This past Communion Sunday, I looked up at the Lord’s Table and saw six women leading the ABC congregation in this Ordinance which is at the heart of the church’s faith and life. Six women, no men.
I felt like I was with the Apostle Paul in a riverside clearing near the city of Philippi:
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a God-Fearer, 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 us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:11-15)
Now, Paul was trained as a rabbi, and the traditional side of him must have cringed at first. This was a group of women praying together; no gathering he should join to discuss spiritual things. In his world, an official religious gathering could not take place without a minyan,* at least ten Jewish men. A boy could qualify as part of a minyan if he was thirteen years old, but that boy’s grandmother couldn’t qualify even if she was the wisest and most spiritual person in the community. Withdrawal would have been Paul’s automatic go-to attitude.
But something else had happened to Paul, something that was radically liberating. He had met the risen Christ, and he had opened him to a new reality, one where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). He now saw those women through Jesus’ eyes, not defined by their gender, their race or their social status, but as persons seeking God. And he sat down with them. That’s how the first church in Europe began.
Scholars have concluded that the Jewish community of Philippi was very small, without enough male members to form a minyan and establish a formal synagogue. The best they could do to maintain their faith and tradition would be to have a “place of prayer” where Jews could gather informally. At Philippi, this worship and fellowship meeting was led and dominated by women. Evidently, they communicated God’s truth quite effectively, because their witness attracted a Greek woman, a successful entrepreneur, who had become a “God-Fearer.”** Through Paul’s teaching, this woman, Lydia, became a convert to Christianity. She, along with numerous other women, emerged as influential leaders in the Early Church.
Male supremacy reasserted itself with a vengeance in the church of the Middle Ages and is entrenched in virtually all branches of Christendom to this day. Orthodox Judaism still requires ten men for a minyan, though Reform and Conservative Judaism have loosened up and are inclusive of women. Other world religions are trying to emerge, in fits and starts, from a history of keeping women in their place, which never seems to be leadership. But Jesus, if we understand him correctly, will put all of us in our place, and that is to be equally dependent on his forgiving love (Luke 7:36-50).
Back to Sunday’s Communion Service, did we plan to have six women in upfront leadership at the Lord’s Table? Not at all. Our practice is to have the Preacher and the Lay Leader of the day be the primary servers; these happened to be Pastor Connie DeVaughn and Joyce Spencer. The four serving Deacons are selected randomly on a rotating schedule; they turned out to be Donna Ragsdale, Allisonne Crawford, Carla Cunningham and Claudia Wiley. Six women; just a coincidence. Or maybe the Holy Spirit was trying to tell us something.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* Not to be confused with “minion.”
** “God-Fearer” is a term used eleven times in the Book of Acts and seems to have been a recognized description of Gentiles who were attracted to some of the profound teachings of Judaism, such as Monotheism, rejection of idols and the Ten Commandments, but were not prepared to become full proselytes, often because they weren’t ready to embrace some Jewish practices. Many of the earliest converts to Christ came from among the God-Fearers.