WHO IS THE ELECT LADY IS 2 JOHN?
The little book of 2 John is addressed “unto the elect lady and her children” (v. 1). The identity of the “elect lady” (Eklektē kyria in the Greek) is unknown. There are two basic theories about the identity of this mysterious recipient. In this post I will explore both those possibilities. This is not an easy puzzle to solve. For one, context is often a major clue is u these kind of mysteries. But with only 13 short verses, 2 John doesn’t give us much context to work with. We should therefore be careful not to be too dogmatic about our conclusions.
Moreover, the identity of the “elect lady” does not effect the application of this book. The principles of 2 John easily apply to individual, family, and church contexts. We can be confident in the teachings of this book, regardless of who the original recipient was. At the same time, there is some profit in examining the evidence and making some reasonable deductions.
Theory #1: An Individual Woman
The first theory is that Eklektē kyria is an individual woman that was close to the apostle John. Some believe that the elect lady is actually named Kyria (the Greek word for “lady”, which can also be a proper name). Others believe she is an unnamed woman. Likely, this woman’s name was not given so as to protect her from civil authorities hostile to Christianity. If this interpretation is true than “her children” in v. 1 are her biological children living in her household and the “children of thy elect sister” in v. 13 are her biological nieces and/or nephews. The husband/father of this home was either unsaved or more likely dead (perhaps martyred).
Evidence for this view:
This interpretation does seem to be the most straightforward reading of the text. Given the description of “your house” in v. 10, it would be reasonable to presume that this book was written to a hospitable family warning them not to inadvertently aid false teachers by having them in their home (v. 10-11).
We know from Paul that it was a strategy of false teachers in the First Century to “creep into houses” and prey on vulnerable women (2 Tim. 3:6). John could be trying to warn this godly woman against this (v. 8). Thus, the “elect lady” serves as a contrast to “silly women”.
Evidence against this view:
There are some reasons to make us pause and reconsider if this reading is the indeed the most likely. For one, individuals are rarely called “elect”. In fact, if kyria is an individual than this is only the second instance in the New Testament where an individual is called “elect”. The other is Romans 16:13, where Rufus is called “chosen (elect) in the Lord”. If Theory #1 is true, 2 John 1 would be the only instance in the New Testament in which “elect” is used as an adjective modifying an individual.
There also is little to no personal information in the letter. V. 12 indicates that we shouldn’t necessarily expect any, but the fact remains that the information given in this short epistle seems to fit a corporate context better than an individual one.
Furthermore, if Eklektē kyria is a woman than 2 John would be the only book of the entire Bible addressed to a woman. This does not necessary discredit Theory #1 but it is enough to make us pause and think. While the principles of 2 John do make sense as cautionary advice to a mother with children, they probably make more sense in a local church context, and the Scriptures are clear that churches are to be shepherded and guarded by men (1 Tim. 2:8-3:2).
This viewpoint is entirely possible. If this interpretation is correct, than it is best to apply the principles to the family rather than individuals by themselves. There are helpful principles here for parents are they foster love for God in their children and protect them from false teaching. Even if this viewpoint is correct, the teachings of this epistles still apply in principle to the local church.
Theory #2: A Local Church
Under this interpretation, the “elect lady” is a local church, probably somewhere in Asia Minor and possibly one of the seven churches in Revelations 1-3. In this view, “her children” are individual church members and the “children of thy elect sister” of v. 13 are members of a sister church. In this position, John refrained from naming the church and its location to protect it from the Roman authorities who were persecuting the churches. C. Gordon Olson, a theologian and former missionary to Pakistan, states, “Mission agencies working today in restricted countries have developed a similar code to communicate with our ‘workers’. ”
Evidence for this view:
Election is primarily corporate in nature. Calling a particular local church “elect” is not without precedent as Peter does that very thing in 1 Peter 5:13. Likewise, both the Universal Church and local churches are repeatedly compared to women (Eph. 5:23-27; 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7). Though the terminology does not require Eklektē kyria to refer to a local church, it does allow for it.
Also giving weight to this position is the fact that New Testament epistles are almost always written to individual local churches (Rom.; 1 and 2 Cor.; Eph.; Phil; Col.; 1 and 2 Thes.) or regional church planting networks (Gal,; Heb.; Jam.; 1 and 2 Pet.; Jude; Rev.). The only time they are written to individuals is when that individual is a church leader (1 and 2 Tim; Tit; 3 John). The only possible exception might be Philemon but even that little letter is addressed to the local church as well as to an individual (Philemon 2). It would be strangely out of character for a biblical book to be written an individual and her family apart from the local church. Again, this should at least cause us to question Theory #1.
Moreover, the themes of the book make so much sense in the local church context. While individuals should defend the truth, this is firstly the job of “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:15) Because early churches often met in homes, “your house” in v. 10 could easily refer to the place where the church met. In which case that verse is not talking about refusing hospitality to iterate heretics but keeping false teachers from teaching in the church. Or it could refer to the homes of individual members (remember that under Theory #2, this letter is also written to the local church’s “children”).
For most of the book, plural pronouns are used, further emphasizing the community nature of this book. V. 6-11 especially seem to make more sense when viewed as written to the Christian community than to a family.
Evidence against this view:
The biggest problem with this view is that it does require us to interpret kyria differently from its literal definition. Furthermore, the exact phrase Eklektē kyria is never used of a church.
Both views have their difficulties, but I lean toward the second position. The text does not give us the identity of Eklektē kyria so both views require some “sanctified speculation”. All things considered, I find the problems with Theory #2 view to be the least difficult to overcome. It’s not a “slam dunk” but I believe that this view makes the most sense after considering all the evidence.