Rethinking Gender Roles in the Church_Companion_4

Last week we went over the topic of deacons and learned that both men and women acted in this capacity. We looked at Phoebe who was a deaconess and a patron. We read about how Paul referred to himself as a deacon/servant and other men who filled the role. Today we are going to look at 4 women who acted as hosts in the New Testament. Remember that this is a basic bible study and we are not covering every example and we have covered some hosts already that we won’t cover here. Today we are going to look at Mark’s mother Mary, Lydia, and Nympha.

Let’s start with John Mark’s mother Mary. The number of Mary’s in Ancient Jewish communities was staggering. Imagine something like 45% of a community being named Mary and you start to see why the Bible has so many of them. We hear about Mary in Acts 12:12. Mary uses her home to host fellow believers, so Peter goes to her house after escaping prison. She is very wealthy; her house is large enough that it requires a gate. Mary is also likely a widow because there is no mention of her husband.

Women had the most authority in the domestic sphere. She had authority as a mother, a slave owner, the ruler of the household, and the master of the house. The Christian assembly met together in the domestic sphere so we should expect women to have a strong role and presence in the assembly.

The household codes we read in Ephesians 5:21-6:9 (and Colossians 3:18-24) reflect the social hierarchy of the times. It is divided into three parts: Husband-Wife, Parents-Children, Master-Slaves. While the social hierarchy of the time subordinated wives to their husbands, the other two categories are not male focused. In the parent-child and master-slave hierarchies, women could be the authority. A child is expected to obey to their mother, even if a son becomes his mother’s guardian. A woman slave owner had authority over all slaves and servants including males. The male slaves would not have authority over their female masters because they became Christians. If male slaves were able to circumvent their female masters by becoming Christians it would have threatened civic customs because family values were viewed as critical to the state. Paul did not teach that male slaves held authority over their female masters, and it would have been unsustainable in the culture. Instead, Paul encourages male and female slaves to be obedient, and masters are to be good to their slaves.

[It is important to say, since we have just talked about the issue of masters and slaves, that Paul is in favor of slaves being given their freedom. Paul is not supporting the master-slave relationship but rather dealing with what is in front of him. The Slavery machine was a massive world-wide industry and part of the economic structure. Threatening that structure meant a swift reaction by the state. Manumission was a process of freeing slaves but Freedmen continued to be obligated to their masters. In addition, slaves that ran away risked dying from exposure. Slavery is an abhorrent and disgusting part of the world Paul lives in, but being powerless to change this system at a state level Paul works to build new relationships between master and slave and points them toward manumission. When Paul writes to Philemon, in v.21 he says, “I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Paul is implicitly asking Philemon to free Onesimus.]

In 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul writes “So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” The word “manage” is misleading because it doesn’t convey the idea of authority a woman had over her house. The more literal translation would be “rule their households.” Bringing worship, education, communication, social services, evangelism, and mission into this space would require the participation of these women who had this type of authority over their households.

Beyond the household we should also imagine women working in the market place, selling goods, alongside their male counterparts. Lydia in Acts 16:14 is a rich business woman who sells purple cloth. This would be often worn by royalty. Lydia’s position as business woman would help the church both in the public realm and in the home. We see the impact of women in the community, from a negative light, in Acts 13:50.

“But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.”

While some women were involved in stirring people up against Paul, we also read that more than a few high standing women believed in Paul.

Acts 17:12 “Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”

We should expect that these women who believed had just as much impact in their communities for the sake of the gospel as those who persecuted Paul. Lydia was not just a wealthy woman but also a host to Paul. Paul and his companions stayed in her home and a church was started there. From what we have learned about the role of women in their own homes, it would be strange to imagine that Lydia did not act as a leader of the congregation in her home. Since it was her belief that was the beginning of the church there, it is reasonable to imagine she acted as a spiritual leader alongside her patronage.

Nympha is yet another example of a woman who hosted worship in her home. We hear about her in Colossians 4:15. The fact that Paul specifically mentions Nympha is a sign that he held her in high regard. This is similar to how Paul references Priscilla’s name before that of her husband. Mary, Lydia, Nympha, are all people Paul respected in the church. 

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