Women Leaders in the Church

Women Leaders in the Church

When Paul docked in Samonthrace and reached the city of Philippi, he did as always before: he sought out the Jews in the city. Learning there was no synagogue, he found a group of God-fearing women down by the riverside. Lydia, a merchant woman in the city known as the seller of crimson cloths, and the women of her household met the apostle that day. They received the gospel and were baptized.

Scripture tells us that Lydia persuaded Paul to remain in the city with her (Acts 16). This is the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with Lydia, the first convert in Europe, who also became the founding pastor of the community of those baptized in Philippi.

Euodia and Syntyche were two of the leaders in the city, named so in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (4:1-9). These two women and others functioned as overseers, pastors of the infant Jesus Movement that had swept through Macedonia and altered the course of history. In Philippi, as in all early church communities, groups of believers would gather on Sundays in the homes to eat and drink and share the good news of Christ.

Euodia and Syntyche were likely Greek matrons who as women of means would watch the breeze float in from the Aegean Sea into their expansive homes. As the drapes surrounding the courtyard danced they would welcome neighbors, friends, and merchants to the Table of the Lord.

Partnership with influential women

While it is a stretch to say Paul was a feminist, a term owned by modern culture, it is correct to say that he was a kingdom-minded, Jesus-commissioned, Spirit-filled apostle. After all, it was Paul who wrote, “ There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Practically speaking, Paul understood that women in his own time served to oversee all matters of home and household.

Because the home was the prime venue of his evangelistic effort, he found himself in partnership with influential women across the Roman Empire. It is likely Lydia served as bishop or overseer in Philippi to aid in guarding sound doctrine for the infant church. This church was birthed from Paul’s initial visit, imprisonment, and all-night jailbird hymn sings.

Paul refers to the church at Philippi as “my joy and my crown,” since these women and their house churches served as the primary financial supporters of Paul’s missionary work after his break with the church at Antioch. We also know from Polycarp and other early church extant materials that the gathering of believers at Philippi existed as a vibrant Christian community well into the second century AD, enduring longer than any of the other communities begun by Paul’s travels.

It seems then that this model of planting churches and nurturing communities of faith was a strong example and a mutually beneficial relationship for Paul and the believers of Philippi. However, it was not without issues—as the context of the letter suggests when it mentioned there was a disagreement either between house church leaders Euodia and Syntyche, or against them.

Remember what is good and kind

Paul’s word to the community is one of remembrance. The two women are celebrated for their partnership with Paul, founded in their partnership with Christ, called to be of the same mind and heart of Christ and urged to remember what is good and kind, worthy of praise. Paul calls them to lay aside anxieties and live in thanksgiving (Philippians 4:7-9).

I am struck by how much Paul’s words to these women and their community still ring true today. Women in leadership understand the notion of being pulled in many directions. If you’re a mama or a chairperson of the board, if you’re a not-for-profit executive or running a home-based business, if you’re in charge of the PTA or the women’s auxiliary league, if you oversee the Sunday school schedule or soccer team, you know what it is to be in charge, to feel exposed, to be the victim of criticism, and to believe the lie that you are not enough.

Paul’s words to these women and their community still ring true today. 

Though we cannot be certain, based upon internal evidence, if Euodia and Syntyche are quarreling with one another or if they are being attacked by others, neither is hard to imagine for anyone who serves in a leadership role today. To be sure, the lies we tell ourselves are powerful, and when reinforced by criticism from others they can be debilitating and can easily divert us from mission and render us impotent and feeble in the face of obstacles ahead.

Perhaps what is most painful to experience as a female leader is the criticism and lack of support often hurled at us from other women. I remember several years ago while serving as a university pastor a particularly hurtful comment made by a female student who didn’t believe women should be allowed to serve in the pastoral office.

Also, I remember countless comments made in public venues and on social media platforms regarding my hair style, clothing, or choice of shoes. I’m not sure why harsh unsympathetic claims are so much harder to brush away when they are spoken in the feminine voice, unless it is the expectation that those of your own tribe should stand with you and not against.

Paul’s challenge here then is a heartfelt plea to return to what unites us rather than what divides, to start from the same place, to emanate all from the center which is Christ our Lord. It is then, in having the mind of Christ that we find ways to defer to the other, to be willing to give ourselves over for the good of the other. It is in so doing that we are most like Jesus who, as Augustine said, “became like us so we might become like him,” who gave himself over for love of us. It is essentially in this humility, oneness, and unified purpose that we join Christ in authentic partnership—koinonia.

Kimberly Majeski is associate professor of biblical studies in the School of Theology at Anderson University, Anderson, Indiana. AU is a school in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition.

Holiness Today
November/December 2016