Paul and the women at Philippi—1

A look at Paul's first European convert and what his experience can teach us today.

Ronald Springett is an associate professor of religion at Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, Collegedale, Tennessee.

Paul's first recorded trip to Europe is mentioned in Acts 16 in conjunction with his second missionary journey. Crossing the Aegean by boat from Troas in Asia Minor, Paul and Silas made their way to the Roman colony of Philippi, approximately ten miles inland from the port of Neapolis. A considerable number of Roman veterans and active soldiers began settling there after 42 B.C. The town had grown until it had become a leading city of Macedonia. The great east-west Roman road Via Egnatia ran through the center of town, and the accent was definitely on the military. As a Roman colony it used Roman law, and its constitution was modeled on that of Rome. Philippi was a town whose citizens were protected by Roman might and Roman right.

This military, rather than commercial, aspect of the city might explain the paucity of Jews in the city. Jewish traders usually thrived in the great commercial centers of the Eastern and Western empire. Yet it appears that there were not enough men in Philippi to form a synagogue, although only ten adult males were normally required. Paul experienced no opposition from Jews in this town as he did in Asia Minor.

The record in Acts mentions only women who were attached to the Jewish religion, and they met "outside the gate," at the riverside (verse 13, R.S.V.), * and not in a synagogue. The gate most likely refers to the colonial arch one mile west of the city, near the river Gangites. Such an arch placed some distance outside the city often marked the boundary of a vacant area around a Roman town, known as the pomerium. Since this area, usually delineated by stones, was considered by the Romans to be holy ground, no burials were allowed within it, and no foreign religions were to be introduced there. Therefore, the Philippian Jews may have been required to travel some distance in order to establish a safe meeting place.

The existence of prejudice against Jews in Philippi may be inferred from the fact that the only charge needed against Paul and Silas before the authorities was that they were Jews. " These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice'" (verses 20, 21, N.I.V.). On the other hand, Paul's non-Jewish companions Luke, a Greek; and Timothy, a half- Greek are not mentioned in the court proceedings or the jail episode. Although generally the Romans were tolerant regarding Judaism, they did not like Jews to proselytize Romans. Even though Judaism was itself a "legal religion" in official Roman circles, active proselytizing was frowned upon as a menace to the national cult of the emperor, which the Philippians were bound to respect with a national pride found only in colonial towns. In fact, when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (c. 49 A.D.) the Philippian magistrates followed his example and cast the Jews out of Philippi also. This too may explain the absence of Jews there and amply illustrates the nationalist fervor of the city.

On Sabbath, Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy went outside the city, where they expected to find a place of prayer. On this particular Sabbath they found only a little group of women gathered together. The text suggests that there were not many women, since the apostle's group sat down on the riverbank and spoke to the women rather than giving a sermon or formal discourse. At first the evangelistic prospects did not seem too promising, but Paul well knew the value of one dedicated soul to the mission of the church, and he continued undaunted. One of the women listening to Paul and his companions was Lydia of Thyatira.

Thyatira, from which Lydia had come, was famous for its guilds the most famous being that of the weavers and the dyers of wool and linen textiles. Lydia was a merchant of purple cloth actually cloth dyed a bright red from the madder root and probably was a member of one of the guilds of that city. Lydia, then, was a well-to-do business woman who apparently either owned or represented a firm that sold dyed goods. Purple and scarlet cloth of all kinds would be in high demand in Philippi, this Roman military colony, since Roman women liked to wear the color and the men trimmed their togas and tunics with it.

Lydia was no doubt a successful businesswoman, judging from the size of her family household and the ample accommodations for the four missionaries in her beautiful home. Considering the restrictions on women, who seldom launched out on their own to any great extent in those days, we see that the record of Lydia's business activities is extremely significant. If she was sent as a representative of a company it showed the confidence of her employers in her ability to hold down this lucrative market more than two hundred miles from Thyatira. If she was in business for herself it demonstrates that her acumen was sufficient to hold her own in a trade that required large capital investment and wise management. At any rate she was a businesswoman who by any standard was capable, successful, and rich.

Not only was Lydia well-to-do but she was also a deeply religious woman, having been a convert to Judaism. Since there was no synagogue in Philippi, it is likely that she came in contact with Judaism in Thyatira. Many non-Jews of elevated mind found in Judaism a more superior spiritual or ethical tone than existed in most pagan religions. Paul could not have failed to notice that, although the Jewish community in Philippi was small and insignificant, perhaps even despised, Lydia nevertheless associated herself with it. There was no reluctance in her striving for a better spiritual life wherever it was to be found. The church of today should always have a place for such "women of the world." Lydia was marked in Paul's eyes as a remarkable woman indeed. She was, no doubt, the leading spirit among the women at the riverside, and her lucrative business did not keep her away from the obscure and seemingly unimportant prayer place to which she had to travel so far on Sabbath.

Paul deliberately aimed his efforts in evangelism toward those with a back ground in Judaism. The God-fearers and other Gentiles who attached themselves in various ways to Judaism usually welcomed the good news. This method, however, did arouse the jealousy of the Jews. Paul saw that pagans who had abandoned their own religions for the values they perceived in Judaism would be more easily attracted to the fuller message of salvation in Christ. Christianity gave them assurance of union with God through Christ and the security and free boldness to live a life that pleases a loving God. Since they had abandoned the leering tyrant deities of paganism, it was but a simple step farther for them to see that a much more powerful motivation to the good life was provided in the love of Christ than in the lex Judaica.

We cannot gainsay the fact that Paul's first recorded convert in Europe was a woman, and at that no ordinary woman in her day. We also cannot deny that the first church formed by Paul in Europe was left entirely in the hands of women. Lydia was not baptized on the first Sabbath. The record suggests that before she was, she kept on hearing and continued to heed what the apostles taught. The result was that "the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 16:14, N.I.V.). In a city hostile to Judaism, in an out-of-the-way place where Lydia came faithfully week by week to pray with a few women, and where spiritual stimulation and fellow ship were so limited, there her faithfulness was rewarded with a fresh vision of the God she sought to serve. Even though the prospects for evangelism in Philippi were limited, Paul was farsighted enough to see that the constant testimony of a faithful Christian witness in the city would eventually bear fruit. In due time Lydia was baptized "with her household" (verse 15, R.S.V.). We cannot accept the idea that Lydia would have compelled her household (her family and servants) to be baptized or that Paul would have baptized such coerced "converts." This is not to say that she did not exert her influence to make certain that they heard all that the apostles had to say.

Luke tells us that after her baptism Lydia constrained or urged the apostles to stay with her. Her invitation was stated in such a way that they could hardly have refused it. " 'If you consider me a believer in the Lord,' she said, 'come and stay at my house'" (verse 15, N.I.V.). Paul may have declined the invitation at first. We know that it was his regular principle and practice not to be a burden to anyone (1 Cor. 9:12, 15-18). The missionaries may have had very poor accommodations in Philippi up to this point, and Lydia's open invitation and continual beseeching finally prevailed upon them to accept her hospitality. Some less fearless woman might have hesitated to take in a Jewish "rabbi" and his company, especially when it was clear that his proselytizing might get them into embarrassing situations. Not Lydia. She stands out large in the pages of the New Testament as a woman of dignity, honor, and enterprise.

Paul's dealings with the authorities in Philippi during his arrest may have had a direct bearing on the courage of Lydia in inviting the apostles into her home and her readiness to defend the gospel she had espoused. Furthermore, by bringing them under the same roof Lydia assured herself and her household of all the counsel and instruction the apostles could give. Thus she would be able to observe them on a daily basis. Lydia must have known that there were many charlatans peddling religion. By inviting these men to stay with her she would quickly discover of what sort they were. She was not disappointed. Paul was keenly aware that evangelists are scrutinized not merely for what they say and how they say it, but for what they are themselves. This frequently determines their success or lack of it. Judicious auditors who are not convinced that the evangelist himself believes in what he is saying or doing will not be deceived by half a million dollars worth of gadgetry.

Thus, from the very beginning of its existence Lydia gave a stamp of distinction to the Philippian church. This was the only congregation in the Aegean region that later sent the apostle Paul personal gifts in .appreciation for his labors and privations. The apostle poured out his gratitude in his letter to the Philippian church (chap. 4: 14-20).

The one message that comes through loud and clear in this brief narrative by Luke is that Paul operated on Christian principles in the evangelization of women. The principle is spelled out in Galatians 3:27, 28: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (R.S.V.).

It is the Christian woman, according to Paul, who is one with her peers, male and female, because she is one with Christ, as they are. She has "put on" Christ that is, adopted His principles, accepted His guidance, and imitated His example therefore, she shares an equality with all who do likewise. The woman outside the Christian community conforms to whatever mold the secular society in which she lives casts for her. But in the Christian confession it is not to be so. A woman starts and stands on the same basis as any other member of the community. An example of this is Lydia, who found her womanly freedom enhanced by embracing a deeper commitment to church, religion, and piety.

Currently evangelism and church leadership seems to be an almost exclusively male activity. Paul, however, did not discourage dedicated and talented women from engaging in such activities. If they also are disciples, then the command is theirs, as well: "Go ye into all the world." The church has an enormous pool of talent that has not begun to be tapped in this respect. Paul was prepared to leave the task of evangelizing Philippi in the hands of the Lord and this small group of women who by all later records proved themselves good stewards of the gospel.


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Ronald Springett is an associate professor of religion at Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, Collegedale, Tennessee.

June 1983

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