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Women on the Frontlines (Colossians 4:15)
• Sam Storms
We must never minimize or overlook the incredible influence in the early church of a number of courageous and faithful women. Where does one begin to list them all? I suppose we’d have to give preeminent notice to Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose remarkable faith and submission to God’s will is an example for all people, male and female, of all ages (cf. Luke 1:38).
One thinks also of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, the mother of John the Baptist. Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus, also played a vital role in the early ministry of Jesus, as did Mary Magdalene (no, that’s NOT because she was the wife of Jesus and bore his child!).
The book of Acts is full of powerful and passionate women who put their lives and livelihood on the line for the kingdom of God. Yet another Mary, mother of Mark, opened her home to serve as a base for prayer and fellowship (Acts 12:12). Lydia’s conversion is well known, but not as many are aware that she opened her home to Paul and Silas which may well have been the original house church in the city of Philippi (Acts 16:15,40).
Priscilla, wife of Aquila, was evidently well educated and was used of the Lord together with her husband to explain to Apollos “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). In fact, they also opened their home to serve as the base for a local church (1 Corinthians 16:19). The four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist ministered faithfully in the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). The apostle Paul had such great trust in Phoebe, “a servant of the church in Cenchreae” (Romans 16:1), that it was she to whom he probably entrusted delivery of his letter to the Romans. Euodia and Synthche “labored side by side” with Paul in the work of the gospel (Philippians 4:2) and I’m sure there were others who shared this great honor. These are but a few of the many who could be mentioned.
I raise this point because we encounter yet another faithful servant of the Lord in this epistle. In Colossians 4:15 Paul sends his greetings to “the brothers at Laodicea and to Nympha and the church in her house.” There is a measure of ambiguity as to whether the name is masculine or feminine, but the weight of textual evidence supports the possessive pronoun “her” rather than “his” in the subsequent phrase.
As you probably know (if not, you should), so-called “house-churches” are mentioned on several occasions in the New Testament. Christians didn’t congregate in larger, public facilities until late into the third century (at the earliest). In some smaller towns the entire body of Christ would have gathered in one person’s home, while in larger cities several house-churches would have existed.
In addition to the congregation that met in Nympha’s house in Laodicea (which was located some ten miles to the west of Colossae), Philemon’s house was the meeting place for a (the?) congregation in Colossae (Philemon 2). Evidently the house of Gaius was large enough to host, at least on occasion, “the whole church” (Romans 16:23; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:23) in the city of Corinth. In all likelihood there were smaller groups of Christians that also met throughout that city. Priscilla and Aquila customarily hosted a church in their home wherever they lived (whether in Ephesus, see 1 Corinthians 16:19, or in Rome, see Romans 16:5).
Let me conclude with two observations. First, this text in Colossians 4:15, together with the others noted, reminds us of the nature of the church and how far removed we are from its original meaning. Use the word “church” today and the vast majority in our society, both Christian and non, immediately think of a building, a physical structure of some sort, whether in a strip mall or one of the more massive mega-churches that dot the American landscape with increasing frequency.
My point is simply that the church is people, an assembly of gathered believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether they meet in a cave (to avoid arrest) or on a hillside (to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation) or in a home (for lack of money to meet elsewhere) or in a 10,000 seat auditorium, the church is the body of Christ. A living, vibrant, spiritual organism (not organization) gathered and thrived and worshiped and prayed and studied God’s Word in Nympha’s house.
Walk through Nympha’s house and take note: there was no electricity, amplified sound system, Power Point, indoor plumbing, robed choirs, offering plates, Sunday School classrooms, air-conditioning, padded pews, pipe organs, pianos, carpeted hallways, computers, printed bulletins, or any of the paraphernalia we typically associate with normal church life, but you would assuredly encounter a genuine, God-fearing, Christ-exalting CHURCH!
I’m not in the least surprised by the growth and popularity of the so-called “house-church” movement today. There is a simplicity and spiritual authenticity that often is found in such gatherings that is sorely missed in what can be the impersonal and sterile environment of a mega-church (I emphasis the words “can be,” acknowledging that some large congregations do well in welcoming the stranger and facilitating every-member ministry). So long as these house churches embrace the biblical guidelines for a local congregation (plurality of Elders, teaching of the Scriptures, observance of the sacraments, discipline of its members, etc.), one can hardly object to their existence. Indeed, we should thank God for them!
Second, and finally, I also thank God for women such as Nympha and others like her in the history of the church. The fact that Nympha’s name stands alone probably indicates that she was either single or a widow. In any case it is testimony to her courage, her capacity to bear an immense spiritual and physical burden, and especially her willingness to subject herself to persecution and slander. A recognition of the biblical principle of male headship in church leadership and marriage should in no way undermine the spiritual gifting of women or inhibit their contribution to the expansion of God’s kingdom. Thank you Lord, for Nympha and others like her!
Celebrating women as “fellow heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7 NASV)