Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

chosen lady

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.

“Lady”

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: kuria) in the New Testament or in later writings.[1] On the other hand, many women are addressed, or referred to, as kuria in ancient papyrus letters and documents that still survive today.[2]

Kuria is a term that was often 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.[3]

While kuria 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 kuria. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla (circa 150 AD), Thecla is referred to as kuria, or “mistress,” in relation to her maidservants. Kuria 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 kuria was used by men trying to flatter young women. Clearly, kuria 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.

“Chosen”

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;[4] the sister mentioned in the closing greeting in 2 John 1:13;[5] 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.

“Children”

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.[6] 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).

“Church”

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.[7] 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 of 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.


Footnotes

[1] 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

[2] See Kuria in Payrus Letters and the Elect Lady here.

[3] Accordingly, kuria is translated as “gentlewoman” (the counterpart of “gentleman”) in 2 John 1:1 of the CEB.

[4] Kuria occurs in 2 John 1:1 and 5, but the CEB and NLT have not translated the second occurrence literally.

[5] Phoebe of Cenchrea and Apphia of Colossae are each called “sister.”

[6] 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).

[7] 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)

You can support my work for as little as $3 a month.
Become a Patron!

Postscript May 26 2021

Today I read an article on The Gospel Coalition website, here, where the author 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.)

elect lady Margaret Mowczko

Screenshot of 2 John in the SBL Greek New Testament
Taken from Bible Gateway 

Related Articles

The Role of Overseers in First-Century House Churches
Articles on Junia here.
Articles on Priscilla here.
Articles on Phoebe 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)

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

11 thoughts on “The Elder and the Lady: A look at the language of Second John

  1. Whenever I’ve heard people say that Lady represents a congregation I’ve thought “But that’s just not how it feels in context.” It makes much more sense in the way the letter reads that he’s writing to a real woman that he knows personally. I wouldn’t stake my faith on that alone, but your background view of the use of the word and NT church structures supports what the letter seems to mean at first reading too.

    P.S. Congrats on the new website!

    1. Thanks, Tim.

      I find it difficult to imagine that anyone with a reasonable knowledge of ancient Greek, can fail to understand that the common word kuria refers to a real person, a lady. It is the plain sense of kuria. And, as you said, this sense comes through when reading the letter.

      The use of singular words by the writer (when addressing the lady) and plural words (when addressing the lady and her “children”) further conveys the idea that kuria was a person. (The plural and singular words are not evident in modern English translations, but they are clear in the Greek.)

      Then again, people’s preconceived ideas and prejudices can cause them to look for other meanings. We all have our blind spots.

  2. Marg, unlike you and Tim, I cannot judge about the greek. But one impression I have (from translations) is that the person writing 2 John and 3 John is writing in a very oversentimental way. The words seem to have too much sugar, I don’t know quite how to express it. Anyway, what I am then thinking is that the language of other, less sentimental writers, may not be the best basis for comparison with the language of such an author. Just a thought.

    Congratulations on your new site!

    1. Hi Knut AK,

      Glad you made the transition.

      “Sentimental” is not a word I would use, but I think I understand what you’re saying. There is a lot of affection shown in 2 John.

      The style of Perpetua’s Martyrdom and the Acts of Paul and Thecla might be described as “sentimental.” Whatever the style, however, kuria is a common word in ancient Greek that means “lady.” I have not come across any exceptions to this definition whether the word occurs in literature or papyrus letters.

    2. Dear Knut, would you mind me mentioning that “oversentimental” is a cultural judgement. I’ve lived along side South East Asian families and some of them definitely agree with you. However some of the North African families find Europeans like me cold, distant, secretive. When I read John’s letters I get the feel of a weary very old man, homesick for the people who’d become home, worried sick about his beloved churches, repeating over and over that what really counts is love that’s more than empty words. The first letter especially makes me want to cry. That’s OK, maybe we need to weep for the church sometimes. Liz x

  3. Thank you for writing this. When I first heard of the lady in John 2 I was still hovering between women aren’t allowed to teach and women can and should teach. The idea that it was supposed to be a church and it’s congregation sounded fishy and just another thing that people were trying to twist around. Congrats on the new site!

    1. It is fishy! Especially because a church and a congregation were totally the same thing in the first century.

      It’s so sad women that verses about women ministers have been explained in ways to hide their identity and their roles in the church.

      Thanks, Anna.

  4. Greetings. Every time I read your work and the work of others pertaining to the subject of women in ministry and in the Bible, I feel elated at first then followed by disheartenment. As a woman minister who has her Bh.T and a little knowledge of Greek, it disheartens me immensely when, “…women ministers have been explained in ways to hide their identity and their roles in the church”. The more Greek I learned the more bothered I became because I could see the error of the translators.

    It is disheartening at times being a woman minister, and that’s why I am appreciative of your work and find it truly encouraging. Your work also gives us Scriptural ammunition when fighting against complementarianism. Not that I start the battle, I am most often the defender of women’s roles in ministry. God bless you Marg

    1. Thanks, Joanne.

      It is disheartening. I hate to think how many women in the past have been dissuaded from ministry because the examples of NT women ministers were hidden to them. At least we can do something about this now, by highlighting these NT women.

  5. Marg I am so glad you teach on this! A few days ago I was thinking about this woman mentioned in 2 John and was confused about it because someone told me that Electa was the name of the woman, lol. Your article really clears it up for me. Women like this in the Bible are hidden Jewels, I’m thankful you are bringing them out of hiding.

    Do you have anything written about Anna from Luke 2:36–38? She is so forgotten by everyone and even I overlooked her the few times I read that passage. She was a Prophet and held permanent residents in the Temple. I thought for a long time that she just prophesied over baby Jesus and said a prayer, but the text actually says she was speaking about Jesus to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. Luke 24:47 says that the repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be proclaimed in His name starting at Jerusalem. If she was proclaiming about the Messiah in the Temple then that makes her an official minister as she holds a recognized post.

    I read an article that said the following:

    “Mary was the first to be told that Jesus is the Messiah and she kept the secret in her heart. Simeon having seen the Messiah, is now prepared to die. Anna then approaches the Holy Family. She, too, recognizes Jesus as Messiah, but she has a very different reaction: “At that moment, she came and began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). She is 84 years old, according to Luke, and she does not want to die: She wants to proselytize. Like the disciples who will follow her, she is driven to bear witness to what she has seen. Mary was the first to have the good news announced to her, but Anna is the first woman to understand fully and proclaim the good news.”

    I now think of Anna as a prodigy to John the Baptist. She too prepared the way of the Lord. Ephesians 2:20 says the household of God was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, that makes Anna a part of that foundation.

    1. Hi Anca,

      Your friend isn’t the only one who thinks her name was Electa. Clement of Alexandria wrote, “The second Epistle of John, which is written to Virgins, is very simple. It was written to a Babylonian lady, by name Electa . . .” I look at more ideas about her identity here: https://margmowczko.com/the-chosen-lady-in-2-john/

      I mention Anna from time to time. There is no doubt that she held a respected place and played a respected role. I have a couple of short paragraph on her here: https://margmowczko.com/the-other-woman-in-proverbs-31/

      I love the contrast about Simeon being ready to die and Anna continuing, and probably revving up, her ministry now that the Messiah had been born. She was preparing the way for Jesus. I’d love to write about this contrast. Thanks for your comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Loading

Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?

Archives