We do not appreciate how incredible Lydia’s life in Acts really was. Justo Gonzalez in Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, brilliantly explains how her history in Acts 16 is part of a series that depicts the Jewish church in Jerusalem coming to terms with the expansion of God’s kingdom. Before Lydia is introduced, Acts describes how Peter came to terms with the Holy Spirit’s inclusion of the gentile Roman soldier Cornelius and his entire household. Peter would naturally have resisted their inclusion, as part of his steadfast rejection of unclean meat that he demonstrated in his vision. However, when Peter saw the Holy Spirit descend on the unclean, uncircumcised yet god-fearing Romans, Cornelius and his family, he was compelled to admit that God intended to include them on an equal footing with faithful Jews. Not surprisingly, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted by the church for eating unclean food with Gentile. In contrast, though, when he told them what happened, “they praised God saying, ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18 ).
Later in Acts, the church is called to expand this vision even further to include Gentile women’s leadership. It begins with Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia, because a man is calling him there to help (Acts 16:9-10). Paul obeys and goes to Philippi in Macedonia, looking for men who worship “at a place of prayer,” (Acts 16:13 ), which implies a synagogue.1 A synagogue required a minimum number of men to be present. Instead, he found god-fearing women worshipping alongside the river. After hearing Paul speak, Lydia–a wealthy businesswoman–accepted Paul’s message and was baptized, along with her whole household. She was the first Christian convert in Europe.2 This takes Peter’s earlier experience one step further. Peter had to come to terms with a god-fearing, uncircumcised gentile man. Paul must come to terms with a gentile god-fearing woman who is the head of her household. The account further highlights how Lydia challenges his preconceived ideas: “If you have found me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15 ). The Jewish views of gentiles and women was clear – on no terms would they enter a gentile home to stay and eat with them. Yet Lydia was inviting Paul to do just that! What is more, as a Macedonian woman she considered herself nearly equal to men.
If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions for them from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers.3
Thus, Lydia was daring Paul to “not just talk the talk but walk the walk.”4 To Paul’s credit, he accepted her challenge, and the church founded in her home became central to Paul’s ministry, a cornerstone of encouragement and the only church from whom he accepted financial support.
The significance of Lydia’s conversion lies in who she was and what she represented for the expansion of the church. Lydia fits well within the Macedonian description of women. She is described as a businesswoman who sells purple cloth. Purple cloth was only worn by the elite, meaning Lydia’s clients were the wealthiest and most influential people of Philippi. Though she was not a woman from the noble class, (as nobles were not allowed to engage in business), she was closely associated with them. Thus, she was in both a position of influence and power. Further, she was free to make her own decisions, independent of the Greco-Roman paterfamilias restrictions evidenced by her decision to become baptized. Without the approval of her father or husband, Lydia freely listened to Paul and chose to follow Jesus. Not only that, but her entire household followed her lead. The Greek is clear that Lydia, a woman, was the head of her household, including family, servants, and slaves.5
She also represents the prototype for house churches. Ben Witherington observes that whenever house churches are mentioned in the New Testament, they are always associated with prominent women.6 Early house churches were often led by women, because the home was within the private realm–women’s domain. Here they could teach and preach without being in the public eye.7 The fact that she hosted Paul and those who traveled with him indicates that her home was large enough to care for and host traveling Christians, making it a central meeting place for believers. In her position, she was likely a patron of the church, providing powerful political and financial support, as well as introducing her influential circle of contacts to the faith.8 Wealthy and influential women, like Lydia, filled a unique position in the early church. They naturally provided support and hospitality, while also lending authority, leadership, and power to the gatherings they hosted in their homes.
In the spirit of Acts, Lydia dismantles preconceived ideas of both ancient Jewish and many modern Christians regarding who could lead, teach, and have authority within the faith. The fact that the church of Philippi supported Paul and received the praises of his Letter to the Philippians speaks volumes to his unquestioned respect of Lydia’s leadership. She represents powerful women who host, lead, protect, and hold authority within the community of believers.
To learn more, see: “Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and the Church” in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women by Margaret Mowczko.
“Dismantling Socio-Sacred Hierarchy: Gender and Gentiles in Luke and Acts,” by Moyra Dale in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women, April 29, 2017.
- Most synagogues outside of Israel were built alongside rivers and were often called “a place of prayer.” Michael David Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully revised fifth ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1987.
- Muir, A Woman’s History of the Christian Church, 9.
- W. Tarn and G. T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1952), 98–99.
- Justo J. Gonzales brilliantly unpacks the story of Acts, and particularly of Cornelius and Lydia, with insight from Dr. Loida Martell-Otero, to bring out the growing-pains of the largely Jewish church, as they came to terms with the fact that in God‘s kingdom there truly was no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, and man and woman. Justo J. Gonzalez, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abbingdon Press, 1996), 45- 51.
- Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Y. Macdonald and Janet H. Tulloch, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 157.
- Margaret Mowczko notes Ben Witherington’s observation that prominent women and house churches are always matched in NT writing. Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 212–13. Margaret Mowczko in”Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and Church,” in Priscilla Papers (July 30, 2018).
- Muir, A Woman’s History, 9.
- Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 18.