Women Missing in Church History: Filling Out the Historical Record – Week 4

This article is part of the series Pursuing Partnership: Men and Women in Ministry.

Based on Women in the Mission of the Church, by Dzubinski/Stasson
(Used by permission: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021)

A Taste of Chapter 2: Virgins, Scholars, Desert Mothers, and Deacons
By Rebecca Hopkins www.rebeccahopkins.org

In the fourth century, there was a raging debate going on in the church. Did God the Father create God the Son?[1]

In theological debates at that time, people threw insults at each other. Some people went to jail over their stances. Some feared for their lives.

But then a woman named Melania entered the scene. She was an ascetic, a widow who devoted her time and wealth to start monasteries in the Holy Land. She argued fiercely that God the Son had always existed. She, too, was thrown in jail. But she used her influence and power to get out. And thanks to her influence, our modern church doesn’t have that heresy. [2]

Melania is just one of many of the women in Chapter Two of “Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History,” by Leanne Dzubinski and Anneke Stasson. These authors have unearthed names and descriptions of vocations for women in the early church including virgins, scholars, desert mothers and deacons.

When we think of monasticism, we often picture men. But women were there from the beginning, too. Young unmarried women—virgins—who wanted to devote their lives to Christ had an important role of living a life of simplicity, sacrifice and community to point others to a pure Gospel. While modern Christianity places a high value on women being mothers and having families, the early church recognized honored roles that unmarried women played, considering them to be “heroes of the church.”[3]

Some of the ascetics, including widows, were also wealthy and served as patrons for monasteries. Like Melania, many also served as scholars of scripture. During the fourth and fifth centuries, desert mothers and fathers emerged. They were ascetics living in the deserts of Egypt and Syria with the desire to overcome temptation. They would often host pilgrims who would visit them and learn their slow lifestyle as a way to seek God’s voice and wisdom. But church history has largely recorded the influence of the desert fathers, and not the desert mothers.[4]

Women as deacons, or eventually called deaconesses, played a similar role as male deacons did, according to the Bible and early church documents, the authors argue. But some translations haven’t used the word “deacon” to describe the role of women like Phoebe, choosing instead the word “helper” or “patron.”

“What is it about Phoebe that makes translators reluctant to call her a minister?” the authors ask. “The most likely answer is her gender.”[5]

While women faced some cultural obstacles for roles in the early Christian church, men often looked to Jesus’ example in involving women. After all, many of the people who ministered to Jesus were women, too. [6]

[1] Leanne Dzubinski, Anneke Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church, Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 41.

[2] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 41-42.

[3] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 39-44.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 45-48.

[6] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 50.

This article is submitted by Wendy Wilson of Missio Nexus and of Women’s Development Track.  Women’s Development Track is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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