Women at the growing edge



Along the Krenides River, where the Apostle Paul likely met Lydia, Ellen Kraybill tests the waters.

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.

Gender imbalance

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 *****************************************IMG_0425

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

Like the first syllable of shiitake

What would it take to make Saint Paul cussing mad? Fellow Jews or Christians maintaining barriers that kept others from full acceptance in the faith community, that would do it. Harsh language about such exclusion in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi makes me consider how easy it is to raise the bar in the church today for people whose background, culture, or life experience are different from mine.

Philippi toilet with copyright mark--small file

A Roman era public toilet at ancient Philippi still has two stone seats mounted above skubalon pits, and a trough for fresh water at the feet of users.

Recently I asked a Mennonite genealogist to enter my name into his database and see what emerged. A few days later he delivered an eighty-page notebook with charts and names of hundreds of my Mennonite Swiss and German ancestors. My biological forebears were among early European Anabaptists. It was my ancestor, Hans Reist, who had the dispute with Jakob Ammann in 1693 that led to formation of the Amish church. I am a descendant of Hans Herr, Mennonite patriarch of Pennsylvania whose 1719 house still stands as the oldest in Lancaster County.

Add to this Anabaptist family heritage the fact that I went to a Mennonite college, studied at three seminaries, hail from a long line of church leaders, and am ordained.

The apostle Paul would not be impressed. In his letter to Philippi, Paul rehearses his own religious credentials: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews . . . as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” All this status, of which Paul once was so proud, he now counts as “rubbish” (skubalon, Phil. 3:8).

Actually, Paul’s language is stronger than most modern translations allow. We should render skubalon in English like the first syllable of shiitake mushroom. Paul is frustrated enough to slip in a rude word that appears nowhere else in the Bible and only rarely in ancient literature. He is angry at himself and others whose legalistic or genealogical boundaries exclude Gentiles or make them feel like second-class members of the body of Christ.

Skubalon comes to mind when I find a Roman era public toilet among ruins at ancient Philippi. Relieving oneself apparently was a social occasion in the Roman world: eight or ten stone toilet seats, placed close to one another above skubalon pits, once lined walls of the small room. To clean themselves, users dipped a stick with sponge attached into a little trough flowing with fresh water at their feet.

Skubalon also comes to mind when I find monuments to spiritual pride or legalistic boundaries in my heart or in my church.  Let it be said that I do not look or act like the average Mennonite or average Christian on this planet. Today the median Mennonite in the world is a black African woman, and that is representative of the global Christian church. That reminds me to receive and welcome people into my local congregation who come from the global south or from cultural, educational, or linguistic background different from my own. What binds us together is sins forgiven through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and lives transformed by the power of the Spirit.

As a historian, I find family history fascinating and instructive. I am grateful for education I received. But if I ever start to confuse all of this with status in the church, it is time to review Paul’s words about all the entries in his religous résumé: “I regard them as skubala, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).


© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine on 8-19 September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope