Years ago I remember sitting at my desk during my church history class in seminary wondering where the women were in the textbook. The only woman mentioned in any detail positively was Queen Elizabeth I of England. There were certainly plenty of men whose stories had been written and whose words had been studied extensively in Bible classes.
Interesting that one of Elizabeth’s favorite mottoes was video et taceo or “I see and say nothing.” As the absence of women’s stories became more evident, I adopted the opposite motto: non video et non taceo – I do not see and am not silent. So for my final class paper I decided to explore women in the history of the church. I was dumbfounded. In the process of researching and writing I came to several conclusions.
1. There are plenty of incredible stories of godly women who demonstrated great faith and courage in the face of marginalization and persecution.
2. Most of these stories are not familiar because men have written the majority of church history books and have ignored or devalued the contribution of these women.
3. It is important that women of faith know their own history, that they know the stories of women who sacrificed much to follow Christ and that they have models of women who resisted creatively when oppressed, wrote passionately when silenced and found new avenues of ministry when marginalized.
I wrote my paper outlining a course just for women who wanted to understand their faith history. It was both enjoyable and inspiring to me as I focused on the early church years to the Reformation. That paper opened my eyes to the reality of women’s struggles to live out their faith and their calling in a world where men were in privileged positions of power. Unfortunately that reality continues in my world today.
Even though the man who wrote the history book used in my class did not see the extraordinary women whose stories should have been written on its pages, I know God saw them. I know because God wrote his own history book and he included the stories of women. What’s so amazing is that most of them are stories in the Old Testament where patriarchy was the ruling cultural paradigm. Men may have physically written the Bible and the history recorded in it but they were inspired by God to include both prominent and obscure stories of women.
I think of Rahab the prostitute in the city of Jericho, the first target of Joshua’s campaign to conquer the land for Israel (Joshua 2). How odd that Joshua would send two spies to Jericho after the disastrous attempt forty years earlier by Moses. Furthermore, the plan did not really need any intel from the inside since they would be marching only on the outside. But I think God saw the heart of a prostitute who clearly saw the footprints of Yahweh from Egypt to the walls of Jericho. He saw Rahab and sent the spies to provide protection from destruction and a pathway for her faith to be fused with a chosen nation, a pathway for her DNA to become fused with a future chosen Son (Matthew 1). Rahab is so prominent that she is among the names of the faithful in Hebrews 11.
But God also saw a quiet woman, the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). How odd that God didn’t keep the brook in the ravine full of water for Elijah when he was already using ravens to bring bread and meat to the hiding prophet. Instead God sent Elijah many miles across the Jordan River to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where he met a starving widow who was in the process of fixing a last meal for herself and her son. God saw the desperation of this unnamed woman and sent a prophet to provide resources for her physical needs and later a miracle of resurrection for her son.
From the prominent to the quiet, from the bold to the desperate, God saw these women, pursued them and embraced them. I am continually impressed by the quality of women I meet in the Old Testament. But more than that, I am impressed with how often God included them in his history, a significant contrast to the history books written since the canon was closed. I am greatly encouraged by the overall implication: God loves the female half of his image.
I believe God deeply grieved when women were treated as property rather than sanctioned as his image-bearers. He had compassion for the widows and the prostitutes. He answered those who suffered under the cultural pressure of bearing children. God saw them, heard their cries, answered their prayers, listed them in genealogies, used them to save people and gave them prophetic words to deliver messages and speak truth.
And there have been similar stories throughout church history. All of them together assure me that God sees women today and still considers our stories as integral to his purposes for the Kingdom. God writes his own history and only God can write our stories, our personal history as women who bear Christ’s image and are called to his purposes.
In an earlier post I described my vision for gender reconciliation. But how can this vision become a reality?
I’ve come to realize that even if the rules change and women are given places of leadership, the partnership is still vulnerable to misunderstanding and fear. I believe it is important for men to step into the stories of women with the intention to understand what it feels like to be a woman with a history of objectification, oppression and marginalization. Men who want to relinquish their place of privilege and power need to understand what that looks like from women’s perspectives and why some are fearful or conditioned to refuse men’s efforts to treat them as coworkers in the Kingdom.
I believe a good first step into women’s stories is to know their history. To those who want to love the women in their church well, I ask that you read all you can about women in church history and how they were viewed or treated by men in their times. Listen to their voices. Identify the passions of women and the fears of men. Pay attention to patterns of oppression and disengagement. Then allow these stories to inform the stories around you, the relationships you see between men and women.
I believe knowing the history of women in the church is one small but significant step towards gender reconciliation. I think I heard from another student after I completed my paper that the professor began to add the stories of women to his church history course.