Among recent immigrants at the church where I worship in Indiana, it is women who come to faith first. Women then invite husbands and relatives, providing energy for outreach. Throughout church history, women often have led the way in growth and change.
The first Christian in Europe whose name we know was Lydia, who received the gospel as Paul traveled through Philippi. Women such as Lydia in the New Testament sometimes serve as hosts (and pastors?) of house churches. These include Mary the mother of John Mark at Jerusalem (Acts 12:12), Chloe at Corinth (2 Cor. 1:11), and Phoebe at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1). Nympha hosts a congregation at Colossae (Col. 4:15), and Priscilla with her husband Aquila shepherd a church in their home at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19).
The Greco-Roman world in which the early church grew was patriarchal. Women were second-class, usually under the guardianship of a father or husband. But widows could function as heads of household. This may have been the situation of Lydia, immigrant entrepreneur at Philippi, who marketed purple cloth.
Purple dye was expensive because a mere pound had to be extracted from thousands of snails. Being costly, purple was the color of royalty and elites. Lydia traded in this luxury product, suggesting she was similar to other Gentile “women of high standing” (Acts 17:12) who embraced the gospel.
The early church appears to have been disproportionately female, partly because of two factors: 1) In Christ, gender distinctions dissolve so there is “no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28), meaning woman often had more status in the church than in Roman society, and 2) Christians rejected the Roman practice of leaving unwanted newborns (most often female) abandoned to die. Christians nurtured their infant daughters, and also rescued infant girls who had been abandoned by others.
Lydia survived into adulthood, but was drawn to faith community at the edge of society. The book of Acts says Paul met Lydia along with other women at a Jewish “place of prayer” by the river outside Philippi (Acts 16:13). A Roman colony such as Philippi was not going to have a Jewish place of prayer within its boundaries. The likely spot where the women met to pray now is a shaded bend in the Krenides River near ruins of Philippi.
Lydia was a “God-worshiper,” meaning a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel but did not practice the whole of Jewish Law. She was an immigrant, culturally in transition.
The church today can profit from making entry ramps for similar newcomers and God-seekers who are drawn to the hospitality and Good News of the faith community. Often women will be the leading edge of new family systems or ethnic groups coming into the church. The Holy Spirit will open their hearts and ours to Christ, just as happened when Paul shared the good news with Lydia.
© 2017 J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************
Come with my wife Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour accessible to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details are still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route, and more. Interested? Please be in touch with me and/or see www.TourMagination.com
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Nelson, I remember sitting by that river on my first visit to Greece nearly 20 years ago. It marked for me the place of strong women in the church.