(Christian Courier column, March 2014)
Elected to lead
Angela Reitsma Bick’s editorial, “The Courage to Lead,” (CC, Jan. 13, 2014) resonates for several reasons. The first is the powerful rush of identification as she describes a gradual process of surrendering leadership to meet cultural expectations. The second is a poignant sadness that this relinquishment is still true of her generation. The third is an affirmation of her insights that, one, women have experienced prejudice and exclusion throughout history, and, two, that women bear a measure of responsibility for this sad fact themselves. This is not an easy or politically correct thing to say, the truth threading uneasily through those two poles.
I just watched the trailer for Miss Representation (film.missrepresentation.org), a 2011 documentary that exposes the blatant bias against women in the media. Sexist images abound; many are degrading and violent in the extreme. Broadcasters comment snidely on Hillary Clinton’s appearance — “haggard, looking like she’s 92” — or crudely demand of Sarah Palin — “so, breast implants, did you have them or not?” A headline labels Condi Rice a “dominatrix.” At age seven, says one study, boys and girls aspire in equal numbers to be President. By age 15, a massive gap emerges. Girls opt out. Marie Wilson of The White House Project says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
On the other hand, trending author Elizabeth Gilbert, (Eat, Pray, Love; The Signature of All Things) recently wrote in The Shriver Report that it’s time for women to own and honour the freedoms that previous generations have won on their behalf. “It is down to us now,” she says, qualifying her assertion by noting that she is not addressing women in the developing world but her peers in western culture. Nobody, she points out, can do this for women other than women themselves: “I am a female with biological, financial and emotional autonomy. Such a thing was never heard of before. Ever.”
These are secular viewpoints. Like Reitsma Bick, I look to God’s Word. What I find there is liberating. I am made in God’s image. I have been commanded to participate in the cultural mandate: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Gen. 1:27, 28, italics added). Indisputably, women are called to leadership alongside men. That creational command became muddied and misinterpreted due to a prescriptive rather than a descriptive understanding of the fall (to borrow a phrase from the late Bert den Boggende).
Leader and benefactor
Recently I read an enlightening blog post by pastor Paul VanderKlay (leadingchurch.com) about Lydia’s significance in the New Testament. His conclusion is that Lydia is to Paul as Cornelius was to Peter — an unequivocal choice by an electing God to spread the gospel, not just to the Gentiles, shocking as that might be to Peter, but to women, shocking as that might be to Paul.
Paul’s ministry has been detained. There were places he might have wished to go — Ephesus, for example, where he ends up later. But, for the moment, God forbids him to preach in Asia or Bithynia. Finally, in a dream, he is instructed to go to Philippi.
Paul’s custom is to launch his ministry from a Jewish synagogue, but there isn’t one in Philippi. Perhaps there aren’t the requisite 10 Jewish men needed to start one. He is led, instead, to preach at a “quasi-synagogue” on the banks of a river, to a gathering of women, among whom Lydia, not a Jew but a God-fearer, has obvious status.
VanderKlay writes, “What happens next is too often brushed over in our reading. Because she believed, she had her entire household, slaves, servants, children if she had any, baptized. What this means is that she was in a position, like the head of any Roman household, to make life and death decisions, and lifestyle choices, for everyone that was economically and socially dependent upon her. She was elect, and in her election she was bringing along her household. Given their social status they didn’t have a choice. They would all become Christians, the church would be in her house, and she would be the leader.”
In fact, Lydia challenges Paul: “‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house’” (Acts 16:15). A bold and explicit test. Would Paul accept her hospitality? VanderKlay references a passage from Lynn Cohick’s book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life:
Lydia is a home owner, and she invites Paul and Silas to stay with her. Some complain that Luke has demoted her involvement in the Christian movement by denying her any leadership role. Two points must be argued against this conclusion. First, Lydia is portrayed as a benefactor, a very privileged position in the Hellenistic world (including Judaism). We must not downplay her role in terms of our twenty-first-century culture and imagine she cooked and cleaned for them. By giving them a place to stay, she revealed her generosity, and thus was honored by the group. Another female benefactor, Phoebe, was also a deacon (Rom.16:1-3) in the church at Cenchreae, a port of Corinth. Leadership and benefaction went hand in hand in the Greco-Roman world. Second, Lydia was probably the leader of the group that continued to meet in her home. Note that when Paul and Silas prepared to depart Philippi, they went to her house (not the jailer’s home) and met with the believers there.
Today, because of the history of patriarchal hegemony in church and in society, women can still be conflicted about their right to have opinions or to be in the conversation at all. We let our insecurities get the better of us. We don’t speak up. This is one of the reasons why I will always pray in public if asked and why I accept speaking engagements even though I get nervous. Women need to see other women doing these things. My pastor friend Sue Kuipers says, “I find that when I am a guest preacher at another church it is the women who are most anxious to talk to me afterward. They usually say something along the lines of ‘It feels so good to hear a woman’s voice exploring God’s Word.’ Like you, I still get nervous every time I speak publicly, but it always feels right.”
Writer/director Jennifer Siebel Newsom of Miss Representation is right. Elizabeth Gilbert is right. But, more importantly, the Bible is right. Reitsma Bick mentions Deborah, Jael, Rahab and Abigail. Lydia is yet another woman whom God specifically elected to leadership, a woman so pivotal to his divine plan that the Holy Spirit engineered Paul’s missionary journey on a path directly to her. God is still choosing women to serve him in every square inch of life. May we as women be found faithful to say, “Here am I. Send me!” (Is. 6:8).
Outdoor chapel at Philippi today.