The title of this article refers to a wonderful song named “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.” If you don’t know it, it’s worth Googling. That song was my first (and for a very long time, only) introduction to Lydia. Why? I wonder. Lydia is so much more than that.
We meet her in Acts 16: 11-15. Paul, Silas and Timothy are traveling missionaries. They arrive at Philippi, in Macedonia, which is a Roman colony. It is the sabbath and the three men go outside the city to the river to pray. They find women gathered there. And —
“A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged [Paul, Silas, and Timothy] saying “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home. And she prevailed upon us.”
Lydia is with the other women merchants on the river bank and she is selling purple cloth. Purple cloth (dyed with indigo) was a valuable commodity. At one point it was traded by slaves. Is Lydia a slave? Unlikely. If she had been, she has certainly achieved her economic freedom. She is now a successful merchant, a householder with a staff.
Of all the women on the river bank, she listens to Paul “eagerly” and directs that she and her household be baptized into the new religion. She has power over her household. There is no mention of Lydia needing permission of a husband or father. Lydia is independent, powerful, and successful — not the picture we have of women in the first century. Indeed it is not a picture that we necessarily find today.
And impressively, Lydia is not silent. Lydia talks back. She imposes her will not just on her household, but on three male missionaries of the new church. “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come stay at my home.” It is an offer Paul cannot refuse. He has judged her faithful (after all, she just had her entire household baptized) and she offers an invitation that is really a command. In so doing, she makes us rethink “womanly” behavior.
Paul and his companions will stay with Lydia and in so doing, they establish her house as the church in Philippi. In the first century, Christian churches were house churches, a far cry from our houses of worship today. Instead groups of Christians would meet in houses of leaders to break bread and to affirm their faith.
In verse 40, after Paul has been freed from prison, he and the others “went to Lydia’s home, and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.”
By staying with Lydia and returning to her house, Paul has designated Lydia as leader of the First Christian Church, Philippi.
Lydia was an ordinary woman, but a woman of power, of independence, of success and of faith. Not a bad start for a church. Not a bad start for looking at the women of the early church.
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