Lydia: The First Christian in Europe

We are so accustomed to meeting in church buildings or borrowed public spaces like schools or theaters, that we can easily forget how difficult it was for the first Christians to gather. As a forbidden sect, Christians were excluded from gathering together in public, they were shunned by synagogues for their inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles, and of course, there were no church buildings. This is why the earliest followers of Jesus gathered in homes, but even this required the generosity of a wealthy patron—which were rare in a Christian community that attracted mostly women, slaves, and outcasts.

When Paul arrived in Philippi, however, he found an unlikely patron who provided him a base for his mission, a place for the new church to gather, and likely financial support as well. In Acts 16, we are introduced to a remarkable businesswoman known as Lydia. She was from Thyatira, a city in the region of Lydia, and was likely referred to as “the lady from Lydia,” which eventually got shortened to just Lydia. Yesterday, we learned that women had little status or opportunity in the ancient world, but Lydia contradicted these norms. Acts says she was a seller of “purple goods”—a very exclusive and lucrative business in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lydia’s work in the marketplace alone would have been remarkable, but Acts implies much more.

After Lydia accepted Paul’s message about Jesus Christ, becoming the first known convert to Christianity in Europe, she was baptized along with her entire household (see Acts 16:15). This was not uncommon in the book of Acts. The household structure in the ancient world meant that the identity of everyone within an extended household—relatives, wives, children, and even servants—were all determined by the identity of the patriarch. For example, when the Philippian jailer believed Paul’s message his entire household was baptized. The jailer’s new Christian identity necessitated the same change for everyone under his authority who shared his identity (see Acts 16:31-34). Likewise, the households of Cornelius (Acts 10), Crispus (Acts 18), and Stephanus (1 Corinthians 1), were all baptized when these patriarchs converted to Christianity.

The fact that Lydia’s conversion resulted in everyone in her household being baptized indicates that she was also the head of her household—an exceedingly rare position for a woman. The book of Acts does not fixate on Lydia’s unusual status, however, but rather on how she used her wealth and influence to advance Christ’s mission. She welcomed Paul and his companions to her home, cared for their needs, likely funded their work, and her house became the meeting place for the first church in Europe. One might conclude that the entire history of Christianity in Europe is indebted to the influence and generosity of a counter-cultural businesswoman and matriarch.

Lydia’s non-conformity may actually help explain why she was so receptive to Paul’s gospel when so many others in Philippi rejected it. She was familiar with defying cultural expectations and working against them. Lydia understood what it was like to be marginalized and perhaps ridiculed, so the risk of giving her allegiance to Christ through faith and public baptism was consistent with the risks she already knew as a woman leading a household and business in a patriarchal society. Simply put, Lydia may have been more open to faith in Christ because she wasn’t worried about upsetting social expectations. She’d been doing that her whole life.

Similarly, Paul didn’t appear to object to Lydia’s patronage or hospitality. He saw no shame in being part of a female-led household, nor in allowing the first church to meet in a house owned by a woman. While these facts would have certainly raised eyebrows among both Jews and gentiles in Philippi, Paul was more interested in advancing Christ’s mission than in perpetuating cultural norms. Lydia’s vital role in Acts reminds us that God sometimes acts on the fringes of the culture because those comfortably enthroned in the center are often the least interested in changing it.

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Lydia: The First Christian in Europe