The city of Philippi has a noble Greek and Roman heritage: Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, conquered and renamed it after himself in 356 B.C.E.; Octavian won decisive battles here in 42 B.C.E. on his way to becoming Caesar Augustus; and the first-century C.E. forum in Philippi showcased statues to Augustus, Empress Livia, and her priestesses. Amid all this political pomp, however, the New Testament book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Philippians spotlight three named woman and one man as the real heroes of Philippi, renowned for their pioneering and courageous service to Christ and the church.
We learn a lot about a remarkable woman, Lydia, in a few lines (Acts 16:14-15, Acts 16:40). She came from the city of Thyatira in the district of Lydia in western Asia Minor. Her name might be a generic “Lydian” label, betraying lower-class, even slave, roots. But whatever her background, she became a successful businesswoman in the purple trade based in Thyatira. Purplish dyes, extracted from certain mollusks, plants, and insects, were used to produce luxury cosmetics and clothing for high-end clients. Lydia would thus have been a woman of some means, though not necessarily of great wealth.
At some point, Lydia migrated and took her purple business west across the Aegean Sea to Philippi. The book of Acts presents her as an independent homeowner and household head. Likely a widow or divorcee, she no longer answered to any familial male authority. She is also depicted as a deeply religious woman. Though not Jewish by birth, she worshipped the God of Israel and participated on the Sabbath in a women’s riverside prayer group outside the city gate. It is to this group that Paul first proclaimed the gospel in Philippi, with Lydia distinguished as the prime responder. She was baptized, along with her entire household, and she hosted Paul and associates in her home. Accordingly, Lydia’s sizable residence became the headquarters for the new Christian congregation in Philippi (Acts 16:40), with Lydia naturally assuming a leadership role.
In sum: Lydia was a pioneering figure in the spread of Christianity from east to west, the first convert and church leader in what we call Europe today.
Several years after first preaching in Philippi, Paul wrote a letter to the church while imprisoned elsewhere (possibly Ephesus). In it, he thanks the community for sending him much-needed goods (“gifts”) via their “apostle” (apostolos), Epaphroditus, whom Paul came to value personally in prison as “my brother and co-worker and fellow-soldier and minister to my need” (Phil 2:25). During his visit to Paul, however, Epaphroditus became deathly ill. Thankfully, he recovered, and Paul finally dispatched Epaphroditus with the letter back to the church, urging the community to roll out the red carpet for him in honor of his courageous service.
Paul also names two prominent women in the Philippian church among his valued “coworkers.” Surprisingly, Lydia is not mentioned, unless she was also called Euodia or Syntyche in distinction from a common “Lydian.” In any case, Paul singles out this female pair as vigorous spiritual “athletes” who “struggled (synathleō) beside me in the work of the gospel” (Phil 4:2-3). This language suggests that they had teamed up with Paul to preach in hostile public settings, as well as exercised leadership within the Philippian church. Unfortunately, they also battled each other over some critical issue that Paul doesn’t specify. But whatever it was, he implores Euodia and Syntyche to reconcile their differences for the good of their common ministry.