Christian Women in the Patristic World
This month's book response comes from Terri McCumber who serves in office administration and children's ministry.
As we read through book responses, may our ears be attentive to the Spirit and may our minds discern and consider truth well. Also remember the words of the Preacher from Ecclesiastes: The writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments.
Having been raised in a very conservative church where women were not given positions of authority and were not even invited to pray publicly other than in women’s groups, it was interesting to see the impact of women on the early church. There were strange things going on. Miracles occurred in the martyrs’ arena, there were visions and supernatural rescues. There were some who believed that martyrs’ sins were automatically forgiven, granting them immediate access to paradise – but only martyrs, so they were often asked to intercede on behalf of those who backed down at the last minute. Some prayed to saints, some prayed to Mary. While there are theological differences, it is important to remember it was the very early years of the Church becoming the Church. There were passionate discussions/arguments that took place for centuries. While mainly recorded by men, the records show women were very influential during this time.
“It is easy to forget or pass over the connections and relationships of women…as incidental to the development of the church. However, women were involved in the power networks of the time, heavily involved in the doctrinal discussions, and on the forefront of the construction of Christian identity.”
Some of the women highlighted were Thecla, Perpetua , Felicitas, Helena Augusta, Egeria, Macrina, Monica, Paula, Marcella, Melanias, Aelia Pulcheria, and Empress Eudocia.
Thecla was heavily influenced by the teachings of Paul, whom she heard in person. She was engaged to be married, but after hearing Paul, determined to remain a virgin for life. She stood up to her family, (unheard of at the time), broke her engagement, and lived a chaste and modest life. She realized the importance of the family of God, which was literally her family from then on. “The aim of philosophical and Christian ascetism in particular was to bridle one’s wild and disordered desires and passions for the sake of cultivating the life of virtue.” She became a role model for generations of women who resolved to pursue an ascetic life.
Perpetua and Felicitas were young mothers who were martyred for their faith. Felicitas was martyred immediately after delivering her baby. It was interesting to note the Romans would not send her into the arena until after she gave birth in order to spare her child. She wanted to be martyred with her group of fellow Christians, so they were all praying for an early delivery and it happened. She entered the arena with her brothers and sisters in Christ. It is interesting to note that Augustine, writing centuries later said that...“These female martyrs’ victory was due to ‘the one’ (Christ) who filled them with courage, enabling ‘these women to die faithfully like men.’”
Egeria was very wealthy and travelled extensively to and from the Holy Land, stopping at various monasteries for prolonged visits. She financed many of the monasteries. Her dialogues with the monks influenced the discussions held at various Councils.
Macrina’s family was very wealthy. In an agrarian society it was important to hoard during good seasons so you had reserves when poor weather limited income. “Thus when Macrina gave away her clothing, emancipated her slaves, became more like those who struggled with hunger and cold, and established a community of ascetic equality, she did something that ran counter to the status quo of the other landowners. Her actions would not have gone unnoticed…what Macrina and her family established was a daring enterprise indeed. They were ahead of the curve with their understanding of Christianity as a societal force for change.”
Monica was the mother of Augustine. Her dogged pursuit of him for Christ completely changed his life. “In the Confessions, we get the sense that Monica’s pursuit, even when parochially hued, felt, in retrospect, like God’s love and mercy following him all of his days (Psalm 23:6), conscientiously prodding Augustine’s ‘unquiet’ heart…For Augustine, Monica’s relentlessness was God’s relentlessness.” She was included, and was the “mature voice of wisdom,” in the many theological dialogues of Augustine and his friends.
The chapter dealing with Christian women in catacomb art was a little far reaching. The art is so degraded by time that most often we are told it may be a woman pictured here, or it may not. I did not find the conclusions drawn to be very reputable.
I most appreciated the fact that these women influenced church history in a variety of ways. When breaking away from the expectations of family and society it was not for the sake of personal freedom. For the most part early Christians understood Christian liberty to be bondage to Christ. Some of these women were public martyrs. Some were wealthy women who used their finances to travel and spread their influence to distant lands. Some were in positions of political authority. Some were mothers or sisters who taught and influenced the men in their lives who went on to be leaders we learn from today. I am grateful for their strength, endurance, perseverance and willingness to submit everything they had to God.
It is easy as a woman even in today’s church climate to think that we have no influence unless we are in a very authoritative position. While God uses women in those places, He also uses us in whatever sphere He has placed us. It is awe inspiring to see His Hand at work through these women in the second to fifth centuries.