Allow me to explain.
My grandmother, a woman of great faith, subscribed to a magazine called Biblical Archaeological Review. I loved that magazine. To be sure, it was far more appealing than its neighbors on the coffee table, Good Housekeeping and National Geographic.
I think two things about B.A.R. caught my attention. First, the Indiana Jones factor. Surely the discovery of cracked potsherds in the ruins of Biblical Gilgal must imply poisoned arrows flying from the walls, treasure maps on ancient amulets and, most likely, the arc of the covenant hidden in a snake filled chamber. But more importantly, I think B.A.R. wooed me because it promised, well, truth. Or certainty. Or the affirmation of faith, both mine and my grandmother’s. In other words, find a stele inscribed with “King David” and you can bank on the resurrection.
Since those days, I’ve sort of settled in with my faith. Sure, archaeology is important, but it’s not everything. These days, my faith is built on much more than the pages of B.A.R. Still, every now and then, an archaeological discovery catches my eye. Maybe there’s something new to understand about the faith?!?
Yesterday, it was reported that some frescoes in some ancient Roman catacombs depicted women serving in the early church…as priests. Priests! Here’s what could be in those paintings:
“One in the ochre-hued Greek Chapel features a group of women celebrating a banquet, said to be the banquet of the Eucharist. Another fresco in a richly decorated burial chamber features a woman, dressed in a dalmatic — a cassock-like robe — with her hands up in the position used by priests for public worship.”
Predictably, the Vatican sees something different on the walls. Fabrizio Bisconti, the superintendent of the Vatican’s sacred archaeology commission, said such a reading of the frescoes was pure “fable, a legend…These are readings of the past that are a bit sensationalistic but aren’t trustworthy.”
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Feel free to see them yourselves here.
“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.”
Could it be that there is archeological evidence of this, right under the church’s feet?!?
Tuesday was Ada Lovelace Day.
Who’s Ada Lovelace, you ask? Born in 1815, the daughter of English poet Lord Byron and a mathematics-loving mother named Annabella Milbanke, Ada Lovelace was a math prodigy. According to this biography,
“Fearing that Ada would inherit her father’s volatile ‘poetic’ temperament, her mother raised her under a strict regimen of science, logic, and mathematics. Ada herself from childhood had a fascination with machines– designing fanciful boats and steam flying machines, and poring over the diagrams of the new inventions of the Industrial Revolution that filled the scientific magazines of the time.”
Over time, Ada Lovelace found her way into some pretty lofty mathematics and science circles. Ultimately, in 1842, Lovelace wrote what some consider to be the first computer program, when she published an article entitled, “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator.” Because of this, in her time, Lovelace developed quite a reputation. Check out what one of her contemporaries had to say about her:
“Babbage described her as “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it,” or an another occasion, as “The Enchantress of Numbers”.
“The Enchantress of Numbers.” If you ask me, that’s a pretty sweet nickname.
Every year, Ada Lovelace day celebrates women in the science, technology, math and engineering fields. It won’t surprise you to know that these sectors of culture are owned by Tertullian. After all, according to this article,
“Women software developers earn 80 percent of what men with the same jobs earn. Just 18 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women, down from 37 percent in 1985. Fewer than 5 percent of venture-backed tech start-ups are founded by women.”
Simply put, we need more Ada Lovelace Days.
For this year’s celebration, Brown University hosted a wiki editing session, where “volunteers could gather to create and expand upon entries about women in science and technology.” Talk about setting the record straight! The story is here.
Recently, my daughter Lucy and I were talking about what she wants to be when she grows up. She blew my mind when she described a job where she could design buildings that were beautiful and safe for people to live and work in. Yep, my 9 year old is trying to decide between being an architect or an engineer.
Either way, I think Ada would approve.
The “Hall of Faith” passage in the book of Hebrews is a wonderful text. Pillars of faith to be emulated. Leaders who sought God in the midst of difficult circumstances. Flawed individuals who proved to be faithful in spite of their brokenness.
Basically, Hebrews 11 is the Bible’s Mount Rushmore.
Ah, Mount Rushmore. It’s a stunning sight. Four of the nation’s greatest leaders chiseled in stone for all to see and be inspired.
This week, I had some time to reflect on the passage in Hebrews 11, and it was a beautiful sight to see women listed among the Old Testament’s faithful. As I’ve blogged about before, considering the extreme marginalization that women in Bible times endured, the mention of even a few women in Hebrews 11 is noteworthy.
Of course I have read Hebrews 11 before, many times. But if you had asked me to recall the names on the list, I would really only have been able to produce names like Noah, Abraham, Moses and David. Like I said, Mount Rushmore.
So, to set the record straight, let me introduce you to the women of Hebrews 11 (sounds like a Jeopardy category, right?!?). There are three of them.
First, there’s Sarah, a woman who ultimately demonstrated a steadfast faith in God’s miraculous promise to deliver an heir from her barren womb. And of course her faith was rewarded, as eventually Sarah become the mother of many nations.
The next woman in the narrative is Moses’ unnamed mother, who together with Moses’ father, gets praised for being unafraid to disobey the king’s command. By being faithful in not killing their son, they partner with God in raising up a leader for the Israelite people, one who will go on to lead them out of bondage to the promised land.
Finally, we have Rahab, the prostitute. Yep, a prostitute makes the Hebrews 11 list of people whose faith we should emulate. Specifically, Rahab gets praised for giving a friendly welcome to the Jericho spies. As a result of her faith, she, along with the spies, survived the city’s demise.
I love how the passage ends, actually with the first verses of Hebrews 12:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
Friends, when the chips are down, and when sin threatens to hold us back, the writer of Hebrews instructs us–commands us–to run toward Jesus. But the beautiful news of this text is that we needn’t run in a vacuum. Because there is this cloud of witnesses spurring us on, spiritual mentors that God has given us, models of faithful living to cling to when our faith runs out, a Mount Rushmore of faith to look to and be strengthened.
And unlike the American Mount Rushmore, the Bible’s version includes sisters as well as brothers.
Way back when I started Challenging Tertullian, I talked about the systemic nature of male privilege. In this post, I wrote:
“First, male privilege is a systemic thing. By their nature, systems are hard to see. They’re subtle. They sort of lurk in the culture, influencing from behind the curtain.”
Truth be known, for some people in this country and certainly around the world, male privilege is anything but lurking. In fact, for many women, it’s overt and right in their face. When I talk about male privilege being systematized, I’m talking about little things that add up to establish a systematic bias. Sadly, too often bigger things (such as violence against women) remind us that this malady can be anything but subtle.
On top of that, historically speaking, male privilege has at points enjoyed a higher profile in the culture. Recently, I came across this site, which consists of a collection of anti-women’s suffrage signs and posters. What’s “women’s suffrage” you ask?
Women’s suffrage simply refers to the right of woman to vote and to run for office. In this country, we have only had universal suffrage since 1920, a change that came as the culmination of a long and pain-filled battle on the part of “suffragettes.” Notable American suffragettes included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Julia Ward Howe.
The life of a suffragette was anything but easy. Internal strife threatened the advancement of the suffrage movement. Funding was scarce. And finding new recruits was a constant concern.
On top of that, there was Tertullian.
Just take a look at two posters from the day, and imagine life as a suffragette.
Today, we can be thankful that, by and large, male privilege today is something less than what these sexist signs and posters demonstrate. In that sense, our culture has indeed evolved. And yet as we’ve been seeing here on the blog, we still have a long way to go.
When I think of the biggest male-dominated professions, I think of airline pilots, mechanics and people in the helping professions, like police and fire personnel. Oh, and then there’s construction, tech, finance, politics and, yep, pastors.
Come to think of it, it’s sort of tough to narrow down.
So I paid attention the other day when I saw this NPR article about a woman named Judy Brewer. In 1974, the Arlington County, VA Fire Department made Miller the first female career firefighter in the nation.
And as you might expect, Brewer faced more than her share of pushback. For instance, according to Brewer:
“‘The wives were upset about their husbands bunking with a woman,’’’ Brewer recalled in an article in the Dec. 25, 1990 edition of The Washington Post.`I’m still here, so obviously the concern died down eventually.’’
It wasn’t just her co-worker’s wives. Again, according to Brewer:
“When I applied at my local fire station to volunteer in Fairfax County, I was told essentially to go back to my kitchen, it was no place for a woman,” she says. Fellow churchgoers asked how she could “lower” herself to do that kind of job. Brewer’s fellow firefighters weren’t accepting, either. “When I first was hired, people were worried about different things,” she says. “The one that they used as a reason was that they were afraid that I would compromise them in a fire by not being able to help them if they got into trouble.”
So how did she persevere in the midst of this climate?
“…you just keep saying, OK, I’m doing a lot of good. And you just keep moving forward,” she says.
Friends, that’s self-confidence. It’s also perseverance.
In the end, Brewer thrived. She saved lives. She inspired (and continues to inspire) other women to serve. And she did the job well. In fact, in 1999, Brewer retired…as a battalion chief. Yep, she was the first woman to attain that leadership role in the country as well.
So here’s to Judy Brewer. Thanks for leading the way, and for continuing to “just move forward.”
What I mean is that a life with Jesus is a life lived upside down, utterly contrary to the standards of the world. In Jesus’ topsy turvy Kingdom, weakness is power, suffering is glory, shame is victory. In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Paul writes this:
“Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.” 30 God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. 31 Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord.”
I don’t know about you, but when I think about the martyred icons of the church, about the Christians who lived this idea out to the extreme, I mostly think of the men.
From the book of Acts, there’s Stephen, stoned for his faith. Then Jesus’ apostles met grisly ends for the sake of their faith. It’s said that Peter was crucified upside down. Philip, Andrew, Simon, James? All martyred. Then, from the 2nd to the 4th centuries, we have the so-called “age of martyrs,” with prominent names like Polycarp, Origen, Ignatius of Antioch and, appropriately, Justin Martyr.
Heroes all. But what of the women?
I mean, sure, there’s 15th century Joan of Arc, but what do you have after that?
Today let me introduce you to a group of women who were martyred for their faith. This article here profiles 18 of these women, and it is a summary of a larger list of 170 known female martyrs profiled in the book Feminine Threads.
For now, meet Donata, from AD 180:
“One of 12 Christians from the African town of Scilita who were martyred at Carthage. When called upon to sacrifice, she replied, ‘We render to Caesar as Caesar, but worship and prayers to God alone.’”
And meet Felicitus, from AD 162:
“Roman lady who brought up her seven sons in the Christian faith. She was seized and called on to give up Christ to spare her family; but she remained faithful to Christ. Her sons too refused to sacrifice to the Emperor. They all were executed–Felicitas and her sons Januarius, Felix, Phillipus, Sylvanus, Alexander, Vitalis, and Martialis.”
Or meet Blandina, from AD 177:
“Female slave martyred at Lyons. Though the weakest of the martyrs that day, she showed the most courage. She was thrown to the wild beasts and finally gored to death by a bull.”
Friends, when it comes to the upside down Kingdom of God, there is no privilege. Women and men are both called to walk the way of the cross.
So today, let’s set the record straight. The history of our faith affirms the martyred faithfulness of both men and women.
Thank God for their lives, and may we live in ways that honor their sacrifices.
That’s the “F-word” you were thinking of, yes?
When it comes to labels, I have mixed feelings. You know, when someone says, “I’m a reformed theologian,” or, “well, so-and-so is a right-wing conservative,” or “yeah, Bill, he’s a post-evangelical, anti-establishment theocratic nihilist.”
Sorta helpful, sorta not.
On one hand, labels can be useful conversational tools. After all, it’s time-consuming to parse every person’s position on every issue in every conversation. In addition, identifying with a particular label can helpfully group individuals into tribes. And in these smaller groups, positions can be clarified and readied to engage with the larger community.
On the other hand, labels can be toxic. After all, as soon as you reduce someone down to a particular type of thinker, you can put them in your box and be done with them. Because, truth be known, all labels have baggage, and the great danger is misunderstanding someone based on your understanding of their label. Alternately, when someone self-identifies with a specific label, there’s the inherent risk that they will therefore not be open to engagement, unless you identify with the same label.
Too often labels put up walls, and walls limit dialogue.
All of this said, my goal with labels is to always seek to understand what is underneath someone’s given or chosen label. That way, I stand a better chance of remembering that there is a person behind their ideological position.
As a label, “feminism” certainly has baggage. And, let’s be honest, that’s particularly true in the church. In the church, as a movement and as an idea, by and large feminism has been vilified, marginalized and dismissed as a prime perpetrator of society’s evils.
For example, here’s a doozy from evangelical standard-bearer Pat Robertson in 2011:
“The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Extreme? Yes. Over the top? No doubt. Representative? Maybe. Because it’s not just Pat. It’s been awhile since the church and feminism have gotten along.
To be sure feminism has lots of stripes, offshoots and tribes. But what is feminism at its core? Take it from Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem is a feminist icon. In many ways, Steinem is responsible for defining the feminist movement. Here’s Steinem’s definition:
“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
Doesn’t that sound like something we should all endorse? Recently, I came across this article, where the author promotes the idea of “freedom feminism.” She writes:
Though the major battles for equality and opportunity in the United States have been fought and largely won, the work of feminism remains unfinished. Across the globe, fledgling women’s groups struggle to survive in the face of genuine and often violent oppression. In the West, popular culture contains strong elements of misogyny. Women, far more than men, struggle with the challenge of combining work and family. Despite women’s immense progress, poverty rolls are disproportionately filled with women with children.
Who needs feminism? We do. The world does. But an effective women’s movement needs to be rescued from its current outcast state. Anyone who cares about improving the status of women around the world should be working to create a women’s movement that resonates with women. A reality-based, male-respecting, judicious feminism could greatly help women both in the United States and throughout the world.
Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the F-word. Until we get to the point where power is equalized and privilege is shared, we need feminism and the conversations that go with it.
So, if you must label me, call me a feminist.
And then let’s talk about what that means to you and to me.
Have you ever had the experience where everywhere you turn you encounter the same teaching? Like the Sunday sermon will be about a certain passage, then a friend will randomly share it with you the next week, then you see it on a wall hanging in a receptionists office, etc., etc. You know what I mean?
Ever since my post from Monday about the Church Mothers, I’ve had that same experience. So, as a follow-up, let me share two postscripts.
First, several friends sent me the link to this article by former President Jimmy Carter. The article, entitled “Losing My Religion for Equality,” begins with the story of Carter’s decision to sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention after 60 years of membership, based on the Convention’s decision to declare women as “subservient” to their husbands and unfit for pastoral ministry. That’s where his article starts, and the whole article is brilliant, but check out where his article finishes:
I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.
The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.
Next, yesterday I started reading a book by Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar entitled The New Global Mission. In the book, Escobar discusses the seismic shift that has seen the locus of Christianity shift from the west to the global south and its implications for the next generation of missionary activity. In chapter 2, as a part of a historical survey of evangelical missions, Escobar laments the lack of voice, respect and dignity given to women throughout the church’s long history. He writes:
“This loss of memory in the way of telling the story is due to what American historian Ruth Tucker calls a ‘male dominated institutionalized church [that] has deeply entrenched concepts of power, authority and office–and women have not fit into the scheme.’ Tucker wrote her book Guardians of the Great Commission precisely because her research into the history of missions showed how deeply involved women were both overseas and on the home front. However, when she studied the standard English works by well-known authors on the history of missions, women were absent, which reflects an incredible loss of memory…”
So, believe me. And also believe a devout former president and one of the world’s most respected missiologists:
The Church Mothers were and are legit.
Don’t let male privilege tell you otherwise.
What about you? How do these accounts challenge your perspective?
Some 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?