Women Overseers in 2 John and Elsewhere
by Alison Rowan
The Biblical permission for women to take the responsibility for a church is one of current debate. For some, the narrow interpretation of some of Paul’s writings, exclude women from all such responsibility for caring for men, since their view is patriarchal. For others, they see that Calvary rescinded the permission for patriarchy that was granted solely after the Fall and that through virtue of the new birth, all are now equally eligible for leadership as ‘sons’ of God, whether in the flesh they are male or female. Gal 3:26-8.
The argument is further complicated by trying to force our institutionalised hierarchical church structure into texts that speak of an informal confederation of Households in organic relationship to the Lord and each other, within a city that comprised ‘the church’, there. They would gather in their houses and in public places as seen in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46) and Ephesus (Acts 20:20).
Who should be responsible for the oversight of these households? Are there instances recorded where these overseers are women? I believe the answer is ‘Yes’, and it can be most clearly seen in John’s second letter to the elect lady and her children. It may be argued that John is writing to a female friend with a number of dependent children still living at home with her. But, is there evidence from the text, that refutes this?
The Bible interprets itself when this simple comparison is made of John's letters:
(2) His writing style and
(3) The terms he uses.
All three criterion are in perfect harmony in all his letters.
The whole second letter is a miniature version of John's first letter to his flock.
Verses 4-6 Do you really think a mother needs to be told to instruct her own natural children to 'agape' one another. What did she hear from the beginning? ... same things with which John opened his first letter to the church!
In verse 7 antichrist spirit is mentioned as in the first letter and that he is a deceiver, able to lead people astray.
Verse 8, John is exhorting her to beware of this deceiving spirit . First letter tells the flock to test the spirits to see if they are from God. He is concerned that by receiving deception they might lose 'things' -truths/ practices - that HE had worked with her on ... he said 'WE worked for.' Was he living in her home helping raise her children?
Verse 9 The 'Doctrine of Christ' is the foundation of a CHURCH! Why would John be writing this warning to a woman, unless she was able to teach the ‘correct’ doctrine of the Anointed One? Is this not instruction to ‘guard the flock’ as a shepherd would?
Verse 10 As with most early churches they met in a HOME - her home. That is why the term 'Household of faith' is used. Examples in scripture include Lydia's church Act's 16:40 and Rom 16 has a long list of 'House' churches or 'households' that are sending greetings to the Roman Christians. Many other epistles also mention these ‘households’.
Verse 11 They are not to welcome heretics into their midst. Why would a teacher of false doctrine want to infiltrate her family home? These people want to teach doctrine -- a CHURCH activity! Again, this lady was responsible for discerning who these people were and to refuse entrance - Surely with some authority over men required here?
Verse 13 The other female church leader's flock send their greetings too - from whichever church is local to John.
From this analysis, it is clear that the second letter had all the same elements as the first, Therefore the type of audience it was meant for was also the same -- a CHURCH, not a mum and her kids.
Not all of 3 John is addressed solely to Gaius, since verses 11-12 are in the plural and are addressing ‘the brethren’ of the Church that Diotrephes and Demetrius are in. Gaius is obviously being sent ahead of John - if he comes (v 10) to pass those instructions on. Despite being addressed to one person, the content is still over church matters for which it seems Gaius was being sent by John to be responsible to handle. My understanding of the letter is that Diotrephes was either an elder or possibly the overseer with a narcissistic, controlling attitude and enough ‘clout’ to throw people out. Demetrius is also likely to have been an elder, or was one that John was recommending should be one, or to become the overseer. Like Paul sent Titus to appoint elders in every church, it could be that John was also sending Gaius for this purpose.
It is written by the same author, without a doubt from construction, idioms and logic - how he approached and handled the things of importance.
3) TERMS USED
Anti-Christ, spirit of Antichrist, deceiving spirits are common to both the first and second letters. The phrase, “Whom I love in truth” is common to the second and third letters. But the one of most significance is his use of the word, “children” in all three letters.
The term, “my little children” in the first letter is him speaking to the body of believers whom he cares for. How does he address his flock? Look at his fatherly affection for them in 1 Jn 2:1, 18, 28. He calls them his “little children,” not once, but three times. They are likely to be ones that came to faith through his own ministry. I say this because it seems to me that he appointed Gaius to care for a church and who was himself, a disciple and delegate of John’s. He and they were reported to John to be remaining faithful.
“It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your (singular) faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 Jn 3-4)
Is it not completely consistent, therefore, for him in saying to the elect lady “your children” that he meant the body of believers for whom she cares? In addition they could be ones that came to faith through her own ministry. It is heartening to read that this was not an isolated example, either: verse 13 in Second John speaks of another kyria a materfamilias in oversight of a church! I think this highly unlikely that it is one set of cousins sending greetings to another set and their aunt!
Therefore, there can be not much doubt that the “elect lady" was an elder who had the oversight of the church that met in her household. This was by far the normal practice for the early churches eg Lydia’s and Justus’s where respectively the Philippian and Corinthian churches initially met (Acts 16:40 and 18:7). Justus’s villa could eventually not contain the whole church, so other households sprang up each with their own leader. Paul refers to the (Christian) brethren of Chloe in 1 Cor 1:11 and here the translators themselves add “of the household of.” The final chapters of many of Paul’s letters include greetings to an individual or couple and their ‘household’ (of faith).
A note on the anonymity could be for her own protection, should the letter fall into the wrong hands. It was difficult enough to be a Christian, less so a leader and even more so a woman leader in the very patriarchal society of those times - especially in Jewish circles!
So, in conclusion, here is very strong evidence for there being the practice in the first century church of women leading the church in their home - a ‘household of faith’. This is still God’s pattern today, if one considers the phenomenal growth of the persecuted church in China. The majority of these Housechurches are the result of women’s evangelising and pastoral care in their own homes.