Pursuing Partnership: Men & Women in Ministry
The Blessed Alliance – Week 12
Just the Beginning
By Carolyn Custis James
The Apostle Paul and his team took an abrupt detour and traveled all the way to Philippi to lead a women’s Bible study! Pull your jaw off the floor, and let me explain.
Paul was going from city to city in the western environs of the Roman Empire on his second missionary journey. Accompanied by Silas, Timothy, and Luke, he was following a carefully planned itinerary to revisit and fortify fledgling churches he had planted on his first missionary journey. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. Paul received a powerful vision from God in which a Macedonian man pleaded urgently, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul was nothing if not obedient. He abandoned his itinerary, and he and his team headed for Europe and ultimately Philippi.
With such a dramatic intervention, it’s worth stopping to ask: What did Paul expect to find in Philippi? A massive Billy Graham sized stadium full of Greeks ready to walk the aisle to abandon their local gods and embrace Jesus? The direct encounter with the Holy Spirit no doubt led to high expectations. Whatever happened in Philippi was seriously important.
Instead, all they could find was a group of God-fearing Greek women praying outside the city gate, along the river bank at the place of prayer. One pastor called it “The ultimate letdown.” But you can’t since a whisper of disappointment in how Paul and Silas responded. They sat down and began speaking about Jesus to the women.
Among the women they met that day, Lydia is named as the first to believe. She was a successful businesswoman, the first but not the only woman to respond to the gospel (Acts 16:14), and she opened her home to Paul and his companions. It seems she also hosted this starter church in her home (Acts 16:40).
Some years later, from a Roman prison cell, Paul penned a letter to the church at Philippi. His words reveal how deeply grateful he was that God diverted him to Philippi and how indispensable those women were to him.
In his letter, Paul writes this:
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5, emphasis added).
On that first day, God led Paul to a gathering of ezers. Paul viewed them as his partners in the gospel and wrote of how they were engaged in the same battle on different fronts. Even with a team of incredible, committed, capable, godly men, it was still “not good for the man to be alone.”
God called Paul to Philippi because he needed ezers in his life.
In his letter Paul acknowledges how they ministered with him and to him. He is more vulnerable and transparent about his situation and suffering in his letter to them as compared to his other letters. They’ve kept track of him and clearly want to know how he is doing. Even as he writes from prison, a Philippian is next to him, sent by the Philippian church with provisions and instructions to bring back an accurate report on Paul and his situation.
As I write this final segment on the Blessed Alliance, I am mindful that what is supposed to be a conclusion is actually a new beginning. All of us, men and women, are on a quest to know and to live out God’s calling on our lives—both alone and together. What God says about us in Genesis defines our life-long callings and much is riding on how we grasp God’s calling and how we respond. Image Bearing isn’t a spectator sport, and God didn’t create his daughters to be ezer-warriors to sit on the sidelines. The Blessed Alliance is a calling to one another—to be a source of strength and courage motivated by self-giving love like what we witness in the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. It is a calling to pay attention and notice people who are hurting, facing tough struggles, and needing a helping, understanding friend to come alongside, like Mary of Bethany did for Jesus. It means putting patriarchy in its place—as the cultural backdrop to the Bible, not the message—and refusing to let it tie our hands behind our backs. Our mission is too important and urgent. The storm rages on, and we need all hands on deck.
This may be the final chapter in this series on the Blessed Alliance, but we have just begun to explore all that scripture has to teach us about our unity in Christ. The bottom line for Christians especially is that men and women need each other. The Bible doesn’t ask men to “make space at the table.” It underscores the fact that men need ezers in their lives and women need to engage that calling. A lot is riding on how well we do that. Without the Blessed Alliance, costly blind spots persist, our mission suffers setbacks, and we move forward at a disadvantage. The Blessed Alliance can be messy. But God’s Spirit is at work. Jesus is our North Star, and we become our best selves when we join forces for his purposes.
Paul’s Bible study with the women of Philippi led to the establishment of the first Christian church in Europe. Women who study the Bible are a powerful, even revolutionary, force for God’s good purposes, and when we join forces with our Christian brothers for that mission, kingdom power is unleashed. Please don’t stop asking questions and seeking to understand more about the Blessed Alliance. May God help us all to keep learning, growing, and deepening in our relationships as we serve him together.