The apostle Paul, in the closing section of the epistle to the Colossians, makes a passing reference to a lady called Nympha and the Laodicean church who met in her house.
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house (Col 4:15).
So many questions!
Who was Nympha? What role did she have in the Laodicean church? Was she something like the leader, overseer, pastor, or elder?
Look, we cannot say for sure, and there is the danger of saying too much about too little. However, I think we can reason our way to a plausible view.
Some scholars infer that Nympha was merely the patron of the Laodicean church, not its religious leader, so she was merely a generous hostess who made her own house available for the church to gather for meals, worship, and instruction.
But I’m not so sure. Paul seems to use specific language for people who merely provide patronage to churches. There is Phoebe who was a “deacon” and “benefactor” of the church in Cenchreae (Rom 16.1-3). Also, when writing to the Corinthians, Paul mentioned reports he had received from “Chloe’s household” about quarrels in the church, which implies that Chloe is the maternal head of the household, but not necessarily its leader (1 Cor 1.11).
Further, Paul can distinguish between a benefactor and a church leader. This appears to be the case with the letter to Philemon. Paul recognized that Philemon and his wife/sister Apphia were the benefactors of the Colossian church since the church met in their home, but Archippus appears to be the guy left in charge in Epaphras’ absence (Philm 1-3). A clear distinction between patrons and pastors!
However, Paul does not describe Nympha as a benefactor, he doesn’t refer only to Nympha’s household, nor does he distinguish patron from pastor, he goes out of his way to explicitly mention Nympha and the church that meets in her house. What does this mean?
Well, it is not 100% certain, but I think it is reasonable, even probable, that Nympha was both the patron of the Laodicean church (like Phoebe, Philemon/Apphia) but also the pastor of the church (like Archippus).
I know some will have a knee-jerk reaction to the effect, “But Paul … 1 Tim 2.12 … do not permit a woman to teach or to hold authority over a man.”
But when you add up all these small pieces of evidence strewn across early Christian literature, the example of Nympha in Col 4.15 being a good example, I think you can build a very convincing case overall for an egalitarian view that women were patrons of house churches and sometimes even pastors of the churches that met in their houses.
"I think it is reasonable, even probable, that Nympha was both the patron of the Laodicean church (like Phoebe, Philemon/Apphia) but also the pastor of the church (like Archippus)."
I think that's an awful lot to draw out of a single mention.
I also think that it's simply unnecessary to try to fit figures such as Phoebe, Chloe, Nympha, Philemon, Apphia, etc., into our current meanings of "patron," "pastor," "deacon," or whatever. It's letting the tail of modern church institutionalism wag the dog of apostolic Christianity. So to speak.
Not sure if you would classify it as too much with too little, but here goes: Was Nympha stepping up and being a good example due to the lukewarm men in her postal code? Interesting to think about. Perhaps her name will trend in the thesis charts. Great post!