Once upon a time you might have told your children the story of Thecla as you tucked them into bed at night. Once upon a time Thecla was considered by many to be the most important being outside of the Trinity – more important even than Mary the mother of Jesus. But that was once upon a time. Chances are few of you even recognize the name. So I am going to tell you a bedtime story – the Story of Thecla as recorded in the second century in The Acts of Thecla.
Thecla was a virgin engaged to be married. One day as she sat in her window, she heard the Apostle Paul preach. So enraptured of his message was she that she remained in the window listening to him for three days and three nights. Her mother became distressed and called for her fiancé but neither of them could change her mind. She decided to follow Paul.
The fiancé and the mother were upset and both Paul and Thecla were arrested. Because Paul was an outsider, he was flogged and exiled from the city. But because Thecla was a resident, she needed more drastic punishment. Her mother pled with the governor to execute her and he ordered her to be burned at the stake. She was tied up and the fire was lit.
But then a miracle occured. A thunderstorm began and doused the fire, allowing Thecla to escape. She found Paul and begged him to let her follow him. He allowed her to come with him but wouldn’t baptize her in case she changed her mind and proved to be unworthy.
While they are in Antioch a wealthy man named Alexander is immediately inflamed with passion for Thecla and offers to bribe Paul for her. But Paul denies even knowing who she is. Alexander tries to force himself on her, but Thecla publicly humiliates him, tears his cloak and pulls off his crown. He has her arrested and she is condemned to be thrown to the wild beasts.
When she is brought to the arena, however, she is repeatedly protected from harm. A lioness instead of killing her, licks her feet and the day ends with Thecla still alive and well. The next day she is again put in the arena where another lioness kills a bear in her defense but is then killed by a lion. More beasts are sent in. Thecla notices a vat of human eating seals (really!) and decides this may be her last chance for redemption.
She throws herself in the vat shouting, “In the name of Jesus Christ, on this final day I am baptized!” A bolt of lightening hits the vat, killing the seals and allowing Thecla to escape once more. More miracles occur until finally the governor gives up and lets her go.
She dresses like a man and heads out to find Paul once more. She tells him what has happened and not only does he let her travel with him, he commissions her, “Go and teach the word of God.” And Thecla lived happily ever after.
A Female Hero
Obviously this book was not written in order to promote conformity with the traditional social order. This tale of a female hero of the faith is about disruption, escape from worldly trappings, and spiritual union with the divine. Thecla’s values are a very different set of values from the world at large. And this book written presumably to entertain does much more – for it instructs, encourages and even advocates for the leadership of women in the church.
Many women appear in Scripture and other literature: widows, workers, financial backers, Mary Magdalene, Lydia, the Corinthian women, Philip’s daughters, Ammia of Philadelphia, Philumene, the martyr Perpetua, Prisca, Maximilla, prophets, healers and counselors. Many whose names have been lost to us.
Some early Christian communities ordained women, allowing them to celebrate the Eucharist and to baptize. Some allowed women to serve as deacons and priests. And many testified to their faith as virgins or by suffering the torture of martyrs.
Although they are a diverse group, today we can look at documents written by and about these women and discover some of their common beliefs. Karen King offers this list:
- Jesus was understood primarily as a teacher and mediator of wisdom rather than as ruler and judge.
- Reflection centered on the experience of the risen Christ more than the crucified savior.
- Direct access to God was possible for all through receiving the Spirit.
- In Christian community, the unity, power, and perfection of the Spirit was present in the now, not just in some future time.
- Those who were more spiritually advanced gave what they had freely to all without following any hierarchical order of power.
- An ethics of freedom and spiritual development was emphasized over an ethics of order and control.
- A woman’s identity and spirituality could be developed apart from her roles as wife and mother (or slave). Women (and men) could exercise leadership on the basis of spiritual achievement apart from gender and without conformity to gender roles.
- Overcoming social injustice and human suffering were seen as integral to spiritual life.
We also read in these texts an unexpected wealth of Christian imagination of the divine as feminine. For example, Wisdom, a feminine figure of God, enters into the lower world and the body in order to awaken the innermost spiritual being of the soul to the truth of its power and freedom.
Mary of Magdala
Another woman who plays a prominent role in the Bible is Mary Magdalene. We don’t know all that much about Mary of Magdala, but what we do know is significant. She was probably named Miriam and she was from the fishing village of Magdala. She was a follower of Christ and probably a financial backer of his ministry. She was a demonic – from whom Christ drove out 7 demons. But she was not a reformed prostitute.
This distorted picture of Mary Magdalene emerged in the year 591 when Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon in which he combined several Biblical women into one. It took a while, but I’m happy to report that the Vatican officially overruled Gregory on this matter in the year 1969. Nevertheless, the image of the prostitute continues to stick – we see it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar and we see it in Mel Gibson’s movieThe Passion of the Christ.
Mary is, however, mentioned by name in all four Gospels. This woman waits at the foot of the cross during Christ’s crucifixion after his male disciples have fled. This woman helps prepare Jesus’ body for burial. This woman finds an empty tomb. And this woman is the first to see Jesus Christ resurrected. This woman is sent to tell the others – an Apostle to the Apostles. This woman, Mary Magdalene, provides the thread of continuity that is central to the story of Christian history. It’s amazing, really, that there are any women at all mentioned in these ancient texts. And for Mary to play such an integral role is nothing short of astonishing! Once again we find that it is the marginalized who prevail and who are entrusted to deliver the Word of God.
It may be that Mary’s reputation was tarnished on purpose because she posed a threat to male control of the church. Some of the Gnostic gospels indicate that she and Peter were rivals for leadership of the early church and that Mary had a superior understanding of Jesus’ teaching. King believes that by making Mary into a reformed whore, the church effectively killed the argument for women’s leadership and for recognizing women as fit recipients for divine revelation.
How interesting that such maneuverings would contradict the testimony of the Scripture itself! Because here the portrait we are given of Mary is stunning! Mary’s role in the story of Jesus the Christ is nothing short of extraordinary!
The Subjugation of Women
Let’s back up for a minute. If we’re going to be honest, we really can’t blame the early Church for single handedly subjugating the role of women in society. That had been going on a long time before Gregory the Great climbed into the pulpit.
Even in Paul’s writings we are privy to the arguments in the church over whether women should pray and prophesy in church. Already patriarchal patterns are replacing the discipleship of equals that Jesus had instituted. Church authority became modeled after imperial Roman rule, with its well-defined hierarchy and subordination of women as norm. Churches had a choice to make and they chose to conform to the status quo, even as church fathers such as Tertullian argued vehemently against allowing women, inferior in his belief to men, to baptize or to teach.
Every single variety of ancient Christianity that advocated women’s leadership was eventually declared heretical, and evidence of women’s early leadership roles was erased or suppressed.
This erasure has taken many forms. Collections of prophetic oracles were destroyed. Texts were changed. In Romans, Paul sends greetings to a woman named Junia. But deciding that women can’t be apostles, translators transformed Junia to Junias – the name of a man. Even the word church is an interesting choice for this new institution, for it comes from a Greek word meaning “belonging to the lord, the patriarch, the master.” Whereas the term used in the Bible – ekklesia – means assembly, something closer to a discipleship of equals.
Integral Philosophyer Ken Wilber has interesting observations about the role of males and females. Hetraces these roles throughout known societies as they have gone through evolutionary stages. He notes that in the foraging and horticulture stages, there is no difference between the kinds of work a man and a pregnant woman can do. In these stages, some societies have male deity, some have female deity and some have both male and female gods. But when societies develop to the point where they become agrarian, when they start using heavy tools, things change. A pregnant woman cannot so easily handle a horse drawn plow. The role of women becomes inferior to men and the idea of female deity disappears.
It is only after the society passes through the Industrial stage and enters into the Informational stage that men and women can again perform necessary, society enhancing tasks with equal ability. So isn’t it fascinating that in our information age culture there is now a renewed interest in the notion of female deity and the sacred feminine?
Suppression of the Sacred Feminine
So it was that in Jesus’ world some 2000 years ago, women were considered inferior beings. Both official and folk Judaism were deeply male centered and patriarchal. Women were nobodies. Women were property. Women were impure. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Any public meal was for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a harlot. Women lived on the margins of society.
In this setting, Jesus’ attitude and actions toward women is striking. He defends them, speaks with them, heals then, eats with them, and even learns from them. Women were part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. They were among his most devoted followers, as well as financial supporters. And in the post-Easter Jesus movement, women took on leadership roles.
Jesus brought forth a radically different social reality, a major cultural revolution that would lead Paul to declare, “In Christ there is neither male nor female.”
But so disturbing was this change in the social order that many tried, and eventually succeeded, in suppressing it.
Two years ago I preached at a church outside Grand Rapids. I was invited because it was “Women’s Sunday” and because I was working as a leader in the church hierarchy. Between the two Sunday services was an adult discussion time. I was there to answer questions and hear concerns. I was not prepared for the hostility that met me; or the man who declared, “The church has been going downhill ever since they decided to ordain women!”
Such is the legacy of suppression that today female ordination continues to be denied in many religious environments and questioned by pastors.
Fortunately, not everyone shares these views or these values. Remarkably, the formal elimination of women from official roles of leadership did not eliminate women’s actual presence and importance to the Christian tradition. What is remarkable is how much evidence has survived in spite of systematic attempts to erase women and their models of leadership from history.
Evidence that we can continue to build upon as we are reclaimed and reshaped by the living spirit of God. For this is not a woman’s issue, but a call for the church and for all God’s people to understand the ways in which men and women can be who they are and be in community with each other. For justice is the work of the whole community, male and female together.
1) Why was the early church so threatened by female leadership?
2) Are men and women significantly different? How? Why?
3) Where are men and women still not treated as equals today?