What About the Church Mothers?!?

mhARRrGSome twenty years ago, in another lifetime, I studied History. And I liked it. So much so that upon graduation from Cal Poly, I set my eyes on grad school. In particular, I loved learning the stories of the past in order to help interpret the present and plan for the future.

And one thing that any historian knows is that those stories of the past come from storytellers. And, almost always, those storytellers are only telling one half of the story. In fact, paraphrasing one of my old professors:

“History is told by the winners, not the losers.”

Sad to say, when it comes to church history it’s the same reality, and the “winners” of course are male.

I have a dear friend who is just starting seminary. Yesterday I got an email from her with a subject line that read “Dissonance in Theological Education.” Here’s a quote that sums up her experience in her seminary class thusfar:

“I feel dissonance…because all of the theologians I know of from the period of Christianity’s development are men…are there any founding ‘mothers’ of the faith? Sorry for this, it’s just that from the first page of my text I don’t feel, as a woman, invited into the historical conversation, especially since the agreed upon name for the first 100 years of Christianity is ‘the Patristic Period.'”

Friends, this stuff matters.

In her book When Women Were Priests, Claremont Graduate School Professor Karen Jo Torjeson argues that the vital role of women in the development of the first church has been purposefully obscured for centuries. Again, the winners were men. Still, sounding a note of hope, she writes:

“The last thirty years of American scholarship have produced an amazing range of evidence for women’s roles as deacons, priests, presbyters, and even bishops in Christian churches from the first through the thirteenth century.”

So this morning let’s set the record straight. Without question God worked through the Fathers of the Church. Thank the Lord for Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Loyola, Gregory and, yes, Tertullian. More recently, let’s thank him for Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Lewis and Tozer.

And yet God also worked through the Church’s Mothers. And so let’s also thank the Lord for early saints like Lydia from Philippi, Junia from Romans 16, Paula who worked with Jerome and Teresa of Avila. More recently, let’s thank God for the lives, teaching and witness of Catherine Booth, Mary Slessor and Frances Willard.

Jesus is in the business of making so-called losers into winners. And so when it comes to sharing the history of the church with the next generations, let’s be like Jesus. Let’s balance the ledger. Let’s remove male privilege from the history books.

What about you? Which “Mothers of the Church” are you thankful for?

4 responses to “What About the Church Mothers?!?”

  1. Maite Rodriguez says :

    I used to work for Karen Torjesen, awesome woman! This post caught my eye because of the term Mother. Recently I’ve been thinking not about the church mothers but about the possibility or implications of relating to God as Mother. I was reading through John 14 and struck by how many times Jesus refers to the Father. And then it hit me, “Father” is a relational term, meaning it implies that there is a mother and a child. We know that that child is Jesus, but who is the Mother? Thoughts?

    • Caroline Reid says :

      Good question. This is how I fumble towards an answer. I start from the point that Scriptures are God’s message to us, delivered first to the Jews and therefore wrapped in cultural symbols meaningful to them. Same for the NT, especially the epistles, cultural symbols meaningful to people of that place and time. This doesn’t diminish my faith in Scripture as God’s inerrant Word to us. It does encourage me to discern what is cultural symbol from what is God’s Word.
      From there I realize that addressing God as Father made far more sense, had more power than any other form of address. But as I read God’s Word, I see that He acts in both fatherly and motherly ways. So I conclude that He (sic) is our father and our mother, and that it is tradition which leads us to address Him as Father.
      For Jesus, I see another element. Since He lived on earth both fully man and fully God, He had relationships in both dimensions, thus his Father in Heaven and His earthly mother Mary. This parentage reminds us of His unique nature.

      As I said, I fumble towards an answer and would love to hear from others with a different view.

      Grace and Peace!

      • rdixon1365 says :

        Great stuff here friends. Maite, I feel like I’m sorting this one out still. I can say that I agree with Caroline’s perspective in the sense that God surely acts in ways consistent with how we understand both fatherhood and motherhood. But I think it goes beyond that as well, to the level of identity. As in, God is both male and female. Wouldn’t he/she have to be, in order for his/her image to include both men and women?!? I’ll keep mulling this over and post about it sometime!

  2. Caroline Reid says :

    Elizabeth Elliott, Mother Teresa are two; there are also some mighty women just preceding me in my own church: Ruth Heppe, Margaret Carter, Marion Buteyn!


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