC (because it was rebellious) by a Roman general. In 46 BC it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar and its fortunes returned rapidly. Corinth was a bustling seaport. It was not a family vacation destination. The Greeks made a verb out of Corinth, and to Corinthize was to live in one’s immoral indulgence. Think of the pubs along the shore if you have seen any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. All kinds of deities were worshiped in Corinth including the cult of Aphrodite complete with ritualistic prostitution. But the city also had Jews. Worship in their synagogue, which included a dedication to one god and a pledge to lead a moral life, was in stark contrast to the decadence around them.
About this time an interesting couple arrived from Rome and made their way to the synagogue. They had lived in Rome for some years but the Jews, and any Christians—for the religions were indistinguishable to imperial Rome—were expelled by the emperor Caludius. The 1st century Roman historian Suetinius would write "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Caludius] expelled them from Rome.” It it certainly suggestive, this Chrestus, but we will not dig into that. This man and wife were probably Christian when they arrived in Corinth, but we have only circumstantial evidence.
The husband was named Aquila and the wife Prisca or Priscilla. Aquila was not a Roman by birth, but Priscilla was, and appears to have had higher status and was perhaps connected with a noble Roman family that shared her name. Their trade was leatherworking, or tentmaking.
A little later in the same year Paul, in the midst of what we now call his second missionary journey, arrived in Corinth. He too made his way to the synagogue. Soon Paul met this couple with the same profession. Their first mention in scripture is in Acts 18:2, where we read:
And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked (Acts 18:2-3)
The scripture is silent on whether or not Priscilla and Aquila were believers before they arrived. However, I agree with most commentators that they probably already were Christians. Paul, through the church historian Luke, especially early on, liked to discuss conversions. Just before in Acts 16 we read of the conversion of Lydia, whose heart, scripture tells us, was opened to pay attention to Paul’s teachings. (Another nice Calvinistic conversion.) Next was the Philippian jailer who asked: What must I do to be saved? Then some in Thessalonica, are, as described in Acts 17, were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas. Following that in Berea there was great success and scripture reports that many of them believed. Even in Athens were Paul was openly mocked we read that some men joined him and believed.
There is no mention of the conversion of Aquila and Priscilla. It is for that reason, a compelling argument from silence, that many think they were already converted.
If so, imagine how Paul must have felt blessed by the providence of God. Here he is establishing the outer boundaries for the spread of the gospel—no missionary had been sent father than Paul let alone to Rome—and he encounters a Christian couple from Rome who shared his profession.
How did they become Christians? Very likely because of the preaching at Pentecost in Acts 2. Among the foreign Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem at Pentecost the only place in Europe mentioned by name is Rome. At any rate, all roads lead to Rome and any new idea (good or bad) would arrive there in due time.
The couple receives six mentions in scripture. Listen to how Paul refers to them:
- And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (Acts 18:2)
- After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. (Acts 18:18)
- He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him (Acts 18:26)
- Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, (Romans 16:3)
- The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. (1 Cor 16:19)
- Greet Prisca and Aquila, (2 Tim 4:19)
Four of the six times Priscilla is mentioned first. This not insignificant. Palestine and its neighbors was a “man’s world” in the first century. (They still are.) That is not meant as a compliment. The New Testament does not portray the situation in 1st century Palestine as a corrupt people in a decent culture, but a corrupt people in a decadent culture.
The New Testament is, today, viewed by many as anti-women. But, in practical terms Jesus provided an incalculable advancement in women’s rights: he outlawed divorce. At that time divorce was easy—if you were a man. And it left the woman with no means of support. Clearly Jesus’ teaching was deeper than “we have to do this because women are left with no support” but that was a tangible practical benefit.
So back to Priscilla and Aquila. Read through the lens of the contemporary culture, Paul’s habit to place Priscilla first was unusual and spoke of the great esteem he must have held for her.
And that is what I want to talk about. Culture. We need to consider it when we read the bible. And all of you, I assert have to agree with me—and here’s why.
4 Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. (1 Cor 11:4-8)
I don’t see any head coverings out there. I am fairly certain that all of us agree that scripture is inspired and, at least in the original autographs, inerrant. There are only two reasons that I can fathom as to why I am not seeing any head coverings. One, we acknowledge that that is what scripture teaches but we willfully choose to ignore a plain command because it is inconvenient. May it never be. Two, we have concluded that the passage, while perhaps having some sort of application for us, was intended for the believers of that culture at that time. I think it is the second reason. Indeed in any study bible you can find in the comments speculation as to why, in that culture, it would be shameful for a married woman to be in worship her hair flowing. Today it is not shameful.
One approach, of course, is to take everything at face value. I try to live by one all-encompassing hermeneutical principle: the bible is supposed to be read intelligently. The simple approach, appealing as it may be, violates this principle. I don’t think that Paul taught that, for now and evermore, women should cover their heads in church. And that one deviation sets the precedent—now we are forced to go case by case. And when we do we’ll find that sometimes it is just plain difficult to read the bible intelligently.There is no guiding principle as to why one command should be deemed to be cultural and temporal, while another is universal and eternal. It is beyond me, that’s for sure.
The practical lesson, applicable for us is, I think, related to Christian liberty. All things permitted are not profitable. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Not that long ago it would have been scandalous for women to wear pants to church. At that time, though it was no sin, it would have been unwise to do so. Today you can wear just about anything to church—but even now we can imagine some manner of dress that would cause some to stumble.
But none of that is the point. More worms are coming out of this can than just that. For you see that what we have here is a precedent. We are either cafeteria Christians taking a verse that we like here and there, or we have agreed that cultural context must be considered when reading scripture. If not then our only choice is to conclude that it is never relevant. Some denominations do just that—and so the women wear head coverings. We don’t that, and yet proclaim biblical inspiration and inerrancy. Our only palatable position is that culture plays a role. And if it plays a role in this passage then we have to consider that in any passage of this type—passages that tell us how to conduct worship and the role of women in the church. This makes life very difficult.
The good news is that the good news, that is the gospel, carries no cultural baggage. It is a message that all agree is universal. That message, in four parts (all of them good) is:
- Because of original sin we are born with no ability to seek or please God.
- Although that sounds like bad news it is good news, because it means that we do not have to rely of some vestigial goodness to save ourselves—God has to do the work.
- It gets better, not only will it have to be God, he in fact chose to do so. A Trinitarian covenant was made before time: the Father would choose a people, the son would redeem them, and the Holy Spirit would sanctify them.
- The news gets even better, for not only we saved from wrath, which would be blessing enough, but death is concurred in the person of the risen Christ, and we have confidence that this same resurrection to eternal life will come to us.
There is nothing there that is cultural. But when discussing the role of women in the church we must, I believe consider the culture in which Paul wrote. If you disagree, you should be clamoring for head coverings.
If you are a visitor to this church I will tell you where we, as a church, have come to. Here we are, totally exposed: Our recently modified constitution states that the elders of the church should be men. The deacons of the church can be men or women—a change that caused a couple families to seek fellowship elsewhere. And finally we hold that the adult Sunday school teachers are to be men, often church elders. I would say that while anything is possible, that is likely to be the position of Grace Baptist Chapel for some time to come. I am not going to go into the scriptural justification for our position—our pastor spent the better part of a year laying the groundwork for our current stand. I can tell you that we arrived at this position with a good faith effort to follow scripture. I can also tell you we are flawed and sinful.
In terms of full disclosure I will you my view on this: I am comfortable that in toto I cannot find a more defensible position. If you ask me on a scale of 1-10 how confident would I be in defending this biblically. I would probably say a 7, but that is higher than any of the alternatives. As a contrast if you ask me how well I could defend the Reformed doctrine of election—I would say 11. So there we are.
Let me remind you of one of those difficult passages.
I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. (1 Tim 2:12)
This is very difficult. One thing I know for sure. A woman not teaching a man does not mean women can't teach men. They can and do, all the time. I once was in a church where an elder said something totally wrong in my opinion. He related that if he turned on the radio to a Christian station when they were airing a bible lesson or devotion taught by a woman (think Elisabeth Elliott) he would turn it off, because a woman should not teach a man. Nonsense.
Let us return to our friends Priscilla and Aquila to see how silly his position is.
24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. (Acts 18:24-26)
Apollos, by the way, was probably also a benefactor of that first sermon at Pentecost, for Egypt is also mentioned as the home of some of the pilgrims. But Apollos was not quite on script. His message was a little off. He needed gentle correction. So we are told: They took him aside, with top billing being given to Priscilla. This certainly sends the message that Priscilla was not a silent observer. You may disagree, but I think it is clear that Priscilla taught Apollos. The restriction about women not teaching men was not a blanket prohibition even in the man’s world of Paul’s day. As an aside, I love that they did not tell Apollos. They did not say: "you have not gone to seminary for four years, what makes you think you can preach!" They corrected him, and sent him on his way. I believe today we make it too hard for become a preacher. But that is a different subject.
I am a complimentarian. I absolutely agree that men and women have different roles in life and in the body. I am comfortable that our church has made a good faith attempt to deal with these anxiety-causing passages. For that reason I have far greater things to worry about when facing our Lord in judgment than whether or not in my participation I erred in this regard. But I will say the situation is not as trivial as plucking out these passages and insisting that they be accepted at face value as blanket pronouncements. Scripture is highly nuanced. It is full of case law. The same Jesus who tells us that we should pray in private in our closet himself prays in public (as does Paul, more than 20 times.). There are nuances. The bible must be read intelligently.
This lesson was supposed to be given on Mother’s day, but because of a scheduling snafu I am giving it today. But I’ll end with a prelude to Mother’s day. I want to remind everyone that the best advice in scripture comes from a mother. Not the best theological teaching—the very best practical advice.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, in John 2:5, speaking to the servants regarding Jesus has this advice: Do whatever he tells you.
Game, set, point, match. Let us pray.
20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 1:20-21)