Was Lydia a Leader of the Church in Philippi?
This article attempts to answer the question, was Lydia a leader of the first-century church in Philippi? The paper combines insights from the disciplines of organizational leadership, ancient cultural studies, and biblical theology. Acts, chapter 16 tells Lydia’s story. Following her baptism, she opened her household to Paul, his co-workers, and the new Christian congregation. The research literature supports the idea that Lydia acted as a benefactress of the church in line with the Roman model of patronage. In the first-century Roman culture, female patrons were active and influential in the community’s public life. As part of the new order that belongs to the new creation, Lydia was not subject to the same restrictions on women’s leadership that were customary in the synagogue. The role of women in the ministry of Jesus models this new situation. As domina (the female form of the Latin word for master or owner) of her household and patron of the house church, she functioned as a congregational leader.
This paper asks a simple question, was Lydia a leader of the church in Philippi? The answer is far from simple. While this article is narrow in scope, the hope is that it will serve the broader debate about women in church leadership. There is no attempt to explore every passage relevant to gender distinctions (if any) in the church. Instead, this paper aims to demonstrate that Lydia had a leadership function in the church that met in her home. Torjesen (1993) concludes that Lydia was the primary leader of the church.
Is there sufficient evidence to make this claim?
This paper assembles insights from several sources, such as ancient Roman culture practices, an examination of relevant biblical texts, theological reflection, and organizational leadership theory. When evidence from these diverse sources is combined, it may be reasonable to conclude that Lydia was a church leader.
Today, many women experience gender discrimination in church settings. It is a disheartening and unjust situation when women feel like second-class citizens in the Christian community (Strickland, 2011; Rudd, 2018). God created men and women in his image and with equal worth and dignity (Kilner, 2015). Irrespective of one’s position on women leading in churches, there is every reason to respect and support women who contribute their gifts, skills, and wisdom to advance God’s mission.
This paper consists of four sections: 1) Lydia’s Story from Acts, chapter 16; 2) Women in the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth; 3) Lydia and Roman Patronage; and 4) Insights from Organizational Leadership Theory.
Women in the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth
Jesus Valued Women as Persons
Women were among the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus treated women with warmth and respect as persons equal to men in their worth and intelligence (Spencer, 2005). Jesus did not follow traditional Jewish customs concerning women (Grenz & Kjesbo, 1995). He welcomed, spoke to, taught, touched, valued, and befriended women because Scripture, not custom, informed Jesus. He viewed women as “persons” (p. 73) and “did not perpetuate the widely held attitudes that favored men at the expense of women” (p. 74).
Jesus Included Women in His Ministry
At the time of Jesus, women in Jewish society were limited mainly to domestic duties and did not study Torah or take an active role in the synagogue (Spencer, 2005). Jesus broke with convention and offered religious instruction to women (Witherington, 1987) including Mary of Bethany who, according to Luke 10:39, sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his word, which indicates that she “had joined the road of discipleship” (Green, 1997, p. 435).
Jesus included many women in his itinerant preaching ministry (Luke 8:3). They were taught, trained in ministry, and sent out to preach the Kingdom (Spencer, 2005). After the resurrection, while the eleven remaining apostles were in hiding, it was the female disciples that Jesus sent to announce the good news (Matthew 28:7-10; John 20:17). Such a commission defied Jewish convention that viewed women as unreliable and invalid witnesses in courts and legal matters (Spencer, 2005). Yet Jesus entrusted them with the most crucial testimony of all: “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18, NIV).
Jesus Commissioned Women as Good News Preachers
After he rose from the dead, Jesus spent forty days instructing his disciples about God’s kingdom (Acts 1: 3). Then, he ascended into heaven, and ten days later, he poured out his Spirit on his followers (Acts 2:1-4). While verse 17 indicates that it was God who poured out his Spirit, verse 33 provides more specificity: “Exalted to the right hand of God, he (Jesus, see verse 32) has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33). The New Covenant Pentecostal outpouring was part of the ministry of Jesus, and once again, he included women disciples in its benefits and empowerment.
Jesus Poured Out His Spirit on Women
A group of 120 believers, which included both men and women disciples (Acts 1:15), was waiting to receive power to become Jesus’ witnesses (Acts 1:8).
Subsequently, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they all began to proclaim the wonders of God (Acts 2:1, 4, 12). The apostle Peter interpreted the event through the lens of Joel 2:28-32. The passage predicts the outpouring of the Spirit on both men and women (Acts 2:17-18).
The Spirit of Jesus empowers both men and women disciples of Jesus to speak as God’s representatives (Wright, 2005); that is, to prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams. Under the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit possesses all of God’s people, including women (Green, 2009) and, “Consequently, the Spirit is now at work freely in the church endowing whomever he chooses – both male and female – with whatever gifts he wills” (Grenz, 2005, p. 285).
Gifting Not Gender Matters in New Covenant Ministry
Stott (1990) observes that there are no “social distinctions” (p. 74), such as gender, age, or status (cf. Galatians 3:28), to restrict those who can receive the Spirit; he is for all who follow of Jesus. Fee (2005b) asserts that the Spirit does not ever make “gender a prior requirement for certain kinds of gifting” (p. 241). The Holy Spirit, in Fee’s view, is “gender-inclusive” (p. 254) and should not be subjected to artificial limitations on his ministry in the church. In the new creation in Christ, there is a new order in which all humans are one (Galatians 3:28) and “the value-based distinctions between people – ethnicity and status – no longer maintain” (Fee, 2005a, p. 178-9). Franklin (2008) agrees and notes that old structures no longer apply in the church; what matters are the Spirit’s gifts and calling.
Witherington (1991) concludes his study with a list of roles filled by women in the early church: “teaching, preaching, prophesying, providing material support, hostessing church functions, etc.” (p. 219). In other words, “women in the NT era already performed the tasks normally associated with ordained clergy in later eras” (p. 220).
Jesus set the trend by including women in his teaching and ministry teams. The Holy Spirit levels the playing field by empowering women for ministry. In the New Covenant era, gifting, not gender, determines one’s role in the church. What obstacles would have prevented Lydia from leading the church in her house?
The Roman Colony of Philippi
Lydia was the first convert to the Christian faith in the colonial Roman city of Philippi (Acts 16:11-15), located in the district of Macedonia. In that Roman administrative region, Thessalonica was larger, and Amphipolis was the capital; nevertheless, Philippi is described as a leading or principal city (Bock, 2007), perhaps because it was considered a crossroads between Europe and Asia (Calpino, 2012).
Philippi was administered according to the laws and constitution of the city of Rome (Bruce, 1980) and enjoyed the highest status a provincial town could have (Bock, 2007). All in all, it would have felt very Roman. The city’s religious life followed the imperial cult and was a center for the worship of a variety of gods.
The Jewish Place of Prayer in Philippi
Paul’s missionary strategy included visiting local synagogues (cf., Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1), but there was no synagogue in Philippi, perhaps due to a lack of Jewish men there (Bruce, 1980). However, there was an informal place of prayer (Gk. proseuchen, sometimes means a synagogue, but not in this case, Bruce, 1980) attended, it seems, exclusively by women (Acts 16:13). Among the worshippers was Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.
Lydia, A Woman of Status
Lydia was from the city of Thyatira, located in Asia Minor in the region known as Lydia (Peterson, 2009). It was known for its “purple dye and textiles” (p. 460). Possibly Lydia sold cloth to wealthy clients in Philippi, and she should be considered a woman of status (Bock, 2007). Inscriptional evidence recovered from Philippi demonstrates that women undertook many leadership roles, such as offices in various religions (Calpino, 2012). They also paid for public works, such as statues on which they inscribed their names and status.
In the first-century Roman world, women owned and managed businesses, both large and small (Calpino, 2012). Mowczko (2018) notes that members of the senatorial (aristocratic) class were independently wealthy and did not engage in business, but members of the wealthy equestrian class did run businesses. Lydia sold a luxury item that would have required access to significant capital investment, which means she belonged to the equestrian class’s provincial equivalent, or she was “a relatively wealthy commoner” (p. 4). Lydia was very likely an independent business owner since women occupied “a prominent place in Macedonian life” (Fee, 1995, p. 27).
The Conversion of Lydia
When Paul first met Lydia, she was a “worshipper of God” or a God-fearer (Acts 16:14). Her Greek background would suggest that Lydia was a former polytheist. Now,
she was “believing and behaving as a Jew without having become one” (Stott, 1990, p. 263). When Paul spoke, the Lord worked through his message to open her heart to believe in Jesus (Acts 16:14). Stott remarks that “the message was Paul’s, the saving initiative was God’s (p. 263). Acts 16:15 mentions her conversion to the Christian faith. There, she claims to be a true believer in the Lord, and she and her household were baptized. She then persuades Paul and his companions to stay at her home. Paul and his entourage remain based at Lydia’s house for the duration of their ministry in Philippi. The infant church also gathers there (Acts 16:40).
Lydia’s Home and Household
Details about Lydia’s marital status and home life are scarce (Barnes, 1995). We do not know if she was married, single, divorced, or widowed. However, it is possible to glean some helpful insights from the biblical text. Notably, the author of Acts does not associate Lydia with a man. In ancient Roman culture, women were known through their men (Barnes, 1995). Luke may be communicating “that the God of the Gospel is not interested in traditional social barriers of this world, particularly those associated with the pivotal value, honor/shame” (p. 181).
In Acts 16:15, the word translated household and home is the same Greek term, oikos. It does not refer to a building but an extended family under Lydia’s leadership and care. Spouses, children, household servants/slaves, laborers, even business associates, and tenants were considered members of an ancient Roman household (Towner, 1993). The house was held together through a bond based on “common economic, social, psychological, and religious factors” (p. 417). Belonging to the household gave its members “a sense of security and identity” (p. 417). Lydia’s offer to accommodate and support Paul and his companions within her household, “suggests she owned a villa” (Fee, 1995, p. 26).
The head of the household had authority over its members and a duty to care for them. Lydia may have been the head (Latin, domina) of her house either because she was a widower, divorcee, or a single woman of means (Peterson, 2009). She demonstrates her authority by leading its members in Christian baptism, offering hospitality to Paul and his ministry team in her home, and making her home available as their base of operations and as a gathering place for the church (Calpino, 2012). In this way, Paul and his team, as well as the church, came under her protection (p. 285).
Lydia was likely an independent woman, the head of her household, and the owner of a business requiring significant capital. How, then, would these qualities have translated into the Christian community in Philippi? Osiek (2009) suggests that women took part in all the ministries of the house church. Is this likely? The answer may lie in the customs and practices of first-century Roman society.
Lydia and Roman Patronage
We move now to an examination of the Roman model of patronage and its relevance to our study of Lydia.
Lydia and Luke’s Agenda in Acts
In Acts, Luke shows that the gospel message was given and received by men and women. He has an “interest in showing the advantages to various underprivileged groups in embracing Christianity” (Witherington, 1988, p. 149). Women were of equal importance in the church in contrast to their situation in the synagogue. In Jewish circles, Lydia, as a woman, would have played only a peripheral role, but in the new Christian community, she played a prominent role as, Witherington points out, the mother or benefactress of the church in her home, providing not only hospitality but a center for Christian growth and gospel dissemination.
How Patronage Worked
Patronage appeared in Greco-Roman society as “networks of favor and loyalty” (DeSilva, 2000a, p. 767). Such quid pro quo relationships could exist between either social equals or social unequals. Patronage in the first-century Roman context “was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection or opportunities for employment and advancement” (2000b, p. 96). In a society where an elite few held property, wealth, and power, access to benefits unavailable in the public markets came from wealthy patrons. In return, they received their client’s loyalty, political support, enhanced prestige, and promotion of their “reputation and powerbase” (2000b, p. 99). Patronage was a voluntary relationship that existed over time and formed what was often called friendships (Westbrook, 2005).
Paul and Patronage
There can be little doubt that Paul was familiar with the patronage system and its workings; for example, Westbrooke (2005) notes that in Philemon 17, Paul used language borrowed from the practice of Roman patronage. Paul was the broker between Philemon and Onesimus, a relationship in which Philemon was the patron.
Paul begs a favor on behalf of the runaway slave. Paul may also have been familiar with ancient Near Eastern patronage practices through his studies on the Old Testament.
For example, Westbrook suggests a client-patron arrangement between the prophet Elijah and a widow (1 Kings 17:8-24). In return for shelter, Elijah intervened with God on her behalf. However, Westbrook concludes that there is minimal evidence of the Roman model in the ancient Near East.
Lydia and Patronage in Philippi
Is it possible that Lydia acted as Paul’s patron in Philippi? Women could indeed play prominent roles in Roman society (Grenz & Kjesbo, 1995). Inscriptions recovered from Philippi and other Roman cities suggest that women of various social classes held civic offices, accumulated wealth, and owned or managed business. They owned merchant ships and import/export businesses and led religious cults. Women also paid for the construction of public works such as statues, buildings, and marketplaces (Calpino, 2012). Women in Philippi were active in civic life, including constructing temples, commanding armies, and acting as regents (Mowczko, 2018).
Roman women also served as patrons of various private and public causes. Calpino (2012) describes a Greek woman called Junia Theodora. She was a citizen of Corinth and Rome and was honored for her “commercial and political patronage” (p. 177). Junia provided hospitality to ambassadors. She also lobbied for her clients, both individuals, and cities. Junia brings to mind Lydia’s apparent patronage of the infant church in Philippi. By hosting Paul and his ministry team as well as the meetings of the congregation (Acts 16:40), she lent them her “wealth, clout, and protection (Mowczko, 2018, p, 4). Whereas the formation of a Jewish synagogue required ten men, a new Christian community “could begin with a woman convert” (Grenz & Kjesbo, 1995, p. 78).
Fee (1995) believes that Paul and his team accepted patronage from Lydia. This partnership in the gospel (Philippians 1:5; 4:14-19) allowed Paul to focus on his ministry of evangelization without having to support himself, as he did in other cities, such as Thessalonica (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10). Belleville (2005) identifies Lydia as patron of the church in Philippi and as an overseer of the congregation. Lydia did far more than serving coffee to her guests or provide cash to cover expenses. “Homeowners in Greco- Roman times were in charge of all groups that met under their roof” (p. 38). Fee (2005a) agrees when he writes, “So when the householder was a woman (e.g., Lydia, Nympha), we may rightly assume that, as in all other matters in her own household, she gave some measure of leadership to her house church” (p. 184). Torjesen (1993) views Lydia as a primary leader in the house church meeting in her villa.
In all probability, Lydia was the patron of the church in Philippi. Paul became her client when he agreed to stay in her home. Does Lydia’s prominent function or leadership role in the church go against the grain of first-century Christian practice? Luke was eager to illustrate ways in which women advanced the Christian mission and Jesus of Nazareth promoted the leadership roles of women in his ministry teams.
Insights from Organizational Leadership Theory
The Church Leadership Conundrum
The church, by any definition, is an organization requiring leadership (Yukl, 2013). However, there is little consensus about what, exactly, church leadership is. The puzzle is illustrated by the widely divergent models of church government in practice today. Grudem (1994) lists several models before remarking that “church history attests that several different forms of government have worked fairly well for several centuries” (p. 904). Culver ((2005) is equally non-committal, observing that, “No statement anywhere in the New Testament provides specific instructions on how the church local should be organized and governed” (p. 923). Jesus, Culver notes, provided no organizational chart nor any list of church officers. Fee (2005b) suggests a lack of information about the organization of the early churches, writing that the New Testament demonstrates “a general lack of concern” (p. 242) for its structures, including offices. Biblical evidence supports almost any form of church government practiced today.
A Definition of Leadership
Such ambiguity makes it difficult to decide if Lydia was a leader of the church in Philippi. Did she have a formal title? At what stage did Paul establish overseers and deacons in Philippi, in a congregation full of brand-new Christians (Philippians 1:1)? Did Paul’s leadership preclude Lydia’s in every way, or were some leadership functions still available to her? Was Paul willing to work against the grain of Macedonian culture?
Since the biblical text does not provide direct answers to these questions, it might be helpful to propose a definition of leadership and compare it with Lydia’s activities. Yukl (2013) surveys leadership definitions before offering his own:
Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives (p. 9).
The definition offered by Northouse (2019) is similar but simpler: “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (p. 5). As the domina of her household and thus of the Christian gathering in her home, Lydia undoubtedly wielded the kind of influence mentioned in both of those definitions. One way or another, she functioned as a leader.
Leaders Without Titles
In Acts chapter 16, Lydia does not receive a formal leadership title or office; for example, apostle, or prophet, or teacher, or overseer, or deacon. However, we do not know what happened after the formative events described there. She was indeed a novice Christian, newly converted and baptized; yet, no one in Philippi, excepting Paul and his companions, had been a Jesus-follower for longer than Lydia. Did Paul and his companions take on all the leadership functions, or did they share them with locals?
Philippians is addressed to the church “together with its overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1, NIV). Fee (1995) notes that the overseer was a primary leader responsible for the general care of the congregation while the deacon was active in “deeds of service” (p. 69). Fee notes that the titles refer to functions and not offices. Would Lydia have been counted among the overseers or deacons? We cannot tell from Philippians or Acts, chapter 16. Fee suggests that Euodia and Syntyche were members of Lydia’s household and “most likely to be reckoned among these leaders” (p. 69).
Influencers do not require formal titles to lead in organizations (Sampson, 2011). Lack of official authority (such as title or rank) does not preclude informal leaders from leading. Yukl (2013) discusses seven kinds of power in an organization and identifies them as either “position or personal” power (p. 209). A leader may lack position power but have significant personal influence over others within the organization. Sources of personal authority include “influence based on friendship and loyalty” (p. 209). Factors such as communicating an inspiring vision, personal integrity, and a bias toward action give people influence in an organization (Kouzes & Posner, p. 2017). Scroggins (2017) neatly summarizes the concept of personal power: “Leaders lead with the authority of leadership . . . or without it. The authority is largely irrelevant—if you are a leader, you will lead when you are needed” (p. 26). It is almost certain that Lydia was the kind of person (independent, wealthy, business owner, competent) who influenced others whether or not she held formal title, position, or authority.
Framing the Church
Another possible way to understand Lydia’s role within the congregation is to examine the church in Philippi through a variety of lenses. These provide diverse perspectives or frames (Bolman & Deal, 2017). One’s frame will influence one’s understanding of church structure (Callahan, 2002), and thus one’s answer to the Lydia question.
Bolman & Deal (2017) propose four frames or perspectives through which to examine or understand organizations. Frames force us to see the same things from different angles, ask new questions, and arrive at new answers or solutions to organizational challenges. The four frames are as follows:
The structural frame emphasizes “organizational architecture” (Bolman & Deal, 2017, p. 17), including planning, hierarchies, roles, and metrics. This perspective places a heavy emphasis on rules, policies, and procedures. Viewed through the structural lens, an organization is metaphorically a factory or machine.
The human resources frame views an organization as an “extended family” (Bolman & Deal, 2017, p. 17). The emphasis is on matching the needs of employees with the needs of the organization. The goal is a psychologically healthy workforce achieved by providing employees with adequate pay, benefits, support, education, and resources, and empowerment.
The political frame recognizes that organizations are complex networks of relationships characterized by power, conflict, negotiation, and coalitions. The organization is like a “jungle” (Bolman & Deal, 2017, p. 20).
The symbolic frame views organizations as “temples, tribes, theaters, or carnivals” (Bolman & Deal, 2017, p. 18). Culture, symbols, ceremonies, and stories play critical roles in organizational life and success.
Each frame or perspective contributes something to the picture of Lydia’s involvement in the church. No doubt, there was a formal structure in Lydia’s household with roles defined by custom and Lydia’s leadership. Did she transfer her household policies and routines to the house church? Politically, did Paul assert his apostolic authority over Lydia’s household authority, or did they work together as a team, each contributing in distinct ways, for example, Paul by his teaching and Lydia by her management? Symbolically, did Lydia’s founder-story of being the first convert to Christ in Philippi give her extra influence in the congregation?
The human resources perspective leads one to ask, how would Lydia have contributed most effectively to the congregation? How would she have offered her gifts, background, experiences, skills, passions, and energy to advance Paul’s mission in Philippi? Lydia had formal authority over her household, and members of the home were members of the church. She had presumably shared the good news about Jesus with her household and subsequently prepared them for Christian baptism (Acts 16:15). Lydia was a business owner with connections among the wealthy classes in the city, and she was Paul’s benefactress.
Healthy organizations find ways to unleash their human capital (Bolman & Deal, 2017). They empower people by encouraging autonomy, influence, and participation so that, “The organization benefits from a talented, motivated, loyal, and free-spirited workforce” (p. 138). Bolman & Deal note that healthy organizations involve as many as possible in decision-making. Surely Lydia would have been motivated to contribute her full range of abilities to the church and the Christian mission. Would Paul have stood in her way?
There is little evidence in Acts, chapter 16 to come to a firm conclusion on Lydia’s leadership role in the fledgling church. From the perspective of the human resources frame, it is difficult to imagine that Lydia was anything but a leader in the church. She certainly had the influence and, given Fee’s (2005a) observations about gifting over gender, it seems probable that there were no structural limitations to her influence among the church members
Admittedly, there is a lack of detailed information about Lydia and her role in the Philippian congregation. However, there are strands of evidence drawn from the ministry of Jesus, the evangelist Luke’s agenda, Acts, chapter 16, the letter to the Philippians, ancient Roman history, and organizational leadership theory that, when combined, raise the strong possibility that Lydia was a leader in the church. The fact that she was a woman would not have impeded her role, provided the Holy Spirit had gifted her to lead in some way.
The Philippian congregation may well have functioned as a family, and Lydia led her extended family household. As a prominent, wealthy, independent businesswoman, she had the acumen and skills to lead. Lydia had not spent her life hidden at home as custom required some first-century women to do. Instead, she spent her time in the marketplace, connecting with wealthy clients, negotiating, overseeing employees, and leading her business. She a proven leader, and it would have been wasteful not to unleash her in the church’s mission.
About the Author
Peter Foxwell serves as the lead pastor of the Cornerstone Church of Clyde, MI (www.FamousGod.com). He is also a student in the Doctor of Education in Christian Leadership program at Liberty University.
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