Women in the service of Christ
Did you think that the Christian church leadership was all made of men? That was my impression until recently. Paul and Peter, Augustine and Jerome, all of the Popes, Luther and Calvin, the General Conference presidents. All men! Imagine my surprise when I started digging beyond the obvious and discovered that church history was filled with stories of women, some of them deeply influential. Through my studies, I realized that in the development of the church, women have been important. However, their stories have generally been neglected, perhaps because they were just women’s stories, not important enough to make the history books. When women as a group are overlooked by history, they as a group are disqualified from having had significant influence on the Christian church. We live with the consequences of this disqualification. Because we do not know our history, we may believe that only men really matter. However, as Christians become more and more aware of the legacy of women in the church, our stance on the role of women in the church will change.
I would like to share with you a few stories I came across in my studies. These were stories of women who had two common denominators: first, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, who gave them a sense of mission and dignity; second, they were not afraid to face any obstacle or enemy.
Christina of Markyate
Consider Christina of Markyate (ca.1096-ca.1166). Her baptismal name was Theodora, but she renamed herself out of her love for Christ. At 13, she promised herself that Jesus would be her only “husband.” Medieval English believed that for a woman, staying a virgin was an essential part of being a truly spiritual person. Consequently, Christina wanted to keep her virginity and live only for God. Her parents thought otherwise. They did everything they could to get her married: they locked her into her room, hoping she would change her mind; they bribed the bishop to talk some sense into her; and they let the man, they had forced her to become engaged to, into her room in the middle of the night to rape her. Three times. The first time, Christina sat him down and almost talked him into joining a convent. The second time, she escaped by hanging onto a nail behind the window-curtains. The man could not find her. The third time, she escaped over a high fence outside her room, where the man could, not follow. In no way was she going to marry him or anyone else. She was even ready to carry a red-hot iron in her hands to prove her determination.1 After all of her parents’ efforts failed, her mother swore that she would not care who “deflowered” her daughter, provided that some way of deflowering could be found.2
Christina “out-proof-texted” every clergyman who tried to persuade her to obey her parents’ wishes, by quoting from the Bible. Locked into her room, she had no one to support her but God. Filled with the power of the Spirit and through continuous prayer, she was able to resist and to live life the way she thought it should be. “The freedom Christina enjoyed to name herself, to resist father, husband, bishop, flowed out of an obedience to God which was a love affair.”3 This love and friendship with God moved her beyond any self-doubt or fear to be herself and to become a person of authority and power. Christina eventually escaped her family and moved into religious seclusion in Roger the hermit’s cave. He became her spiritual director and friend. When he died, she moved out and started her own public ministry, leading men and women to God and directing them in Christian life and practice. She became famous across Europe for being a holy woman.
Then there’s Katherine Zell (1497-1562), one of the most outspoken women of the Reformation. When she was in her twenties, she married a man nearly twice her age, and they really did live happily ever after.4 Her husband was a Catholic priest turned Lutheran preacher. Together, they made a team working for the Reformation in Strasburg where they lived, and for peace between Catholics and Protestants. Some of the Reformation’s opponents spread vicious rumors about the couple, saying that the husband cheated on Katherine with the maid. Instead of fuming quietly, Katherine published a letter through which she told everyone in the city that she never had a maid and that their highest wish as a couple was to die side by side on crosses, each cheering the other on! “Katherine was not afraid to tell people her opinion. She lashed out against her opponents who wanted her voice silenced: “You remind me that the Apostle Paul told women to be silent in the church. I would remind you of the word of this same apostle that in Christ there is no longer male or female, and the prophesy of Joel: ‘I will put forth my spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.’”5 She carefully ended her statement in humility, but also with not a little sarcasm: “I do not pretend to be John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees. I do not claim to be Nathan upbraiding David. I aspire only to be Balaam’s ass, castigating his master.”
Katherine was not afraid to work hard for what she believed in and do what others were afraid to. She hosted meetings between Catholic and Protestant church leaders. She organized food and shelter for 3,000 refugees who came to the city after the Peasants’ War. She cared for one of the city leaders who got sick with leprosy. She compiled and published hymns in pamphlet form to inspire laypeople to focus on God in their everyday life. And, as her last work in life, she performed a funeral for a woman whose faith was not the same as the local Lutheran minister’s, and the minister would conduct the service only after publicly renouncing her for denying the Lutheran faith. The city council wanted to reprimand Katherine duly for her transgression, but she fell ill and died before anything could be done.
Here is one last story about a courageous Christian woman. Elizabeth Hooton (1600-1672) was the first Quaker convert and the first female Quaker preacher in England in the 17th century. As a Quaker, she believed that all women and men were equal before God, and so she did not hesitate to challenge priests on doctrinal matters or refuse to kneel before King Charles II.6 She was beaten and imprisoned in England several times for her conduct and beliefs, but oppression did not stop her activities. Elizabeth was a woman of “boundless stamina and perseverance.”7 She went where the Spirit led her. When 61 years old, she went to New England as a missionary, even though she knew persecution awaited her there. The Massachusetts Puritan authorities were so adamant not to receive any Quakers that they had passed a law forbidding ship captains (under penalty of a £100 fine) to deliver Quakers to the port of Boston. And so Elizabeth had to get off the boat in Virginia and start walking. As soon as she came to Boston, she was put in jail. The governor decided that she was too great a danger to stay, even in prison, so she was forced to walk two days into the winter wilderness, where the armed guards left her to die among bears and wolves.
Elizabeth eventually got back to England, but she stayed only long enough to get the king’s permission to buy some land in Boston in order to build a house. She was very practical and thought that Boston needed a place where harassed Quakers could stay. But Boston authorities did not care about the king’s order. When Elizabeth arrived in Boston, she was chained to a cart and forced to walk to three towns. In each place, they stripped off her clothes down to her waist and whipped her with a three-corded whip. After this punishment, she once more was sent deep into the wilderness to die. For all her missionary efforts in New England, she received three imprisonments, nine severe whippings, and two banishments into the wilderness. But Elizabeth defied the inflicted banishment once more. She came out of the wild alive and went on a mission trip to the West Indies. A few days after she reached Jamaica, she died peacefully, far away from her home village in Nottinghamshire. The love that she bore for humanity made her willing to undergo every infliction she faced.
Ellen G. White
We Adventists have our own hero, Ellen White. She was rather young when she said Yes to God’s calling and let herself be filled with the Spirit. The sense of divine mission gave her courage to resist people who rejected her and tried to make her work hard. In an age that did not encourage women to be religious leaders, Ellen White wrote and preached and travelled and led the Adventist movement for more than 50 years. Where would the Seventh-day Adventist Church be without Ellen White? It’s not even certain that the church would have existed had it not been for her. One historian claims that only one other woman has contributed more to religious life in America than Ellen White (Mary Baker Eddy of the Christian Scientists).8
Ellen and the other women mentioned are great examples to us of what can happen with total dedicaticon of one’s life to God. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom to live life to the fullest.
Hanna Norheim is a Fulbright scholar at La Sierra University, La Sierra, California. She is working on a master’s degree in religion. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Monica Furlong, Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics (Boston: Shambala, 1997), p. 80.
- Eleanor McLaughlin, “Women, Power and the Pursuit of Holiness in Medieval Christianity,” in Rosemary Ruether and Eleanor McLaughlin eds., Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), p. 111.
- Ibid., p. 114.
- See Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation: In Germany and Italy (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971), p. 55.
- See Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987), p. 183.
- Ibid., p. 227.
- Elaine C. Huber, “‘A Woman Must Not Speak’: Quaker Women in the English Left Wing,” in Ruether and McLaughlin, eds., op. cit., p. 165.
- Ronald Numbers in Tucker and Liefeld, op. cit., p. 277.