When we read the letters that make up the greater part of our New Testament, we are reading someone else’s mail. Suppose that you found a box of letters dating from the 1890’s in the attic of the old family home. These letters might mention the names of many people well-known to both the writer and the recipient but unknown to you. Perhaps your 90-year-old aunt could tell you about some of them, but you never would be able to identify some of the people mentioned in those old letters.
Like letters from the attic of the old family home, our New Testament letters mention many people of whom we know little or nothing. Some were prominent leaders in the Christian communities of the First Century AD. For example, Romans 16 lists a number of leaders well-known to the early church but unknown to us—including two otherwise-unknown apostles, a man named Andronicus and a woman named Junia. Romans 16:7, the only place they are mentioned, is the kind of reference that makes us wish we knew more. They are on my growing list of people to look up when I get to heaven!
Those century-old letters from the attic might also mention “your dear cousin,” “the pastor,” “our neighbors across the road,” or some other designation instead of a name. The original recipient knew to whom the writer was referring, but you have no idea. Similarly with various references to people in the New Testament: In Acts 16, we read of the jailer at Philippi who was converted. He may well have been alive when Acts was written. Certainly, there were people still living in Philippi who knew him by name, but Luke does not tell us that name. Then, in Romans 16, Paul sends greeting to Rufus and his mother. Paul does not mention her name; he simply refers to her as Rufus’ mother. She and her son were well-known to the church in Rome, but they are obscure figures for us. We know little about Rufus and less about his mother, not even her name. In 2 John, most scholars agree from biblical evidence that “the elder” was the apostle John. The original recipients knew who “the elder” was, and they all knew who the “chosen lady” was—but we do not know who she was. However, I believe we can know some things about her if we continue to examine the biblical evidence.
The Meaning Of Kuria
The word translated “Lady” occurs nowhere in the New Testament outside of 2 John. The word is kuria, the feminine form of kurios, a common New Testament word translated “Lord” or “master.” The masculine form kurios is used to denote the head of a household or the master of a slave. Paul uses it in that sense in Ephesians 6. In Galatians 4:1, Paul uses kurios to speak of someone who is not under the authority of a guardian or trustee. Ultimately, in the New Testament, “the Lord” functions as the equivalent of the Hebrew word Adoniah, as a designation for Jesus Christ. The basic meaning of the word is “authority” or “master.” It is very unlikely that kuria (feminine form) is a proper name. In the context of 2 John, the word probably denotes a woman who was in a place of authority or leadership. Perhaps she was the wife or daughter of a Roman official (compare Philippians 4:22 where Paul sends greetings from the saints who are of Caesar’s household). The respectful tide kuria indicates, at the very least, the high regard accorded her by John and the Christian community This usage in 2 John may suggest that the title kuria was used the same way the term “Mother” is used in African-American churches today, as a tide of respect for a godly older woman whose good influence extends far beyond her immediate family. However, the most reasonable conclusion from the limited data in 2 John is that she was a prominent leader in the Christian church.
The Meaning Of Eklekte
The word translated “chosen” is a common New Testament word—our English word “elect” comes from it. Paul used the same word in Romans 16 to describe Rufus as a “choice man in die Lord.” Jesus used this word when he said, “Many are called but few are chosen.” In Colossians 3:12, this word is used to describe believers as “those who have been chosen by God.” It can be used in the sense of “respected” or “honorable.” Here in 2 John, the word probably should be taken in the sense of “elect” or “chosen.” Certainly, she was chosen in the Ephesians 1 sense of being “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world,” but she was also chosen in the sense of having been either appointed by the apostle John or chosen by the church to a place of leadership. Aida Besancon Spencer, in her book Beyond the Curse, cites Clement of Alexandria in the second century AD who clearly used the word to denote persons ordained to places of public ministry.1
John described the chosen lady as one who was known and loved by all who know the truth. “Truth,” as the term is used in the Johannine letters, is another name for Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit. This is clear from 2 John 2, which speaks of the truth which abides in us and will be with us forever, an obvious allusion to the promises of Jesus concerning the Holy Spirit as recorded in John 14. In John 14:17, the Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth. In John’s theology, to know the truth is to know Jesus and to know Jesus is to know the truth. The chosen lady was well-known in the Christian community, and anyone who loved the Lord could not help but love her. The evidence strongly indicated she was at least a diakonos, a deacon like Phoebe in Romans 16—one who gave pastoral leadership to a house church, if not an episcopos, an overseer—one who had the oversight of a number of house churches. In the New Testament, the word translated “pastor” is poimen. In a non-technical context, it would be translated “shepherd.” (The translation “pastor” is simply the substitution of a Latin word for a Greek word.) While we do not have a flow chart showing the organizational structure of first century churches (which probably varied somewhat depending on the place and whether the church was predominately Jewish or Gentile), we should probably take “pastor/shepherd” as an umbrella term including both overseers and deacons. This is supported by 1 Timothy 3:13, which implies that overseers were chosen from among those who had served well as deacons.
Are There No Literal Women In The New Testament?
Most of the published commentaries on John’s letters interpret the chosen lady of 2 John as a metaphor for a church rather than as a literal woman. In my time as a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Dr. Dale Moody often exhorted us to “Remember that the Bible often sheds considerable light on the commentaries!” Yet all too often commentators follow the interpretations of previous commentators, like sheep following the sheep in front of them right over a cliff. The views presented by one influential commentator are often unquestioningly adopted by succeeding commentaries.
Barker, Brooke, Bruce, Marshall, McDowell, Smalley, Stott, and Westcott are representative of many who view the chosen lady as a metaphor for a church, and her children as members of the church. I do not know which long-ago commentator was the first sheep over the cliff with that interpretation, but many others have followed! Even Gail R. O’Day, commenting on the Johannine letters in The Women’s Bible Commentary. uncritically assumes that the chosen lady and her chosen sister (2 John 13) should be taken as metaphors for churches. O’Day offers no reasons for her position, she simply asserts that it is so!2
The arguments in favor of interpreting the lady as a metaphor for a church are basically these: First, it is suggested that in a time when the Christian movement had fallen into disfavor with Rome, the metaphorical “chosen lady” would have made the letter appear to be an innocent personal note if it had fallen into hostile hands before reaching its destination. This argument is unconvincing. There was no public mail service, so John would have entrusted this letter to someone he knew who was going to the city where the recipients were located. The bearer may have been an emissary of John’s church or the chosen lady’s church.
Some also argue that the use of “chosen lady” instead of a personal name may just as well indicate John’s concern for the safety of an individual as his concern for the safety of a church. Had the letter fallen into hostile hands, they would have had no idea who the chosen lady was, regardless of whether the chosen lady was an individual or a church. But if John was so concerned about protecting the identity of the recipients), then why is Gaius clearly identified as the addressee of 3 John? It seems more reasonable to think that the term “chosen lady” served to identify this woman as well as her actual name, in the same way that a Cyprian Levite name Joseph became better known to the apostles and to us as Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”, Acts 4:36).
Secondly, commentators point out that most of the pronouns referring to the recipients of the letter are plural. Since the letter is addressed to “a” (no article in the Greek text) chosen lady and her children, this poses no difficulty. Noting that the pronouns translated “your” in verse 4 and “you” in verse 5 are singular, we deduce that John was writing primarily to the lady, but what he wrote was meant to be shared with the church that she led. Have we not all received and written personal letters that were addressed primarily to one member of the household but meant to be shared with the whole family? While English does not distinguish between you (singular) and you (plural)—except in my native deep South where we have the singular “you,” the plural “y’all,” and the emphatic plural “all of y’all”—if we examine personal letters we have written and received, we would find places where the writer was addressing only the individual recipient and also places where the writer was addressing the whole family. Drifting back and forth between you (singular) and you (plural) is typical of informal personal correspondence.
A third argument for taking the chosen lady as a metaphor for a church is that Israel and the church are frequently portrayed with feminine metaphors. Israel is portrayed as a woman— the sometimes unfaithful wife of Yahweh. Scripture portrays Jerusalem as the mother of Israel, an image that is reflected in Galatians and Revelation. We have the New Testament image of the church as the bride of Christ. A parallel to the “chosen lady” designation occurs in 1 Peter 5:13, “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son Mark.” This is the strongest argument in favor of the metaphorical view, but it is not strong enough to prove the case.
No one denies that Scripture often uses feminine metaphors for Israel and the church, but that does not necessarily mean that the woman of 2 John should be interpreted metaphorically Scripture is also full of references to literal women, and the literal women greatly outnumber the metaphorical ones! Metaphors abound in Scripture, but common sense and context usually tell us if the writer is speaking metaphorically. The Babylonian empire was long gone by the time 1 Peter was written. When the Christian movement faced persecution by the Romans, we know that “Babylon” became a Christian code name for Rome. It was a way of expressing the hope that the same God who brought down the oppressive power of Babylon long ago would also bring down the oppressive power of Rome. Revelation consistently uses the “Babylon” metaphor for Rome. We have other examples to show that early Christians often referred to Rome as “Babylon.” Thus, we can safely conclude mat “Babylon” means Rome in 1 Peter 5:13. However, it is a great leap of logic to say that we must take the woman to be a metaphor. Nothing in 1 Peter compels us to take the woman who is “in Babylon” as anything other than a real woman. The fact that she is paired with Mark in 1 Peter 5:13 certainly indicates she was as much a literal person as he was. There is no reason not to take the woman “who is in Babylon” to be an actual woman, a leader or prominent member of the church at Rome who was well-known to the recipients of 1 Peter. A. T. Robertson, citing the reference in 1 Corinthians 9:5 to Peter’s wife who traveled with him, made the plausible suggestion that the woman “in Babylon” may have been Peter’s wife.3 Robertson tends to interpret the text literally unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise. Significantly, he takes both the woman “in Babylon” and the chosen lady of 2 John to be actual women.
Stephen Smalley contends that the Elder’s declaration of love for the lady and her children, along with his assertion that this love is shared by all who know the truth, should be taken as indications that the chosen lady should be understood metaphorically.4 But why? The wording differs little from the address of 3 John “to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.” Smalley notes nothing unusual about John’s description of Gaius as one “Whom I love in the truth,” He views it as a rather conventional greeting in his comments on 3 John 1,5 which is precisely what it is. So why should the greeting in 2 John be interpreted differently? Smalley does not suggest that we take “the beloved Gaius” as a metaphor for a church!
John was expressing his love for the chosen lady as a colleague in ministry. He loved her in the same way and for the same reason he loved Gaius. Paul clearly teaches us in 1 Timothy 5:1-2 that men and women can work together as colleagues in ministry without any hint of impropriety. John enjoyed a collegial relationship with both Gaius and the chosen lady, based upon a shared commitment to Jesus Christ and the truth that is in him. “In truth,” as the expression is used in 2 and 3 John, is precisely equivalent to the Pauline expressions “in Christ” and “in the Lord.” Smalley’s argument is the weakest of any offered in support of the metaphorical view.
Objections To The Metaphorical View
I see at least seven reasons supporting the position that the “chosen lady” should be understood as a designation for an actual woman who was a leader in the church, rather than as a metaphor for the church.
1. As a general letter to a church, 2 John is redundant. I believe this is the strongest objection to the metaphorical view. Why would John write this letter to a church? Everything in 2 John is found in fuller form in 1 John. The doctrinal content is so brief that it seems to assume the reader’s familiarity with 1 John. It makes no sense for John to have written this letter to a church that had already read 1 John. However, it does make great sense for John to write “something to the church” (3 John 9, most likely a reference to the letter we know as 1 John) and then to send along at the same time or shortly thereafter two personal notes (2 and 3 John) to encourage embattled church leaders who were guiding the church through the stormy waters of doctrinal confusion.
2. Nothing in the text of 2 John requires us to substitute a symbolic meaning for the plain literal meaning of John’s words. We have no known example in the New Testament or in early Christian literature of the term kuria being used in a clearly metaphorical sense. A metaphor does not work unless others understand the sense in which it is used. One who insists that the lady is a metaphor must demonstrate that the metaphor would have been understood by the original readers. No evidence suggests that the recipients of 2 John would have understood the term metaphorically. We do not know the identity of the “beloved comrade” Paul addresses in Philippians 4:3, but no one suggests that he is a metaphor for a church! There is no more reason to make the “chosen lady” into a church than there is to make the “beloved comrade” into a church. Greek scholar Henry Dana used to prescribe a good rule to his students: “When the plain sense of the text makes common sense, seek no other sense.”
3. There is clear evidence within the New Testament and mounting evidence from other sources that women served alongside men in prominent places of leadership in the early church. Paul calls Euodia and Syntyche his “fellow-workers”—the same term he elsewhere applies to Timothy—and says that they “shared his struggle in the Gospel.” Karen Jo Torjesen cites evidence that we have from the post-apostolic age: A Mosaic in the Basilica of Sts. Prudentiana and Praexedis in Rome honors four women, one of whom is identified as Theodora Episcopa—Episcopa is the feminine form of episkopos, the word translated “bishop” or “overseer.” Although the hands of ancient misogynists tried to scratch out the feminine endings on “Theodora” and “Episcopa,” the old inscription remains a legible witness to one who was both a woman and a bishop. In addition, a third- or fourth-century inscription on the Greek island of Thera marks the grave of another woman, Epictus Presbutis, the elder Epictus.6
4. To take the “chosen lady” as a symbolic name for a church, we would have to ignore vv. 9-11 of 2 John. John tells the chosen lady and her children to judge between true and false doctrine and to exclude those who try to bring in false teaching. John certainly wanted the whole church to practice discernment, but the church probably included some new Christians who did not know enough to discern between true and false teaching. They had a duty to learn, but somebody had to teach them. That responsibility rested most heavily upon the shoulders of one person, the chosen lady to whom this letter was written. If the church met in her home, she would have been the one to say who was or was not welcome there. The church’s responsibility to exclude false teachers was primarily her personal responsibility. Everybody’s responsibility ends up being nobody’s responsibility.
5. In 1 and 3 John, we have good precedent for a church leader addressing those in his care as his children. Other examples abound in early Christian writings. Of course, some of the children of the elect lady may have been her natural children. Burdick takes this view.7 When my wife and I adopted our daughters, somebody gave us a list of definitions for adoptive families—“natural children” are defined as “children who were not created in a laboratory by a mad (or even slightly unhappy) scientist.” Our girls are our “natural children.” But in addition, some of the elect lady’s children probably were her spiritual offspring, people she had personally led to faith in Jesus Christ. (My grandmother Bailey had a bunch of those! Her spiritual offspring greatly outnumbered her nine biological offspring.) Some of the elect lady’s children may have been her sons and daughters and/or people she had personally led to the Lord. As she led in the church, all these people were in her care.
The identity of the “children” in 1 John and 3 John is obvious. Why would the term be used differently in 2 John? John called those whom he led his children. It makes sense that he would refer to those led by his colleagues (the chosen lady and her chosen sister) as their children.
6. A church would have to be called either “chosen lady” or “children” not both. Spencer raises this objection. She argues that it is inconsistent with John’s use of terminology for both terms to refer to a church.8 John would not have used competing metaphors in a letter that is only half a page long!
7. The brevity of the letter argues against it being primarily a letter to a church. All of the existing letters to churches are much longer. Jude, the shortest letter that was clearly written to a church, is twice the length of 2 or 3 John. 2 John is short enough to fit on one side of a sheet of parchment—typical of the length of many Greek personal letters that exist from the New Testament period. While I would not build my whole case upon the brevity of the letter, that along with the other factors considered strengthens the case for viewing 2 John as a personal letter from one minister of the Gospel to another.
More Than A Gracious Hostess
In 1826, the English Methodist commentator Adam Clarke wrote, “I am satisfied that no metaphor is here intended; that the epistle was sent to some eminent Christian matron, not far from Ephesus, who was probably a deaconess of the church, who, it is likely had a church at her house, or at whose house the apostles and traveling evangelists preached, and were entertained.”9 Clarke was right as far as he went—I would only add that the chosen lady’s ministry probably went beyond being a gracious hostess, although it surely included that. Like Mary the mother of Jesus (last seen preaching in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost), Philip’s four daughters, Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary of Rome, the apostle Junia, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Euodia, Syntyche, Nympha, Claudia, Apphia, and the ministering women of 1 Timothy 3:11, the chosen lady was a minister of the Gospel in the fullest sense of the term, one of many women who were able ministers of the Gospel in New Testament times.
The chosen lady may have been a widow. The term kuria, which implies that she was the head of a household, and the absence of any reference to her husband suggest that she was widowed.
It is also possible that she was single (although in the first century AD it is less likely that a single woman would have been the head of a household). Philip’s four daughters, who were single women, were ministers of the Gospel in New Testament times. Luke mentions them in Acts 21:4, not because it was remarkable for a young single woman to be a preacher, but because it was remarkable for there to be four of them in one family.
The chosen lady, like Lydia in Acts 16, probably worked hard in some cottage industry. Before the Industrial Revolution, nearly all industry was cottage industry and nearly all women’s work included much more than caring for children and keeping house.
She was probably a parent. Then, as now, most women give birth to children at some time in their lives. All of her children may have been grown, giving her more time and energy to devote to public ministry than she had when her children were younger. We may presume that she had been devoted to her husband and children. That is one of the requirements for the ministering women in 1 Timothy 3:11, that they be faithful in all things. That includes faithfulness in marriage and family responsibilities.
The chosen lady may have been a leader in the church for many years, balancing her public ministry with work, home, marriage, and parenting. Perhaps God did not call her to a place of public ministry until later in life. Her public ministry may have been a long-deferred desire of her heart. We do not know, but we may be sure that she struggled to balance public ministry with many other responsibilities, just as female and male ministers do today. We may be sure that her ministry role was defined not by her gender but by her spiritual gifts, the call of God upon her life, the divinely implanted desires of her heart, the needs she faced, and the opportunities she had.
A Woman In Public Ministry
Here in this little letter is all the Bible tells us about the chosen lady: John had the highest regard for her as a colleague in ministry. She was well-known among the churches to which 1 John was written. She was a gracious and loving person. She was so full of the Spirit of Christ that anyone who loved him would have to love her. She knew the difference between sound teaching and hogwash, and she was able to teach others the difference. Most people who were products of her ministry kept on walking in truth. That is all we know about her, but that is enough to uphold her as a worthy model for a church leader and as a biblical example of a Christian woman who engaged in public ministry that included teaching and preaching the word of God.
- Spencer, Aida Besancon, Beyond the Curse. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985, p. 111.
- O’day, Gail R., “1, 2, and 3 John” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsome and Sharon R. Ringe. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, p. 375.
- Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1932. Volume VI, p. 249.
- Smalley, Steven S. “1, 2, and 3 John” in The Word Biblical Commentary, edited by David A. Hubbard, Glenn W Barker, and Ralph P. Martin. Volume 51, p. 319.
- Ibid, p. 344.
- Torjeson, Karen Jo, When Women Were Priests. San Francisco: Harper, 1993, pp. 9-10.
- Burdick, Donald W, The Letters of John the Apostle. Chicago: Moody Press, 1985.
- Spencer, op. cit., p. 110.
- Clarke, Adam, Clark’s Commentary. Nashville and New York: Abingdon Press, n.d. Volume VI, p. 936.