Last week we looked at the first and only named deacon in the New Testament. She happened to be a woman named Phoebe. We continue today with an examination of Romans 16:3-5. Most of chapter 16 consists of Paul sending greetings to people that he knows in Rome. The next woman we meet is Prisca/Priscilla who is married to Aquila (Today's picture is of a couple from Pompeii. I imagine this is similar to how Priscilla and Aquila may have looked).
This couple is one of the most prominent in the early church. We first encounter them in Acts 18:2 when Paul meets them in Corinth and we are told that they had recently fled Rome following the Emperor Claudius’ decree exiling all Jews from the city of Rome. The three spent time making tents together. Later, when they met Apollos in Ephesus, this couple worked together teaching and “explaining the Way of God more accurately” to him (Acts 18:24-26).
The fact that Paul greets them here indicates to us that they have returned to Rome after the death of Claudius and the ascension of Nero. It seems significant that Paul lists the wife before the husband. In fact, with two exceptions (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor 16.19), Paul and the author of Acts consistently list Prisca/Priscilla first. In a society controlled and dominated by males, this is an unusual practice. There are two possible explanations. First, perhaps Prisca was from a higher social class than Aquila and therefore given more respect. Another possible explanation is that Priscilla played a more prominent role in the church than her husband. While it is impossible to say for sure, the evidence leads me to think that the order of Paul’s list has to do with Prisca’s activity in the church rather than financial worth.
While the order of their names may give us hints about Prisca’s activity, Paul refers to both partners of this husband and wife team as “fellow workers.” This label places them into a select group of people which includes Urbanus, Timothy (Rom 16.3, 9, 21; 1 Thess 3.2), Apollos (1 Cor 3.9), Silvanus (2 Cor 1.24), Titus (2 Cor 8.23), Epaphroditus (Phil 2.25), Eudoia, Syntyche, and Clement (Phil 4.3), Aristrachus, Mark, and Jesus Justus (Col 4.11) and Demas and Luke (Phm 24; see also Col 4.11). The fact that Paul qualifies this label as “fellow workers in the Lord” stipulates that they were partners with him in ministry and not just tent making.
In 16:4 Paul recounts an apparently well known event in his life when this couple risked their necks for him. We are not told exactly what they did but it may have included using their wealth to help him or even helping him to escape the angry crowd in Ephesus. Whatever the event it is apparent that the apostle holds this couple in high esteem for what they did for him, with a particular appreciation for Prisca as evidenced by naming her first.
Lastly, the high esteem in which Paul holds this couple is evident by the fact that not only are they listed first in the greetings section, but it is only here in this list that he “offers thanks” and that they receive so much more press than anyone else that follows in the list of greetings. These people are truly close to the apostle’s heart.
There is much we can learn from this couple. I cannot think of another instance in the New Testament of a husband and wife ministering together, although I am sure that there were many. But if my reading of these verses is correct, it seems that the wife had more responsibility and reputation in the ministry than the husband. This cuts across the grain of how we often view husband and wife ministry teams. Quite often the man is viewed as the lead minister with the dutiful helpful wife assisting him. But in the case of Prisca and Aquilla, the opposite seems to be true. We can use this passage to help us in two ways. First, we can recognize that both women and men can minster together and that husband and wife teams can be a natural outgrowth of their relationship. Rather than the husband preaching while the wife organizes the nursery schedule, they can both play an equal role. Now I am not saying that preaching is more important than the nursery. But the truth is we often make it that way in our minds. What if the man ran the nursery and the woman preached? My point is this, our view of ministry has often been influenced by the way we define and perceive gender roles. The fact that women have babies rather than men might mean that the wife wants to run the nursery and is better at it. But we should not allow that to pigeonhole us into ministries that are defined by our gender. We are all much better-off when we minister according to our gifting rather than what society, or even church, has told us.