There are several women mentioned in the New Testament who in the past have had their ministries downplayed. Even today, some question whether Phoebe was deacon or minister of her church (Rom. 16:1–2), or whether Junia was really an apostle. Junia and a woman named Nympha have even had their gender obscured and are given masculine names in some older English translations of Romans 16:7 and Colossians 4:15, respectively.
But there is another New Testament woman whose ministry and identity have been diminished to such an extent that some do not even recognize that she was a real person. She is the woman who was a recipient of the letter we know as 2 John. In this article, I take a look at the text of 2 John. I especially look at the words the letter-writer uses to identify the people he mentions.
Following standard letter-writing protocol, 2 John opens with the sender identifying himself and the letter’s recipients. The sender refers to himself simply as “the elder;” he doesn’t give his name. He then mentions the recipients, also without naming names. The first recipient mentioned in 2 John is the “chosen lady.”
Many have assumed that “chosen lady” is used as a metonym, or metaphor, for a congregation, and does not refer to an actual person. This is despite the fact that no congregation is referred to as a “lady” (Greek: kyria) in the New Testament or in later writings. And we don’t refer to congregations today as “ladies.” On the other hand, many women are addressed, or referred to, as kyria in ancient papyrus letters that still survive today. Addressing a woman as kyria in a first-century letter is the equivalent of “Dear Madam” in more recent times.
Kyria is a term of respect and was also used for a high-status woman. The masculine form of the same word, kurios, is often translated into English as “lord” or “master” indicating the status associated with this term.
While kyria occurs only twice in the New Testament, both times in 2 John, the word occurs in other Jewish and early Christian literature. For example, it is used in direct address by Isaac to his mother Sarah in the Testament of Abraham (circa 100 AD), and by Perpetua’s brother and father to their sister and daughter, respectively, in the account of Perpetua’s martyrdom (202 or 203 AD). It is used by Hermas (a freed slave) when addressing his female former owner, Rhoda, in the Shepherd of Hermas (circa 100 AD). Furthermore, Hermas frequently calls a woman who appears to him in visions as kyria. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (circa 150 AD), Thecla is referred to as kyria, or “mistress,” in relation to her maidservants. Kyria also occurs several times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use during the early church period (Gen. 16:4, 8, 9; 1 Kings 17:17; 2 Kings 5:3; Psalm 123:2; Prov. 30:23; and Isa. 24:2).
It is a common word in pagan writings, too. In a manual of Stoic ethical advice called The Enchiridion (135 AD), the Greek philosopher Epictetus writes that the title kyria was used by men trying to flatter young women. Clearly, kyria is not a rare or obscure word.
Sarah, Perpetua, Rhoda, Thecla, and the “ladies” mentioned in the Septuagint, were high-status women; some were in charge of their own households. The lady greeted in 2 John is also, most likely, a high-status woman and a householder.
The lady in 2 John is described as “chosen.” In a few New Testament letters, the adjective “chosen” (sometimes translated as “elect”) is used to describe someone mentioned in opening or closing greetings and addresses. Specifically, three individuals are described as “chosen” in New Testament letters: the lady in 2 John 1:1; the sister mentioned in the closing greeting in 2 John 1:13; and Rufus, who is mentioned in the closing greetings in Romans 16:13. “Chosen” is also used to describe the recipients of 1 Peter. Furthermore, “chosen” is used a few times, more generally, to describe those “chosen by God”; this phrase, in many cases, refers to Christian believers (e.g. Tit. 1:1; Col. 3:12). The lady in 2 John and her sister are Christian believers.
The chosen lady is not the only recipient of the elder’s letter. The lady’s “children” are also recipients. Some have taken the word “children” literally and assume the lady was the natural mother of these “children” (2 John 1:1, 4 and 13). But this is not how the author of John’s letters uses the word.
In each of John’s three letters, “children” usually refers to Christians: to spiritual children or disciples. A comparison of 2 John 1:4 with 3 John 1:4 illustrates this. In 3 John 1:4 it says, “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are living according to the truth” (CEB). Compare this with 2 John 1:4: “I was overjoyed to find some of your children living in the truth …” (CEB, italics added).
The fact that the lady and her children are distinctly addressed makes the idea that the lady is a church untenable: if the “chosen lady” is a metonym for a church, who then are her “children”?
Some have suggested that the “lady” represents a church and the “children” represents the congregation, but this idea does not correspond with how churches functioned in the first century. In fact, “church” and “congregation” are both translations of the same Greek word, ekklēsia. A congregation was a church, and a church was a congregation.
In New Testament times, many congregations were small, comprising one or two dozen people, and they mostly met in homes. In some cities and regions, there might be a network of house churches, with each network being overseen by elders or overseers. The chosen lady was, most likely, the host and leader of a congregation that met in her home. It was to this lady and to her congregation that the elder writes.
Women were active in New Testament churches. They were involved in a variety of ministries. Some were prophets, deacons, or missionaries. Others, like the Chosen Lady, were hosts, patrons, and leaders who cared for local congregations. The participation of women in congregations and in missions, at all levels, was vital, valued, and acknowledged in New Testament letters. Today it is important to recognize that these women were not an anomaly. Women ministers were a feature of New Testament Christianity.
 A related but distinct word, to kuriakon, meaning “the Lord’s household” (i.e. a Christian congregation), is known from the third century, but not before. See E. A. Mathieson, The Perspectives of the Greek Papyri of Egypt on the Religious Beliefs, Practices and Experiences of Christian and Jewish Women from 100 CE to 400 CE. Doctoral thesis (2006) Macquarie University, at http://hdl.handle.net/1959.14/290184, p.194
 See Kyria in Papyrus Letters and the Elect Lady here.
 Accordingly, kyria is translated as “gentlewoman” (the counterpart of “gentleman”) in 2 John 1:1 of the CEB.
 Kyria occurs in 2 John 1:1 and 5, but the CEB and NLT have not translated the second occurrence literally.
 Phoebe of Cenchrea and Apphia of Colossae are each called “sister.”
 The plural of teknon (“child”) occurs in 1 John 3:1, 2, 10a, 5:2; 2 John 1:1, 4, 13; 3 John 1:4 (cf. 1 John 3:10b).
 It is believed that the chosen lady lived in a city in Asia Minor. Adolf von Harnack, for example, writes that the chosen lady held “a prominent position in some unknown church in Asia.” Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, vol. 2, trans. James Moffatt (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 224.
A version of this article was first published in Mutuality 23.4 (Winter 2016) (a publication of Christians for Biblical Equality–International)
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Postscript: May 26 2021
Today I read an article on The Gospel Coalition website, here, which is an excerpt from a book written by Kevin DeYoung. In his book, DeYoung states that the elect lady “is the church.” To support this idea he asserts, “most decisively, John uses the second-person plural throughout 2 John, indicating that he has not an individual in mind but a body of believers (vv. 6, 8, 10, 12).” However, this assertion is misleading.
There are 5 singular second-person pronouns when the lady is addressed directly in 2 John. And there is 1 singular third-person pronoun equivalent to “her.” Plural language is used when the lady along with her “children” are addressed or spoken about. (Somewhat similarly, Paul uses singular language when addressing Philemon but plural language in Phlm. 1:25 when addressing the church.)
Here is a screenshot of 2 John with the singular pronouns that refer to the lady highlighted. (In a footnote here I highlight the singular and plural language in an English translation of 2 John.)
Screenshot of 2 John in the SBL Greek New Testament
Taken from Bible Gateway
The Role of Overseers in First-Century House Churches
All my articles on Junia are here.
All my articles on Priscilla are here.
All my articles on Phoebe are here.
Were there female elders in NT Churches?
Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
Who is “she” who is in Babylon? (1 Peter 5:13)