Kraybill: Women at the growing edge

May 8, 2017 by

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Among recent immigrants at the church where I worship in Indiana, it is women who come to faith first. Women then invite husbands and relatives, providing energy for outreach. Throughout church history, women often have led the way in growth and change.

J. Nelson Kraybill


The first Christian in Europe whose name we know was Lydia, who received the gospel as Paul traveled through Philippi. Women such as Lydia in the New Testament sometimes serve as hosts (and pastors?) of house churches. These include Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12) at Jeru­salem, Chloe at Cor­inth (2 Cor. 1:11), and Phoebe at Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1). Nympha hosts a congregation at Colossae (Col. 4:15), and Priscilla with her husband, Aquila, shepherds a church in their home at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19).

The Greco-Roman world in which the early church grew was patriarchal. Women were second-class, usually under the guardianship of a father or husband. But widows could function as heads of households. This may have been the situation of Lydia, immigrant entrepreneur at Philippi, who marketed purple cloth.

Purple dye was expensive because a mere pound had to be extracted from thousands of snails. Being costly, purple was the color of royalty and elites. Lydia traded in this luxury product, suggesting she was similar to other Gentile “women of high standing” (Acts 17:12) who embraced the gospel.

Along the Krenides River, where the Apostle Paul likely met Lydia, Ellen Kraybill tests the waters. — J. Nelson Kraybill

Along the Krenides River, where the Apostle Paul likely met Lydia, Ellen Kraybill tests the waters. — J. Nelson Kraybill

The early church appears to have been disproportionately female, partly because of two factors: 1) In Christ, gender distinctions dissolve so there is “no longer male and female” (Gal. 3:28), meaning woman often had more status in the church than in Roman society; and 2) Christians rejected the Roman practice of leaving unwanted newborns (most often female) abandoned to die. Christians nurtured their infant daughters and also rescued infant girls who had been abandoned by others.

Lydia survived into adulthood and was drawn to a faith community at the edge of society. Paul met Lydia along with other women at a Jewish place of prayer by the river outside Philippi (Acts 16:13). A Roman colony such as Philippi was not going to have a Jewish place of prayer within its boundaries. The likely spot where the women met to pray now is a shaded bend in the Krenides River near the ruins of Philippi.

Lydia was a “God-worshiper,” meaning a Gentile who worshiped the God of Israel but did not practice the whole of Jewish law. She was an immigrant, culturally in transition.

The church today can profit from making entry ramps for similar newcomers and God-seekers who are drawn to the hospitality and Good News of the faith community. Often women will be the leading edge of new family systems or ethnic groups coming into the church. The Holy Spirit will open their hearts and ours to Christ, just as happened when Paul shared the good news with Lydia.

J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at

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