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Today's Study

2 John 1: Who Is the Chosen Lady?

The little books of 2 and 3 John may well have served as cover letters to personalize the general letter 1 John. Whatever their purpose, they are addressed to individual people or groups. But what or who is this "lady" to whom 2 John is addressed? Why would the elder write such a letter to a lady? What was his relationship to her? Was she a real lady at all? And if this is a lady, what implications does that have for church leadership?

Three different views have been held on this topic. First, some of the earliest commentators on this text read the Greek as if "chosen" or "lady" were the personal names of the woman receiving the letter. In the first case her name would be Electa (as in Rom 16:13), and in the second Kyria (which would be the Greek equivalent of the Aramaic name Martha and does occur in Greek literature). But unfortunately there is no definite article with this Greek term, so it is unlikely that it is a proper name.

Second, another group of scholars have seen this as an honorable title for a certain woman leader in the church, although she remains anonymous (as does the author, who simply uses his title "the elder"). This would mean that a woman was serving at least as a house-church leader and possibly a city-church leader at the time 2 John was written. Such a situation is certainly possible, for women such as Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2) probably served in such capacities. However, the decision on the meaning of the term (as well as that of "your chosen sister" in 2 John 13) depends on the context of this particular letter, not on historical possibility.

Third, and most likely, is the interpretation that the "lady" is a church. It is not that the second interpretation is impossible, but that the switch in Greek to the second person plural in 2 John 8, 10 and 12 (before returning to the second person singular in 2 John 13) appears to indicate that the elder has a group in mind, not an individual. Likewise the situation in 2 John 9-11 appears to fit best in a group of house churches, not with a single individual. In fact, 2 John 9-11 would be rather strong words to address to a person whom one "loves" and who has children "walking in the truth" (although not all the "children" are). Therefore, although it is possible to explain the plurals as references to the woman and her children, the letter fits better as a message to a church, which is in turn greeted by the church in which the elder is presently residing.

The background for this interpretation is clear. Jerusalem is often seen in both testaments as a mother (see Is 54:1-8; Gal 4:25; Rev 12:17; 21:2). Furthermore, the church is viewed as the bride of Christ (see 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-32). In fact, if she is his bride, the title here is especially apt, for she is certainly chosen in that she has heard and responded to the call of God, and she is therefore a "mistress" (the more archaic translation of the Greek term translated "lady"), which is the feminine form of "lord" ("lord" in Greek is kyriosand "lady" is kyria). She participates in the rule of her husband. As in the biblical passages in which a city's or a nation's citizens are her children (such as Mt 2:18 citing Jer 31:15), so the individual church members here are the children.

Why would the elder write so cryptically? One reason would be to bring out his theology of the church, making it meaningful by making it personal. Another reason would be to avoid naming names that would identify the church for Roman authorities. If this letter fell into the wrong hands it would look like a relatively innocent personal letter, while it was really a letter supporting a church. Even beyond its content, then, it gives us an example of supervisory support in the early church (when there were no offices of bishop or superintendent, which were later developments in the history of the church) and of the warm mutual relationships among churches.

.........

Since none of the Johannine letters are "signed" except by the title "the elder," we do not really know who wrote them. Tradition has assigned them to the apostle John, but there are problems with this tradition and thus good reason to question whether any of the twelve apostles were associated with the Johannine literature. Thus this "elder" may well have had no formal office beyond that of "elder"--his supervision was informal, based upon his spiritual authority, not his formal position.

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