As an egalitarian society we like to assert that we have no pecking orders, but none of us believe it. We know that in any community or context, there are pecking orders. There are people with power and influence, and those with less or without.
As we grow up we become highly adept at reading the most subtle clues and signals out our perceived value and status in a community. Very small signals such as attention, eye contact, seating arrangements, communicate status to ourselves and others. It is interesting that Jesus too was very conscious about issues of status and dealt with them regularly in his teaching. One of his most direct teachings on the subject advises his disciples to take the positions of lowest status so that others, including God, can exalt and elevate them.
This is just one of Jesus’ very counter-cultural and costly commands that we’d prefer to forget. Why do we ignore it? Because status directly impacts power, access, money, opportunity, and a whole list of other goods in play in our communities. Being of low status is very costly, and to assume low status may mean waiting a very long time, perhaps in fact your whole life before God gets around to correcting the injustice. We don’t want to be meek, regardless of Jesus’ promise that they will inherit the earth.
The doctrine of election is a difficult one. There are many good reasons why people are suspicious of it. A lot of those reasons have to do with questions of justice. A lot of the problem is due to people confusing it with determinism. Determinism asserts that personal agency doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. You would be hard pressed to assert that the Bible support determinism. The Bible is full of stories where God honors people’s agency and either praises good choices and or punishes poor ones. The doctrine of election is not about determinism, it is more about God’s authorship of creating a surprising story.
Earlier this week I wrote a blog post about Ruth, one of the best stories in the Bible. I noted that the story of Ruth is a story of election and a commenter wondered about that. Election is about God choosing a person or a people act in a special way in his story. God almost always chooses surprising and unexpected people because he knows that makes for the best kinds of stories. In Ruth God chose a daughter of Moab, a person whose reputation in the Bible was connected with a dark and desperate rape, to through her own self-sacrifice redeem his people whose own election seemed to be slipping away.
Part of why we don’t like election is because all choosing involves selection and we on a matter of principle are opposed to exclusion, just like we’re in favor of egalitarianism. We would be upset to read “Ruth have I loved, Orpah have I hated” even though Orpah got exactly the choice she wanted and at least at the outset got the path she preferred. She probably knew Naomi to be a bitter, dry tree who would be little more than a boat anchor on her future prospects. Orpah was likely young enough, and unattached enough to be able to attract another marriage prospect to make a future for herself. Ruth’s choice, to bind herself to Naomi, seemed foolish and irresponsible, even to Naomi. She, however, would not be deterred and even Naomi had to relent.
In examining the choices of Ruth and Orpah, in during the math about their future, Orpah making a tactical decision so that the odds would always be in her favor, she chose, and so did Ruth. Election works this way. We rightly say “only God knows.”
“Don’t Talk About the Resurrection to Those People”
One of the strangest passages in the book of Acts is where Holy Spirit tells the Apostle Paul not to preach in certain Roman provinces on his second missionary journey. Paul had visited the cities in southern Galatia to see how they were doing, and to report on the decision by the Jerusalem council lifting the requirement of circumcision for men. At this point he probably wanted to head directly towards Ephesus on the coast. Ephesus was a very important city but somehow God insists he not preach in the Roman province of Asia. He then figures he’ll head north and preach in the important cities like Nicaea of the province of Bithynia, but God says to not do that either. They get all the way to the port of Troas without doing any ministry and apparently pick up a new ministry partner named Luke. I can’t imagine what Paul was thinking through this whole business. Why wouldn’t the Holy Spirit want him to go do ministry in these places? No explanation is given.
Paul will of course get to Ephesus and have an important relationship with the church in that important city, but for whatever reasons, not at that time.
Again, we bump into one of the most offensive things about this God. He is a chooser. Go here, don’t go there, do this, don’t do that. The second most offensive thing about this God is that he refuses to explain himself. He refuses to be egalitarian about it and respond to our demands for information. As the Psalmist notes (Ps 115:3), “Our God is in heaven (understood in the ancient world as the control room of earth), he does whatever pleases him.” This is deeply offensive to us, ask the Youtube making atheists.
The Holy Spirit has no problem sending Paul on a missionary journey and commanding him to not behave like a missionary, at least for a while.
“OK, NOW you can preach again…”
Finally he has a dream about a man from Macedonia how asks Paul to take the boat over there to preach, and Paul goes to Philippi. Philippi is a Roman colony. The Romans were a very shrewd people about empire and power and smartly established colonies, often with retired and rewarded soldiers and their families, in strategic places for the empire. Philippi was such a place.
Paul’s custom was to start his work in a city by visiting the synagogue on the first Sabbath of his visit. It seems that perhaps there was no synagogue in the city. Jewish law required that there be at least 10 Jewish men in a city to start a synagogue, perhaps there weren’t enough. In any case he found a group that was meeting outside the city by the river. There he met a group of women.
Skip Man-filled Ephesus for now and talk to the Women who can’t qualify as a “real” Synagogue
Luke doesn’t note the presence of any men here, which is interesting. In many languages the word “men” commonly means “men and women” but in most cases “women” just means “women”.
There may have in fact been men there, but as we’ll see in a minute, they may not have had the social standing to be recognized by Luke. The men there may in fact have been slaves, but we’ll get to that when we get to Lydia.
These women apparently had set up for themselves some sort of synagogue alfresco. This is where Paul goes to talk to them about Jesus and the resurrection.
This is where God’s choosing gets interesting. For whatever reason, it seems that God prioritizes this group of women doing synagogue by the river outside of town over the important city of Ephesus who has, as we’ll see in Acts 19, plenty of men and women that need attention too. God chooses these women to learn about Jesus, the resurrection, and to receive the Holy Spirit first.
The Apostle Paul gets a bad rap today for being a sexist. To me this looks like a very bad rap given Paul’s actions here. If we bought the sullied reputation passed around today about Paul we might imagine he would have said “why should we go talk to these ladies by the river and their not-quite-a-synagogue. Paul probably figured, if Jesus can wait at the well to meet a serial divorcee, I should share with these women. In fact, Paul was just now unleashed, so apparently this is exactly what God wants. God has elected that Paul bypass man-filled, legitimate-synagogue-qualified Ephesus to tell these women about the resurrection.
We should also remember who is in Paul’s party. Paul and Silas headed out after the Barnabas break-up. On the way they picked up Timothy, who had a “Greek” father and a Jewish mother. We don’t know who was at the river, but it seems quite likely given the absence of men, and the presence of God-fearing women, that there was likely some women who were Jews married to Gentiles, exactly the situation that Timothy had grown up in. These were his people.
One of the woman, Lydia, listened to them. She wasn’t a Jew, but a “God-fearer” who was a dealer in purple cloth. It’s not certain, but given her presence in this Roman colony, and given her trade she was at least a woman of means and at most had connection so the Imperial court. We don’t know if she was a widow or a former slave but she seems to have no man attached to her. What Luke makes clear is that the Lord opened her heart to listen to them and to believe. God had chosen her to build his church in Philippi.
What happens next is too often brushed over in our reading. Because she believed she had her entire household, slaves, servants, children if she had any, baptized. What this means is that she was in a position, like the head of any Roman household, to make life and death decisions, and lifestyle choices, for everyone that was economically and socially dependent upon her. She was elect, and in her election she was bringing along her household. Given their social status they didn’t have a choice. They would all become Christians, the church would be in her house, and she would be the leader.
We might note that in fact, later in the story after the jailer, and his household become Christians too, before Paul leaves the city and meets with the new believers for encouragement before his departure, they meet at Lydia’s house.
Benefaction in our culture is a strange word. We recognize its power in a cynical way by the adage “he who pays the piper calls the tune.”
In Roman civil society benefaction was one of the chief ways leadership was established and recognized. The patrons of the society were expected to financially underwrite the needs of the city. Caesar was of course the dominant patron, but within these cities power was exerted by benefaction and leadership and authority was recognized because of it.
The story of the conversion of Lydia is concluded by Lydia making an offer that Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke couldn’t refuse.
The careful reader of the New Testament will recognize that issues of status in fact pervade the stories. In Galatians Paul notes how both Peter and Barnabas shrink back on the circumcision issue. These questions of status, acceptance, and hospitality pervade the culture and are the web that creates the social fabric of meaning and identity within which the people live. Paul has been a champion of the “Gentile” issue. How will he respond to the woman question?
The next phrase in Acts is telling. Luke repeats this word only twice used in the New Testament, both times by him. This is the word used to describe how the travelers on the road to Emmaus convinced Jesus to accept their hospitality. Now Luke uses this of Lydia.
Lydia shows herself in the one sentence she speaks in this story to be adept at conversations of power, benefaction and status. She knows full well that they have no synagogue because they have no men. Will the rules in this new Jesus movement mirror the rules in the Jewish community? Her question to them puts it all on the line? Is she really, now, a new creation? If so, will they receive her hospitality? Will they accept her as their benefactor?
Lynn Cohick in her book “Women in the world of the earliest Christians” clarifies it nicely for us.
Lydia is a home owner, and she invites Paul and Silas to stay with her. Some complain that Luke has demoted her involvement in the Christian movement by denying her any leadership role. Two points must be argued against this conclusion. First, Lydia is portrayed as a benefactor, a very privileged position in the Hellenistic world (including Judaism). We must not downplay her role in terms of our twenty-first-century culture and imagine she cooked and cleaned for them. By giving them a place to stay, she revealed her generosity, and thus was honored by the group. Another female benefactor, Phoebe, was also a deacon (Rom. 16:1-3) in the church at Cenchreae, a port of Corinth. Leadership and benefaction went hand in hand in the Greco-Roman world. Second, Lydia was probably the leader of the group that continued to meet in her home. Note that when Paul and Silas prepared to depart Philippi, they went to her house (not the jailer’s home) and met with the believers there. Presumably Lydia followed the pattern found throughout the New Testament that the owner of the house in which the church met was also a church leader. Luke therefore does not diminish Lydia’s leadership role-rather, he presents it in Greco-Roman terms of benefaction, which do not sound “religious” to our ears, but which carried great social prestige in the first century.
Lynn Cohick. Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (p. 190). Kindle Edition.
Lydia was almost certainly a slave owner
On the basis of this story it may seem easy to conclude with a facile lesson on status. I think it’s fair given what I know about the text to conclude that Luke in Acts was writing this in a way to illustrate the role of women in the movement of the Holy Spirit in the initial spread of the church and in Paul’s ministry. Luke is paying a lot of attention to the issues of ethnic and sexual identity in the telling of his story.
We might be tempted to employ this story as a lesson in the narratives of liberation we’ve been looking for. In my opinion Lydia was likely the leader of that new church and in that moment Paul accepts her as such and in fact accepts her benefaction.
Lest she, however, becomes a modern pawn in our power games we should also realize all of the other levels of power and status that were in play at the time. In her civilization she had status because of her financial power. She may have been a former slave, and undoubtedly owned slaves and controlled the lives of the people dependent upon her in ways we would find abhorrent. Paul and company accept her hospitality and what she has to offer to them.
Not only is Luke making points about men and women, Jews and Gentiles in his book, he also shows a pattern of comparisons between Peter and Paul and showing them both to be followers of the footsteps of Jesus. If she is to Paul with women as Cornelius was to Peter with Gentiles, then in a sense she is to Philippi as Philemon will be to Colossae.
The gospel was moving forward within the world of its day complete with all of its sin, compromised power structures and institutions. These were the bounded-set realities of their existence. The center-set gospel of love, however, would slowly, implicitly, critique practices of benefaction and power. Earthly benefactors must recognize their subordinate position to their heavenly benefactor. Earthly masters must recognize their subordinate position to their heavenly master. A wielders of earthly power must recognize that the one who could summon legions of angels to secure his protection refused and healed the ear of the servant of his adversary.
Lydia, as a person of means, as a slave owner, was chosen by God, in the queue of God’s timing ahead of the men of Ephesus, to be his instrument in the important Roman colony of Philippi. We don’t know what she would suffer because of her choice and God’s, but the world would never be the same because of it.