Signs and Wonders! — Week Five
If you have been following my preaching notes for this series through the season of Eastertide, you will remember a couple of weeks ago the subject of the lesson was the conversion of Tabitha. In those notes, I referred to the work of Barbara Thurston in her eye-opening book, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998). Here, as we deal with the story of another amazing female pioneer in the faith, Lydia, I will once again turn to Thurston’s work as the primary source for my notes on this text.
Thurston observes that in several ways the story of Tabitha in the ministry of Peter parallels the story of Lydia in the ministry of Paul. She also notes that this story marks the beginning of Paul’s ministry on the European continent, as he makes his way across the peninsula into Macedonia and into Eastern Europe. As a colony of Rome, Philippi is a place of special rights and privileges. One of those special rights and privileges appears to be that women are allowed to participate in the culture with more freedom than in places previously visited by Paul. In this instance, women seem to have special rights and privileges in the synagogue. Thurston states that the word translated as “place of prayer” (verse 13) is a word that, when used in other places in Scripture, usually refers to synagogues. Since the synagogue was usually the initial point of contact for a visiting minister, it makes sense that Paul would have gone there first. Presuming Thurston is correct about all of this, then it would appear that in this synagogue in Philippi, women were allowed to gather for prayer without men present. And in fact, when Paul and his colleagues were invited to sit and speak with them, they were invited to sit in the rabbinic position for the purpose of teaching this group of women who had gathered for worship in this synagogue. Among these women was a woman by the name of Lydia.
Lydia was obviously a person of importance in the community. She was a professional woman, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God; that is, a Gentile woman who had accepted Jewish teaching. She was not technically Jewish by ancestry, but she had become conversant in the Jewish faith. And finally, she was the head of her own household, which would have been very unusual in this place and time. She was also clearly a risk-taker, in that she invited Paul to come to her home without concern for what effects it might have on her reputation or her business.
The story goes that after hearing what Paul had to teach, her heart was opened to receive Christ, and she and her entire household were baptized. So this means that Paul’s very first missionary church on European soil was started entirely within the context of women. This is pretty amazing to think about. As Thurston puts it, “Paul’s first European congregation is made up of women. In Gentile Macedonia, there were apparently not ten Jewish men to make up a synagogue congregation; but faithful women met to worship nonetheless, were receptive to Paul’s preaching, and, according to Acts, became the first European converts. Lydia’s home became the meeting place for these new Christians (verses 15 and 40). One wonders if Paul’s letter to the Philippians was addressed to her home. In that letter, as we saw, there was little hint of limitation on women in the Christian community” (Thurston, 124).
How can reading this story in this light be a source of signs and wonders for our congregations, especially the women in them? How can it speak a word of clarity in a world that continues to marginalize and oppress women and limit their participation in leadership roles across the globe? In the United States, among Methodists, we may think that because our denomination has been ordaining women for more than fifty years that this issue is resolved; but as a woman who has been in professional ordained ministry for nineteen years, I can tell you from personal experience that it has not. How might it change our views about women if we were to understand that there were likely women among Jesus’ first disciples, that some of the earliest Christian communities were supported, housed, and led by women, and that it was only after Christians started being threatened for their radical behavior that included allowing women to teach and lead that the early church began to greatly limit the activities and roles of women in the church?