The Women of the Early Church:  Nympha

An adaption of a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, Sunday, July 10, 2022.  Scripture:  Colossians 4:10-18. For background and inspiration, I’m deeply indebted to the work and the blog, of Marg Mowczko, for her scholarship concerning women in the Bible.  Her blog post on Nympha is used and quoted in this sermon.

Aristarchus my fellow-prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him. And Jesus who is called Justus greets you. These are the only ones of the circumcision among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills. For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea. And say to Archippus, ‘See that you complete the task that you have received in the Lord.’  I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

Colossians 4:10-18

Let’s get the angry bits out of the way first, shall we?  Probably none of you has ever heard of Nympha.  I’ll admit that I hadn’t remembered hearing or reading her name until I started this series.  Why is that?  Well, this passage isn’t ever in the lectionary.  This is yet another passage that includes the name of a woman that’s never read in churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.

This passage is similar to the passage about Junia, in that it’s another place where a woman’s name was, at some point, assumed to be a man’s name and changed to be so, even though there was plenty of evidence that the name was indeed a woman’s name.  Still, that didn’t stop the name from being changed.  In this case, it’s an even more interesting case of mistaken gender because as a man, Nympas was assumed to be a person of some significance.  One Anglican bishop, a Reverend Alfred Barry, writing in Australia in the 1800s, wrote concerning the “church in his house”:  “This phrase is found elsewhere only as applied to Aquila and Priscilla (Rom 16:51 Cor 16:19), and to Philemon (Phlm 1:2). Of these Aquila and Priscilla are notable Christian teachers (as of apostles, Acts 18:26) and confessors (Rom 16:4); and Philemon is spoken of as a ‘beloved fellow-labourer,’ and one in whom ‘the saints are refreshed’ (Phlm 1:17). Hence this ‘church in the house’ is seen to have gathered only round persons of some significance and leadership.”

Other commentators who thought Nympha was a man expressed confidence that Nymphas was the leader of the church at Laodicea and perhaps also a ministry co-worker of Paul.

With commentators who believed that Nympha was a woman, there’s less of an appreciation for her a leader of significance.  Instead, her role has been minimized. This downplaying of her ministry reveals a gender bias that is shared by some commentators and perhaps by the scribes who altered the Greek text.

So, once again, we learn that there are plenty of places where we need to employ a bit more of that fun term we learned some time ago, nearer to the start of this series—a hermeneutics of suspicion.  Things are not always what they seem.  And, gender bias is an issue in some texts and certainly in the interpretation of some texts.

It may be that this passage is not in the lectionary because it appears to have little to consider.  It’s primarily a list, with greetings to various people working with Paul, seeking not only to spread the Good News, but also to support and encourage fledging communities, in small churches that existed, as we learn in today’s passage, in houses, and more precisely, the homes of wealthy people.  There were no steepled buildings around the town green.  Churches were centered in homes.  In the homes of wealthy people, including wealthy women, there would be space for gatherings of early church communities.

From the very beginning of the church, wealthy women were attracted to Christianity and they were among the church’s patrons and protectors.  Nympha appears to be one such woman who opened her home as a place for Christians to meet for worship and fellowship.

Since wealthy householders were more likely to be literate than other church members, they probably read and reread letters and portions of scripture, when the community gathered for worship.  They may have offered words of encouragement as well as theological information and possible correction.  They probably organized the Eucharist, ensured that meetings and gatherings ran smoothly, and provided meals.  At a time when poverty was common and crippling, house church leaders cared for the material and physical well-being of church members, and they probably supported and hosted missionaries such as Paul. Some may also have baptized new converts.

So, what does Nympha, her leadership and her house church have to say to us, in these days, so long removed from those fledging house churches that were sometimes gathered around a wealthy woman who had been converted to the faith?

Well, we probably have more in common with the church in Nympha’s house than we at first may think, especially as we look around today and notice the small group we have become.  The church that gathered in Nympha’s house (just like other churches that gathered in the home of a wealthy person) was not large group.  It was very likely a group like our group—a small group of committed, faithful people, seeking to share our gifts, seeking to encourage the sharing of the gifts of others, mutually supportive one to another.  The church that met at Nympha’s house was very likely very much like our church, a small group of blessed people, endeavoring to share that blessing.

We may feel and seem small, but we are likely not all that different from the church that met at Nympha’s house.  We may feel small, but gathered as the faithful, we are able to experience and accomplish considerably more than we can imagine.  It may be a good and helpful thing to channel our inner house church, that though we gather in a large, steepled building, we have more in common with the church that met at Nympha’s house. And through that sense of connection, that we find we gather in a way that fully allows, and depends on, the gifts of the Spirit to be expressed, regardless of gender. We may be small, but we are large in spirit. And, that’s what matters.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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