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Women in Scripture and Mission

Ancient women on bible

Christian history is full of remarkable women. Here we highlight women in the Old Testament, New Testament, and in mission since the early days of the church to the twenty-first century. Some of their lives are complex, where there is much to say. Others are barely remembered. However, their stories are worth knowing. They were created in God's image as a strong rescue, and through the power of the Holy Spirit they prophesy, heal, preach, teach, create, lead, fight, nurture, protect, and disciple others. All-in-all, these leaders provide the church with a window into how women are an integral part of God's work in our world.


Old Testament
Women

Women in Early
Church History

Women During
the 
Reformation


Featured

Lydia

by Kimberly Dickson

 

We do not appreciate how incredible Lydia’s life in Acts really was. Justo Gonzalez in Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, brilliantly explains how her history in Acts 16 is part of a series that depicts the Jewish church in Jerusalem coming to terms with the expansion of God’s kingdom. Before Lydia is introduced, Acts describes how Peter came to terms with the Holy Spirit’s inclusion of the gentile Roman soldier Cornelius and his entire household. Peter would naturally have resisted their inclusion, as part of his steadfast rejection of unclean meat that he demonstrated in his vision. However, when Peter saw the Holy Spirit descend on the unclean, uncircumcised yet god-fearing Romans, Cornelius and his family, he was compelled to admit that God intended to include them on an equal footing with faithful Jews. Not surprisingly, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted by the church for eating unclean food withGentile. In contrast, though, when he told them what happened, “they praised God saying, ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18 ).

Later in Acts, the church is called to expand this vision even further to include Gentile women’s leadership. It begins with Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia, because a man is calling him there to help (Acts 16:9-10). Paul obeys and goes to Philippi in Macedonia, looking for men who worship “at a place of prayer,” (Acts 16:13 ), which implies a synagogue.34 A synagogue required a minimum number of men to be present. Instead, he found god-fearing women worshipping alongside the river. After hearing Paul speak, Lydia–a wealthy businesswoman–accepted Paul’s message and was baptized, along with her whole household. She was the first Christian convert in Europe.35 This takes Peter’s earlier experience one step further. Peter had to come to terms with a god-fearing, uncircumcised gentile man. Paul must come to terms with a gentile god-fearing woman who is the head of her household. The account further highlights how Lydia challenges his preconceived ideas: “If you have found me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15 ). The Jewish views of gentiles and women was clear - on no terms would they enter a gentile home to stay and eat with them. Yet Lydia was inviting Paul to do just that! What is more, as a Macedonian woman she considered herself nearly equal to men.

If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions for them from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers.36

Thus, Lydia was daring Paul to “not just talk the talk but walk the walk.”37 To Paul’s credit, he accepted her challenge, and the church founded in her home became central to Paul’s ministry, a cornerstone of encouragement and the only church from whom he accepted financial support.

The significance of Lydia’s conversion lies in who she was and what she represented for the expansion of the church. Lydia fits well within the Macedonian description of women. She is described as a businesswoman who sells purple cloth. Purple cloth was only worn by the elite, meaning Lydia’s clients were the wealthiest and most influential people of Philippi. Though she was not a woman from the noble class, (as nobles were not allowed to engage in business), she was closely associated with them. Thus, she was in both a position of influence and power. Further, she was free to make her own decisions, independent of the Greco-Roman paterfamilias restrictions evidenced by her decision to become baptized. Without the approval of her father or husband, Lydia freely listened to Paul and chose to follow Jesus. Not only that, but her entire household followed her lead. The Greek is clear that Lydia, a woman, was the head of her household, including family, servants, and slaves.38

She also represents the prototype for house churches. Ben Witherington observes that whenever house churches are mentioned in the New Testament, they are always associated with prominent women.39 Early house churches were often led by women, because the home was within the private realm--women’s domain. Here they could teach and preach without being in the public eye.40 The fact that she hosted Paul and those who traveled with him indicates that her home was large enough to care for and host traveling Christians, making it a central meeting place for believers. In her position, she was likely a patron of the church, providing powerful political and financial support, as well as introducing her influential circle of contacts to the faith.41 Wealthy and influential women, like Lydia, filled a unique position in the early church. They naturally provided support and hospitality, while also lending authority, leadership, and power to the gatherings they hosted in their homes.

In the spirit of Acts, Lydia dismantles preconceived ideas of both ancient Jewish and many modern Christians regarding who could lead, teach, and have authority within the faith. The fact that the church of Philippi supported Paul and received the praises of his Letter to the Philippians speaks volumes to his unquestioned respect of Lydia’s leadership. She represents powerful women who host, lead, protect, and hold authority within the community of believers.

To learn more, see: “Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and the Church" in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women by Margaret Mowczko.

Dismantling Socio-Sacred Hierarchy: Gender and Gentiles in Luke and Acts,” by Moyra Dale in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women, April 29, 2017.

Notes

  1. Most synagogues outside of Israel were built alongside rivers and were often called “a place of prayer.” Michael David Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully revised fifth ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1987.
     
  2. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Christian Church, 9.
     
  3. W. Tarn and G. T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1952), 98–99.
     
  4. Justo J. Gonzales brilliantly unpacks the story of Acts, and particularly of Cornelius and Lydia, with insight from Dr. Loida Martell-Otero, to bring out the growing-pains of the largely Jewish church, as they came to terms with the fact that in God‘s kingdom there truly was no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, and man and woman. Justo J. Gonzalez, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abbingdon Press, 1996), 45- 51.
     
  5. Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Y. Macdonald and Janet H. Tulloch, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 157.
     
  6. Margaret Mowczko notes Ben Witherington’s observation that prominent women and house churches are always matched in NT writing. Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 212–13. Margaret Mowczko in"Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and Church,” in Priscilla Papers (July 30, 2018). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/wealthy-women-first-century-roman-world-and
     
  7. Muir, A Woman’s History, 9.
     

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Old Testament Women

Eve

by Kimberly Dickson

 

“Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper (ezer) as his partner’” (Gen. 2:18 NRSV).

Eve at Creation

God declares that it is not good for Adam to be alone, and he rescued Adam through the creation of Eve. Scripture repeatedly describes God as ezer, a Hebrew word meaning “strong rescue.” This is most familiar to us in Psalm 121:1-2, “I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where does my ezer (my help) come from? My ezer (my help) comes from the Lord, the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth.” Here we understand that "helper" is a strong rescue. In fact, ezer is used 21 times in scripture, most often to describe God's strong rescue of Israel. 

Created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), as a strong rescue (Gen. 2:18), Eve rescues Adam from governing creation alone. The creation context of Genesis 2 concerns the garden which provides the source for man's work and sustenance, as well as his need for a strong partner in governing it. Yet Christian teachings have misconstrued Eve's strong rescue to mean that women’s purpose is to rescue men from their sexual temptations.1 This passage NEVER mentions or alludes to sex or reproduction. In fact, in Genesis 2, God specifically forms the animals to see if they might provide a strong rescue and partner for Adam in governing. They do not. Adam’s rescue can only come from one who shares God’s image, which the animals do not. So, God puts him into a deep sleep and creates Eve from Adam's side. Then Adam immediately recognizes that Eve shares his substance. In a beautiful poem of delight, we read: 

“This one at last, bone of my bones 

       And flesh of my flesh; 

 This one shall be called ‘woman’ 

       For out of man this one has been taken” Genesis 2:22 (NAB) 

As the garden sustains both Adam and Eve, together they both worked to preserve and care for it. With their shared spiritual and physical origins, Adam and Eve shared authority together in caring for creation.  

To learn more on the creation of Eve, see “Created in God’s Image: Theological and Social Impact” by John Wijngaards.

Notes

  1. Mark Driscoll, pastor of a former mega-church with multiple satellite churches in Seattle, Washington, regularly taught this heresy. See the podcast, Mike Cosper, “The Things We Do to Women,” July 26, 2021 in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, podcast, 56 min, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/podcasts/rise-and-fall-of-mars-hill/mars-hill-mark-driscoll-podcast-things-we-do-women.html.
     

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Sarah

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Sarah, like all humanity, is complicated. Much of her story is resonant with the sex-trafficking underworld we’ve learned so much about in past decades. Sarah was both Abraham’s wife and his half-sister, something the Mosaic law later condemns (Lev. 18:9). Twice, Abraham objectified Sarah’s beauty to save his own life. He offered her to the leaders of the lands to take and “know” as their wife. Like prostitutes controlled by their pimps, she supported Abraham’s misleading story that she was his sister rather than his wife (Gen.12:11-20; Gen. 20:1-7). In Egypt, sold for Abraham’s life and welfare, she acquired her own slave, Hagar (Gen. 16:1). Though Sarah was beautiful, she was barren, unable to bear children. She aged without the comfort of knowing she would have a child to carry on her legacy, to care for her in her old age, and to be her glory. But she was resourceful. Having been traded for sex, Sarah also gave her slave to her husband to bear a child. According to Ancient Near East law, the child born to the slave would be considered Sarah’s own child.2 Though a survivor of abuse, she was also an abuser, so much so that her slave Hagar fled from her into the desert (Gen. 16:1-9). Later, Sarah required Abraham to expel Hagar and her child from the family, and he complied. Intertwined in this story is an amazing degree of freedom and equality between Sarah and Abraham. Though Abraham victimized Sarah, by the time they were old, she had earned his ear and his respect. In fact, Jewish tradition celebrates their oneness and equality.3

Amid the abuse Sarah endured in a patriarchal society, and the abuse she perpetuated— God entered her story and showed himself as a God of redemption. God noticed her laughter as God promised she would bear a son in her old age, and God instructed Abraham to listen to and follow her (Gen. 16:2, 21:12). God ensured the covenant promise came through her rather than any of Abraham’s other wives, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen. 17:16). At this moment, God changed her name to Sarah, which is the feminine form of chief or prince (Gen. 17:15-19, 21). “A change of name in the Bible indicates a new phase in that person’s cooperation with the divine purpose.”4 She became a chieftess, or princess, as the leader of the tribe of Israel.

To learn more about Sarah’s change of name, see “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38,” by Anna Beresford in Priscilla Papers, Vol 35 no 4 (Autumn 2021), page 11.

To learn about the Jewish perspective on Abraham and Sarah see: “The Oneness of Abraham and Sarah,” by Aliyah Jacobs in Mutuality, December 24, 2014.

Notes

  1. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 226-227.
     
  2. Aliyah Jacobs, “The Oneness of Abraham and Sarah,” Mutuality (December 24, 2014). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/oneness-abraham-and-sarah.
     
  3. Terrence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” NIB 1:459, quoted in Anna Beresford, “Whose Wife Shall She Be,” Priscilla Papers, 35 No. 4 (Autumn 2021): 11.
     

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Hagar

by Kimberly Dickson

 


Hagar’s story is recorded in Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:9-19. An Egyptian slave owned by Sarah, Hagar likely joined Sarah while Sarah was part of Pharoah’s household in Egypt, (Gen. 12:10-15). As Sarah lost faith that she would bear a child, she gave Hagar to Abraham to bear a son in her name. It was common practice in the Ancient Near Eastern culture to offer concubines in overcoming infertility.5 In this particular case, Scripture indicates that in bearing a child, Hagar became Abraham’s wife, while remaining Sarah’s slave.

When Hagar became pregnant, her household status increased, inciting Sarah’s jealousy and vindictiveness. With Abraham’s permission, Sarah abused Hagar to the point that she escaped to the desert. Destitute in the desert, God saw Hagar and assured her of his presence and concern for her survival and future by asking her to name her son Ishmael which means “God has heard.” In response, Hagar called God El Roi, the “God who sees.” Hagar is the first person to name God in all of scripture. Womanist, Delores Williams, speculates that for the sake of Hagar and her unborn son’s survival, God asked her to return to her abusive situation.6

Years later Hagar cries out to El Roi. Expelled to the desert by her husband Abraham, at the behest of Sarah, freed from slavery but without resources, Hagar realizes death is closing in. Hearing Ishmael’s cry, God spoke to Hagar. He pointed her to water for their survival and reignited her hope by repeating his promise that he would make her children into a great nation. True to God’s word, her son’s people did become a great nation, with Ishmael’s descendants recorded in Genesis 25:18.

African American women find great affinity with the story of Hagar. They identify with Hagar’s slavery, abuse by an abused woman, escape, and freedom paired with great economic peril. But Hagar also speaks to their experience because God sees, hears, and provides for Hagar’s survival. The gold-standard exegesis of Hagar’s story was written by Womanist author Delores Williams in her book, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.

To see artwork created by Edmonia Lewis remembering Hagar, see: Six Black Female Artists Christians Should Know by Cara Quinn.

Amy R. Buckly explains Hagar’s story, and God’s amazing interventions to preserve both her and Ishmael’s life in: “In the Midst of the Mess: Hagar and the God Who Sees,” in Mutuality.

To go deeper read: “Cast Out and Cast Off: Hagar, Leah, and the God who Sees,” by I. Daniel Hawk.

Notes

  1. Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 226-227.
     
  2. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 20-21.
     

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Miriam

by Kimberly Dickson

 

 

A daughter born into slavery was often named “Mary” as “one who has endured much suffering.” Miriam, or “Mary,” was born under Egyptian slavery at a particularly cruel point in history. Pharoah had ordered the murder of all the baby boys to prevent an uprising. History suggests that the girls were raped so that their children would be rejected by the Hebrews and Egyptians, ensuring they would be made perpetual slaves.7 Despite the great suffering of Miriam's time, she was a child of courage and ingenuity who saved and protected her baby brother, Moses. She also provided a way for him to know his birth-family and their history by recommending her own mother as his wet nurse.

We later learn of “Miriam the Prophet,” in Exodus 15. Prophets are called and appointed by God to speak God’s word to the people just as Miriam speaks to Israel through her victory song. Here she not only proclaims the death of the enemy, but her song also affirms the death of the Egyptian gods and a growing understanding of YHWH.8 Her importance as a chosen leader of God is remembered in Micah 6:8, where she, Moses, and Aaron are all given credit for bringing the Israelites out of slavery.

Miriam leads the women with “timbrels and dancing” in a victory song known as “The Song of the Sea” or “Miriam’s Song” (Gen. 15:20). Throughout the Old Testament when men returned from battle, they were greeted in song and dance by those remaining behind, the women. Thus, the women were the percussionists (timbrel is a type of small drum), musicians, dancers, and hymn writers. Though Moses has been credited with writing the victory song, the fact that women were the greeting musicians, and that the Dead Sea scrolls attribute eight of the song’s verses to Miriam, cause scholars to presume that Miriam authored the entire song, rather than one verse.9

Miriam is clearly a beloved leader for the people. In Numbers 12:1-16, she and Aaron are disciplined for rebuking Moses. Yet, the people refuse to move on without Miriam. She represents them in their strengths and weaknesses, courageous enough to facilitate their rescue from Egypt, joyous enough to lead them in worship before God, and human enough to fail and be disciplined. Therefore, they wait for her until she is ready to travel with them.

To learn more about the circumstances of Miriam’s birth, see: “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement” by Boaz Johnson.

To learn more about Prophets, see: “Women Prophets in the Old Testament” by Christine Marchetti.

To learn about the scriptural preservation of women’s words in oral tradition, read: “Who First Told the Bible’s Stories and Why It Matters” by Jeff Miller.

Notes

  1. Boaz Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/marys-bible-and-metoo-movement.
     
  2. Johnson, “The Mary’s of the Bible, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/marys-bible-and-metoo-movement.
     
  3. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2005), 116-119.
     

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Zipporah

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Moses married Zipporah, a shepherd and daughter to Jethro the Midianite, a priest of YHWH the Lord. Moses first met Zipporah in the wilderness when she and her sisters were being harassed by other shepherds as they tried to water their sheep at a well. A rich scriptural tradition of shepherding informs an imagination of Zipporah’s life, that ranges from Jacob shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep, David protecting his sheep from lions with a simple sling, and to Jesus describing a God who leaves his 99 sheep to find the one that is lost. Shepherding is dangerous work, filled with physical toil, sacrifice, and for females, harassment as they care for their flock. Ultimately, though, it is a life that is characterized by quick instincts that ensure their flocks are protected and can thrive. In this case, Moses defended the girls and helped them water their sheep. Scripture tells us that Zipporah’s father was so impressed with Moses, he invited him to stay with them, ultimately giving Zipporah to Moses as a wife (Exod. 2:16-22).

The fact that Zipporah’s father was a priest is crucial to this story. Zipporah’s upbringing in a wise, priestly family provided her with understanding in the ways of worship. When God confronted Moses and was ready to kill him, Zipporah interceded as a priest would in approaching God. As surprising as this is to our western sensibilities, history confirms that female priestly roles were part of Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Zipporah’s word choice,selection of instrument (the flint), and the way she circumcised her son reflects her knowledge of priestly work.10 Together, with her shepherd’s instinct to protect the flock, and her priestly knowledge, she quickly appeased the wrath of the Lord, and saved Moses' life (Exod. 4:24-26).11

Zipporah is discussed in several books reviewed by CBE. See a review of Imagining Equity by Katie Strand Winslow, who looks at outside women who engage in God’s work of preserving life, including such women as Zipporah.

Also, see Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us About Freedom by Kelley Nikondeha.

Notes

  1. Carol Meyers discusses the fact that Zipporah demonstrates priestly knowledge. Carol Meyers, Exodus: The New Cambridge Bible Commentary (NY: The Cambridge University Press, 2005), 12, 63-66.
     
  2. Tikva Frymer-Kensky addresses the ritualistic elements that Zipporah knew and used as a protector. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 30.
     

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Hulda

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Prophets speak on behalf of God to the people, especially to Israel’s leaders. During King Josiah’s reign Huldah served as a court prophet. When the book of the Law was found (probably Deuteronomy), the high priest Hilkiah turned to Huldah to discern God’s voice. Hulda’s prophecy was delivered to the highest-ranking civic and religious leaders in Israel. Though both Jeremiah and Zephaniah were prophets at the time, these leaders turned to Hulda instead.

Hulda validated the authenticity of The Book of the Law and the curses it contained against Israel for straying from God’s laws. She affirmed the curses were applicable to Israel at that moment, as Israel was engaged in horrific idol worship. Amongst the horrors, women were prostituted in the temple, and children were burned alive as sacrifices to Molech. Hulda’s prophecy came at a turning point in Israel’s history, marking the end of Israel's occupation of the land.

When King Josiah and his court heard Hulda’s powerful message, they responded in earnest. They wiped out all traces of idol worship in the nation by smashing and grinding the idols into powder so they could not be used again. King Josiah’s humble response to Hulda’s preaching and leadership led to Israel’s greatest revival and God’s personal message to King Josiah, “Your eyes will not see the evil which I am bringing on this place.” God’s retribution would be delayed (2 Kgs. 22:8–20 and 2 Chr. 34:14–33).

To learn more, see: “Women Prophets in the Old Testament” by Christine Marchetti in Priscilla Papers.

What is this Woman Doing Preaching in My Bible?” by Sara Ronnevik in Mutuality, October 13, 2014. 

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Esther

Esther, the Earliest Silence Breaker,” by Mimi Haddad,

 

The story of Esther demonstrates how authentic leadership is forged in intimacy with God and manifest in attention to the defenseless. Completing what Vashti began, Esther risks all for good, breaking the silence to expose her husband’s abusive regime moving toward a genocide. As the story unfolds, so do the contrasts between good and evil, between righteous and corrupt leadership. With their thirst for control and exploitation, Haman and Xerxes provide a stark contrast to the bold and holy leadership of Queen Esther.

A lust for power—rooted in narcissism—swallows Haman whole. Yet equally depraved is King Xerxes! He promotes Haman to chief of staff despite his lack of accomplishments or his interest in the affairs of Susa or its people. Some commentators also believe that Haman may have been part of a plot to assassinate the King, averted only through the loyalty of Esther and Mordecai. Even so, Xerxes honors Haman, decreeing that all must kneel in homage. Mordecai refuses—a move that ignites Haman’s vindictiveness. So, Haman plots to kill Mordecai and massacre the Jews. Appealing to Xerxes’ greed, Haman asks to slaughter the Jews. Without a second thought, Xerxes agrees, and both head off to get drunk.

Abdicating his responsibilities to corrupt officials, Xerxes is inaccessible and derelict as a leader. More interested in pleasure than serving the needs of his people, his indecisiveness and self-indulgence create a leadership vacuum, filled initially by Haman but ultimately by Esther—a genuine leader, a woman, and a Jew.

Unlike the inaccessible Xerxes, Queen Esther is always on hand, attentive to the vulnerable, and ready to act. She is available intellectually and maneuvers within an honor/shame culture to secure safety for the Jews. Esther is especially attentive spiritually. While Xerxes wallows in wine and women, Esther fasts and prays.

Esther embodies what her husband cannot—leadership that defends the vulnerable. Her husband signs away their lives, but Esther becomes their deliverer. She gives her people a voice, breaking the silence on Haman’s plot and delivering the Jews from slaughter. Unlike Haman, who is bent on destroying life, Esther is ready to give her life to save others. While Haman believes he controls his destiny and that of his enemies, Esther is humble and contrite. For her, the future is unclear, but she is ready to die if necessary.

Esther’s availability, self-sacrifice, humility, and holy wisdom make her one of the great leaders in Scripture. What we see in Esther is found supremely in our savior Christ—who delivered us from our worst enemies--sin and death. Because of Christ we enter a complete rest, just as the Jews entered peace and rest from their enemies because of Esther. In this way, Esther foreshadows our complete deliverance in Christ.

A woman leader, representing a hated minority, Esther responded to God’s call, risking her life to break the silence and stand against evil and abusive power. In a patriarchal culture like Susa, God chose a woman as a deliverer. Scripture honors Esther (9:29) as a woman in full authority. Let’s honor Esther by imitating her leadership—characterized by prayer, courage, and self-sacrifice on behalf of despised outsiders oppressed by the powerful. The name “Esther” means “star.” May we—like Esther—shine God’s light on injustice, expose oppression, and break the silence on abuse wherever we find it.

To learn more, see: “More Than a Pretty Face,” by Emmaline Kempf.

Part 2, “More Than a Beautiful Body: Star Wars, Beauty Standards, and the Imago Dei,” by Emmaline Kempf.

Power Brokers: Vashti, Mordecai, and Esther,” by Young Lee Hertig.

Listen to Young Lee Hertig’s workshop on her chapter in Mirrored Reflections: Reframing Biblical Characters regarding Power Brokers: Vashti, Mordecai and Esther, titled “Women Leaders Navigate the Patriarchal Systems of Family and Church: Young Lee Hertig.”

Esther: When God Calls for Disobedience,” by Allison Quient.

Character Counts,” by Mimi Haddad.

Calling all Deborah’s, Esther’s and Junias” by Grace Medina.
 

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New Testament Women

Elizabeth

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Like Moses, Elizabeth was a Levite descendant. Elderly and pregnant with John the Baptist, her son was the forerunner to the Savior. Esau McCaulley’s Reading While Black* highlights the significance of God’s choice of Elizabeth to bear a son who would announce the coming Messiah. Elizabeth represented both communal and personal suffering, which God would begin to address in the birth of her son. Like all her people, she lived under the oppressive rule of the Romans, but as a Levite, the worship of her tribe reminded the people of God’s character in saving the Hebrews from slavery. As a barren woman, Elizabeth did not have the joy or reassurance of children to care for her in her old age or to carry on their family name. Scripture is laden with descriptions of the social stigma and pain associated with barren women. God interceded in this situation with a son in her old age, healing her personal suffering. But this son also addressed the communal need for a liberating God, symbolized in John the Baptist residing in the desert like Moses. God chose Elizabeth to honor God’s liberation of the Levites while also demonstrating his personal concern for the suffering of individuals.

Beyond the symbolic choice of Elizabeth, Luke contrasts her reaction to conceiving a child to that of her husband Zechariah. God struck Zechariah mute because of his doubt in God’s word, whereas the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth with the gift of prophecy to speak of the Lord. When Mary came to visit, Elizabeth identified her as the mother of her Lord. She too, was the one to declare the name of her own son, John. Zechariah’s speech only returned when he agreed with her.

Elizabeth begins the cluster of New Testament women prophets who informed the people of Jesus’ coming significance. She was the first to identify the Lord. In Elizabeth’s presence, Mary prophesied what has been called the Magnifcat, revealing that Jesus’ coming will overturn the powerful to raise the weak. And when the infant Jesus entered the temple with his mother, Mary, and Joseph, Anna recognized Jesus and with her gift of prophecy she taught the people who were assembled.

To see more on God’s empowerment of women at critical times, read: “At Critical Moments,” by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, August 10, 2011.

*As an Amazon Associate CBE earns from qualifying purchases.

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Anna

by Kimberly Dickson

 


Anna was an 84-year-old prophet. She was widowed after only seven years of marriage and devoted the rest of her life to prayer and fasting in the temple. When Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus to the Lord at the temple, two elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna recognized him as Savior (Luke 2:22-38).

Luke pairs Simeon and Anna but swaps gender expectations with Simeon giving a private revelation and Anna the public revelation. Simeon prophesied over the child, and spoke “to his mother Mary,” his prophecy was a quiet family affair. Yet, Anna proclaimed Jesus’ identity and its meaning to all who were there and awaiting Jerusalem’s redemption. Like Hulda, the Old Testament prophet, Anna’s prophetic context was not in the home or with a private audience in the temple. Instead, it was in the central location for worship—the temple—where Anna displayed her deep knowledge of the Scriptures to a public audience of both men and women waiting for redemption.

Significantly, the Hebrew law required two testimonies to settle a dispute or confirm an event (Deut. 17:6,19:5). Luke uses Anna and Simeon as evidence of trustworthy testimonies of Jesus’ significance. By using Anna and Simeon for this purpose, he also emphasizes complementary mutuality in the testimony of both a man and a woman.

To learn more, see: “Anna: Proclaimer of God’s Grace,” by Allison Quient, March 12, 2014.

Finding the Beginning of Female Missionaries in the New Testament,” by Sarah Rodriguez in Mutuality, December 4, 2016.

To see more on God’s empowerment of women at critical times, read: “At Critical Moments,” by Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, August 10, 2011.

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Mary Magdalene

by Kimberly Dickson

 


Mary Magdalene is such a prominent woman in Jesus’ ministry that many stories have built up around her! A number of these have to do with her name. Mary is so common in the New Testament that the various scriptural Mary’s have been confused or conflated. The name itself literally means, “The One Who Has Endured Much Pain and Suffering,”12 which the First Nations Version accurately translates to “Strong Tears.” Boaz Johnson explains why this name was so common at the time of Jesus’ birth:

During the time of Jesus, the Sadducees, a political party, were in control of towns and villages. They had tax collectors who would subjug ate common people to debt slavery. They then handed over girls from towns and villages to Roman soldiers as sexual slaves, to curry favor with them. Because of this horrible system, whenever a girl was born the parents would, in all sadness, name the baby Mary. They knew that the life of these girls would be bitter and painful.13

The fact that Mary was delivered from seven demons (Luke 8:2) speaks to the abuse she likely endured.

During the sixth century Roman Catholic church history conflated Mary’s demon possession with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom John attributes to anointing Jesus with oil (John 12:8). This confusion grew until Mary Magdalene became known as a former prostitute who was restored by Jesus even though there is no Mary identified in Scripture as a prostitute! Luke 7:36-50 has been traditionally used to support this story, though it neither mentions a name nor prostitution. Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene was regularly represented in religious art as half-naked with only her hair covering her nudity. Despite this false portrayal, the Holy Spirit was at work using this for redemptive purposes. Mary Magdalene came to represent the abused and prostituted women who Jesus healed, and therefore whom the church should welcome and love. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities continue to carry on this false narrative, though they both officially rejected this story in the 16th century. Yet, according to Scripture, Mary Magdalene was delivered from seven demons and became a devoted disciple of Jesus by following and supporting him from the early days, which continued through to his crucifixion (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25), burial (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47) and resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1-2). In fact, she is the only person that the gospels depict at all these events.

Mary’s second name, Magdalene, speaks to financial independence and capacity to devote herself to Jesus’ ministry. The use of “Magdalene” does not follow the cultural paterfamilia (male-head of family) pattern of naming her through association to the male-head of her tribe or family, such as her father or husband. Thus, she was relationally and financially independent and able to make her own decisions. This is further supported by the fact that Scripture identifies her as one of the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The Gospels and Paul’s letters regularly highlight women who broke the stereotypical paterfamilia “head of household” pattern, as seen in women, such as Susanna, Phoebe, Joanne, and Lydia. These women were “patrons,” meaning women of considerable independent influence, with political and financial power to protect and promote the churches.

The name Magdalene itself is unique. Many have assumed that it describes where she came from, such as the village of Magdala. This is like saying “Jesus of Nazareth.” Excavations have revealed several villages in Palestine from the first century with a name similar to Magdala. So, her name could just indicate where she came from. In contrast to this, there is no evidence of early church history associating Mary to a region, however, there is historical evidence that associates her name with the Hebrew and Aramaic honorific meaning of magdala, as “tower” or “magnified.” Jerome, an early church leader who worked with Paula translating ancient texts into Latin (the Latin Vulgate), explained the early tradition regarding her name; she was given that name because she was a tower of faith. Therefore, just as Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter (Rock), he gave Mary the name Magdala (Tower).14

The Orthodox tradition has stayed true to the scriptural witness of Mary Magdalene in remembering her as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” She has earned this title because she was the first person whom the risen Christ spoke to, instructing her to return to the disciples to tell them the good news of his resurrection. This raises the question, who qualifies as an apostle? Many churches assume that only The Twelve and Paul were considered true apostles. Although contrary to widely held belief, Paul gave the title of apostle to Junia and her husband. There are two scriptural definitions of an apostle. The first is: “one who has accompanied Jesus during his earthly ministry and who has become a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22); the second is: one “who has witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ and who has received a divine call or commission to proclaim Christ’s message” (1 Cor 9:1; 15:3-11; Gal. 1:11-19).15 Mary fulfills the criteria of both definitions, thereby providing evidence that the Orthodox Christians accurately label her as "the Apostle to the Apostles.”

We are struck by the courage of Mary Magdalene’s presence at Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, beside several other women, considering the absence of male disciples. In fact, the male disciples were afraid and hiding behind a locked door (John 20:19). Kenneth Bailey, an expert on Middle Eastern culture, provides important context. The Romans were not naïve to the Jewish unrest under their occupation. During religious festivals, when they expected Jewish nationalism to be heightened, they also boosted their presence. Thus, it is not coincidence that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities during the Jewish Passover. His teachings were thinly veiled (or not veiled at all) claims to a new kingdom and rule, posing a threat to the Romans. His crucifixion on Passover sent a message to his followers suggesting they would be targeted next. However, it was the men whom the Roman authorities expected to be dangerous, not the women! Women and children could move about freely. As a result, the men were hiding while the women and children were witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.16 As the gospel teaches, Jesus revealed himself as the resurrected Christ to the very women the ruling powers judged as insignificant, and even the disciples judged as "idle gossips.” (Luke 24:11). Regardless of the world’s values, Jesus instructed Mary Magdalene to go and ”tell the disciples.” The women’s witness is at the heart of the gospel and human history.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mary Magdalene,” by Lidija Novakovic in Prisicilla Papers, June 5, 2006.

To learn more about the naming of Mary, see: “The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement” by Boaz Johnson.

To learn about the Middle Eastern culture and its impact on the movements of men versus women and children, see: “God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women,” by Kevin Zabihi in Mutuality, October 20, 2021.

Christ is Risen: The Nonsense of a Hysterical Woman,” by Chesna Hinkley in Mutuality April 15, 2020.

Notes

  1. Boaz Johnson, ”The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/marys-bible-and-metoo-movement.
     
  2. Boaz Johnson,” The Mary’s of the Bible and the #MeToo Movement,” Mutuality (December 13, 2019). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/marys-bible-and-metoo-movement.
     
  3. Yonat Shimron, ”Was Mary Magdalene really from Magdala? Two Scholars Examine the Evidence,” Religion News Service (January 7, 2022). https://religionnews.com/2022/01/07/was-mary-magdalene-really-from-magdala-two-scholars-reassess-the-evidence/.
     
  4. Lidija Novakovic, ”Frequently Asked Questions About Mary Magdalene,” Priscilla Papers, (June 5, 2006), https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/frequently-asked-questions-about-mary-magdalene
     

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Samaritan Woman

by Kimberly Dickson

 

While Jesus’ disciples were gathering supplies for dinner, Jesus met the Samaritan Woman at the well. Mid-day, in public, they engaged in the longest theological discussion recorded in Scripture. She challenged Jesus with her theological concerns, and he seriously entertained her questions and answered them, neither dominating the conversation nor demeaning her.17 During this discussion Jesus first revealed his identity as the Messiah, favoring a woman for his revelation over his disciples. Taken seriously, and convinced of Jesus’ identity and message, she went and effectively evangelized to her whole village. She is still remembered in churches as the first Christian evangelist.

The disciples’ confusion in finding Jesus speaking to this woman shows his counter-cultural approach to women at the margins. In broad daylight he associated himself with an ethnic group the Jews disparaged, the Samaritans. At the time, Jews would not eat or drink from anything associated with a Samaritan, yet he asked her for a drink, which meant he would need to drink from her bucket. Furthermore, he entrusted to a woman theological details regarding the Messiah in an era when women did not study Torah. She was a lowly woman forced to fetch water in the heat of the day, rather than the usual mornings and evenings, because she was ostracized by her own people due to the number of husbands in her life. While tradition has attributed these men to her own loose lifestyle, it is likely that she was married as a child to an older man, and through Levirate-like laws continued to outlive the older men assigned to her in marriage. By the fifth husband, she would have been considered bad luck. Despite this, Jesus saw in her a responsive, theological mind worth engaging. In her, he saw someone worthy of being the first to learn his true identity. In her he identified an evangelist, as she enthusiastically and effectively led her entire village, both men and women, to Jesus as Messiah. May we too take seriously women considered outcasts or who are ostracized, and like Jesus, see them as the key to the future of the church!

To learn more about the cultural background of the Samaritan Woman and the Orthodox church’s remembrance of her, see: “Samaritan Sinner, Celebrated Saint: The Story of the First Christian Missionary,” by Bronwen Speedie in Mutuality: New Testament Women, December 4, 2016.

To learn more about modern day “Samaritan type women,” listen to the Mutuality Matters: Global Impact podcast interview: “Healing the Outcasts: Fistula Repair in Bangladesh” with Dr. Beatrice Ambuen-Berger.

To read about Jesus’ counter-cultural engagement, see: “Dominance: Patriarchy’s Logic,” by Mimi Haddad in Mutuality July 2021.

Which Women Matter to God,” by Jill Lin, January 20, 2021.

Notes

  1. John’s presence indicates he was still a youth as compared to the other disciples at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Kevin Zabihi, ”God’s Word to Middle Eastern Women,” Mutuality (October 20,2021).
     
  2. To read more about how men tend to dominate conversations with women, see J.W. Wartick, “Are Men Talking Too Much,” Mutuality (July 8, 2020). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/are-men-talking-too-much
     

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Phoebe

by Kimberly Dickson

 

“I commend you to our sister Phoebe, a deacon (diakanos) of the church at Cenchrea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor (prostatis) of many and of myself as well” (Romans 16:1-2 NRSV).

Paul introduces Phoebe to the Roman church, asking them to welcome her as she carried his letter to them. Paul routinely provided credentials for his letter carriers (2 Cor. 8:16-24; Eph. 6:21-22; Phil. 2:25-30; Col. 4:7-9), but Phoebe’s welcome was vitally important as she was an unknown to the Roman church, and she carried Paul’s most important theological work, his letter to the Romans.18 Thus, in this introduction, Paul “commends” Phoebe, which is a way of asking the church to trust her just as he has.19 This trust was critical, because those who carried correspondence were responsible for reading and explaining its contents to the recipients. Like seminary students today, she would have been taught by Paul, to ensure she could accurately convey the letter’s meaning, explain difficult sections, and help the congregation understand its complexities and implications. As Dr. Jeffrey Miller says, in today’s language we would call her a preacher.20

Paul’s introduction of Phoebe supports the fact that Phoebe was an experienced and powerful leader. He describes her as a deacon with the same Greek word diakanos, which was used to describe his work and that of other leaders, such as Timothy, Apollo, Epaphras, and Tychicus. In the early church, this term meant “servant,” and it was applied to those who served the congregation in teaching, administration, and guidance. When this word is used in Scripture to refer to a man, English translations typically use the word “minister.” Only for Phoebe has the term been translated as “servant” or “helper,” though this distinction does not honestly represent Paul’s use of the word.21 The fact that Paul designated Phoebe a deacon at the church of Cenchrea meant that she served in an official church position that required vetting. This was clear to the early church fathers, such as Origen (c. 187- c. 253) and John Chrysostom (late 300‘s), who understood that Phoebe had been ordained in her church.22 Thus, she should be trusted, because she was vetted and approved by the Cenchrea church to lead.

Further, Paul called her a prostatis, meaning one who presides.23 In English it is often translated as “benefactor” or “patron, ” but for Phoebe “helper.” In Roman society a patron was a position of honor and power and was meant “to manage/manager, rule/ruler, or lead/leader.”24 Patrons interceded in legal and financial affairs on behalf of those they represented, and the term could even mean that they stood before gods to entreat them on behalf of their clients.25 So, when Paul describes Phoebe as a prostatis, he is indicating she was an honored person with great authority. Therefore, the fact that Paul describes Phoebe as both a deacon and a patron indicates that she was a person of authority in the church of Cenchrea, who taught and represented the church.

However, that is not all. Paul also indicates that Phoebe was a missionary through the technical language of “receive Phoebe in the Lord,” and “give her anything she may need.” Paul uses similar language in relation to Timothy in 1 Corinthians 16:10-11 and to Titus in 2 Corinthians 7:15.26 In fact, Phoebe‘s missionary activity was recognized throughout the ancient world, as noted by inscriptions and writings of the early church fathers.27

To learn more, see: “Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul,” by Julie R. Frady.

Ordained Women in the Church,” by Christine Marchetti in Priscilla Papers.

"Editor’s Reflection: Autumn 2020,” by Jeff Miller, in Priscilla Papers.

Notes

  1. Belleview, ”Women Leaders in the Bible,” 82.
     
  2. Julia R. Frady, ”Phoebe through the Eyes of Paul,” Mutuality: Making Peace with Paul vol. 28, no. 1 (March 25, 2021). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/phoebe-through-eyes-paul.
     
  3. Jeff Miller, “Letter from the Editor,” Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International vol. 34, no. 4 (Autumn 2020): 3. https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/editors-reflection-autumn-2020.
     
  4. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 47-48.
     
  5. Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church, 6.
     
  6. Ibid.
     
  7. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 49.
     
  8. Frady, “Phoebe Through the Eyes of Paul.”
     
  9. Belleview, "Women Leaders in the Bible,” 82.
     
  10. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Early Church, 7.
     

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Priscilla

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Priscilla worked together with her husband Aquilla as teachers, missionaries, and church planters. They were Jewish Christians in Rome who established one of the first places of Christian worship in the city.28 When persecution broke out against Jews in Rome in AD 49, they planted a house church in Corinth where Paul was able to stay and work with them as tentmakers (Acts 18:1-4). They became close friends of Paul who mentioned them six times in scripture. When reporting back to their sending church in Rome, Paul says, “they risked their lives for me” (Rom 16:1). From Corinth they moved to Ephesus where they began another church. In Ephesus they noticed that Apollo, another well taught and renowned Jewish Christian speaker, did not fully understand the gospel. Together they brought him into their home and instructed him (Acts 18:24-26). They later returned to Rome, where ancient Christian tradition holds that Priscilla and Aquila were killed in further persecutions against Christians in AD 64.29

Scripture often lists Priscilla’s name first, which is interesting because Roman customs paralleled the Western custom that list the man’s name first, as in “Mr. and Mrs.” Scholars agree that this unusual ordering signifies Priscilla’s importance. At the least, she is thought to be from an aristocratic family, related to the Roman senator Pudens, while Aquilla is likely of the lower freedman status.30 This phenomenon of an aristocratic woman marrying someone of a lower class was a new movement in the Christian church. Understandably, Christ’s equalizing message attracted a great many women to the young and growing church, so much so that it became the target of jokes. This influx of women into Christianity made it difficult for Christian women to find Christian men of the same class to marry, causing church leadership to seek ways to change Roman law so that women of the senatorial class could marry slaves or freedmen.31 Priscilla and Aquilla may be early examples of this changing pattern.

While it is likely true that Scripture sometimes lists Priscilla’s name first due to her higher social status; Linda Belleview recognized a pattern. Luke and Paul cite Aquilla’s name first when introducing them in general or when referring to their tent-making work (Acts 18:2; 1 Cor. 16:19). However, they mention Priscilla’s name first when discussing issues of ministry (Acts 18:18; Rom. 16; 2 Tim 4:19), including the teaching of Apollo. Priscilla is the primary teacher who taught a gifted leader in their house church—the very church Paul restricts women unschooled in Scripture from usurping authority to domineer over men (1 Tim. 2:12).32 This switching of names speaks to the couple’s mutuality in leadership indicating her appropriate use of authority, while also suggesting that Priscilla took the lead in ministry.33

Since the time of the early church, Christians have suggested different authors for the anonymous book of Hebrews. In the last hundred years, scholars have begun to conclude that Priscilla could very well be this author. Factors that speak to this theory are Priscilla’s obvious leadership ability, her aristocratic upbringing and education, her close relationship with Paul and Timothy, and her ability to teach people such as Apollo. The fact that the author is anonymous, though claims to have been a close companion of Paul and Timothy, lends credence to a woman author who did not want to hinder the book’s receptivity.

To learn more about Priscilla, including the translation of 1 Timothy 2:11-12, see: “Priscilla Speaks,” by Mimi Haddad in Mutuality: Making Peace with Paul.

To learn about leaders working together in mutuality, listen to: Leaders Working Together Across the Gender Divide: Insights form Priscilla and Aquila, by Jeanne Porter.

To learn about Priscilla’s teaching and leadership, see “Equality in Ephesian Leadership,” by Dalaina May in Mutuality.

To see a thorough look at Priscilla’s life, see: “Priscilla, Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews?” By Mimi Haddad.

Ruth Hoppin has spent several decades studying the evidence of Priscilla’s authorship of Hebrews. See her work at:

Priscilla and Plausibility: Responding to Questions about Priscilla as Author of Hebrews” by Ruth Hoppin in Priscilla Papers, April 30, 2011.

The Book of Hebrews Revisited: Is Priscilla the author? And How Does this Epistle’s Theology Relate to Gender?” by Ruth Hoppin.

Priscilla’s Letter” by Estella B. Horning.

See the book review on the novel, “Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian” in Priscilla Papers.

Notes

  1. Muir, A Women’s History of the Christian Church, 7.
     
  2. Ibid., 7.
     
  3. Ibid., 7.
     
  4. Ibid., 10.
     
  5. See CBE listed articles to discuss the basis for this translation.
     
  6. Linda L. Belleview, “Women Leaders in the Bible,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021), 83.
     

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Lydia

by Kimberly Dickson

 

We do not appreciate how incredible Lydia’s life in Acts really was. Justo Gonzalez in Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes, brilliantly explains how her history in Acts 16 is part of a series that depicts the Jewish church in Jerusalem coming to terms with the expansion of God’s kingdom. Before Lydia is introduced, Acts describes how Peter came to terms with the Holy Spirit’s inclusion of the gentile Roman soldier Cornelius and his entire household. Peter would naturally have resisted their inclusion, as part of his steadfast rejection of unclean meat that he demonstrated in his vision. However, when Peter saw the Holy Spirit descend on the unclean, uncircumcised yet god-fearing Romans, Cornelius and his family, he was compelled to admit that God intended to include them on an equal footing with faithful Jews. Not surprisingly, when Peter returned to Jerusalem, he was confronted by the church for eating unclean food withGentile. In contrast, though, when he told them what happened, “they praised God saying, ‘then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18 ).

Later in Acts, the church is called to expand this vision even further to include Gentile women’s leadership. It begins with Paul’s vision to go to Macedonia, because a man is calling him there to help (Acts 16:9-10). Paul obeys and goes to Philippi in Macedonia, looking for men who worship “at a place of prayer,” (Acts 16:13 ), which implies a synagogue.34 A synagogue required a minimum number of men to be present. Instead, he found god-fearing women worshipping alongside the river. After hearing Paul speak, Lydia–a wealthy businesswoman–accepted Paul’s message and was baptized, along with her whole household. She was the first Christian convert in Europe.35 This takes Peter’s earlier experience one step further. Peter had to come to terms with a god-fearing, uncircumcised gentile man. Paul must come to terms with a gentile god-fearing woman who is the head of her household. The account further highlights how Lydia challenges his preconceived ideas: “If you have found me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home” (Acts 16:15 ). The Jewish views of gentiles and women was clear - on no terms would they enter a gentile home to stay and eat with them. Yet Lydia was inviting Paul to do just that! What is more, as a Macedonian woman she considered herself nearly equal to men.

If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions for them from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co-rulers.36

Thus, Lydia was daring Paul to “not just talk the talk but walk the walk.”37 To Paul’s credit, he accepted her challenge, and the church founded in her home became central to Paul’s ministry, a cornerstone of encouragement and the only church from whom he accepted financial support.

The significance of Lydia’s conversion lies in who she was and what she represented for the expansion of the church. Lydia fits well within the Macedonian description of women. She is described as a businesswoman who sells purple cloth. Purple cloth was only worn by the elite, meaning Lydia’s clients were the wealthiest and most influential people of Philippi. Though she was not a woman from the noble class, (as nobles were not allowed to engage in business), she was closely associated with them. Thus, she was in both a position of influence and power. Further, she was free to make her own decisions, independent of the Greco-Roman paterfamilias restrictions evidenced by her decision to become baptized. Without the approval of her father or husband, Lydia freely listened to Paul and chose to follow Jesus. Not only that, but her entire household followed her lead. The Greek is clear that Lydia, a woman, was the head of her household, including family, servants, and slaves.38

She also represents the prototype for house churches. Ben Witherington observes that whenever house churches are mentioned in the New Testament, they are always associated with prominent women.39 Early house churches were often led by women, because the home was within the private realm--women’s domain. Here they could teach and preach without being in the public eye.40 The fact that she hosted Paul and those who traveled with him indicates that her home was large enough to care for and host traveling Christians, making it a central meeting place for believers. In her position, she was likely a patron of the church, providing powerful political and financial support, as well as introducing her influential circle of contacts to the faith.41 Wealthy and influential women, like Lydia, filled a unique position in the early church. They naturally provided support and hospitality, while also lending authority, leadership, and power to the gatherings they hosted in their homes.

In the spirit of Acts, Lydia dismantles preconceived ideas of both ancient Jewish and many modern Christians regarding who could lead, teach, and have authority within the faith. The fact that the church of Philippi supported Paul and received the praises of his Letter to the Philippians speaks volumes to his unquestioned respect of Lydia’s leadership. She represents powerful women who host, lead, protect, and hold authority within the community of believers.

To learn more, see: “Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and the Church" in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women by Margaret Mowczko.

Dismantling Socio-Sacred Hierarchy: Gender and Gentiles in Luke and Acts,” by Moyra Dale in Priscilla Papers: New Testament Women, April 29, 2017.

Notes

  1. Most synagogues outside of Israel were built alongside rivers and were often called “a place of prayer.” Michael David Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds, The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully revised fifth ed. (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 1987.
     
  2. Muir, A Woman’s History of the Christian Church, 9.
     
  3. W. Tarn and G. T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization, 3rd ed. (London: Methuen, 1952), 98–99.
     
  4. Justo J. Gonzales brilliantly unpacks the story of Acts, and particularly of Cornelius and Lydia, with insight from Dr. Loida Martell-Otero, to bring out the growing-pains of the largely Jewish church, as they came to terms with the fact that in God‘s kingdom there truly was no difference between Jew or Gentile, slave or free, and man and woman. Justo J. Gonzalez, Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Nashville: Abbingdon Press, 1996), 45- 51.
     
  5. Carolyn Osiek, Margaret Y. Macdonald and Janet H. Tulloch, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 157.
     
  6. Margaret Mowczko notes Ben Witherington’s observation that prominent women and house churches are always matched in NT writing. Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 212–13. Margaret Mowczko in"Wealthy Women in the First Century Roman World and Church,” in Priscilla Papers (July 30, 2018). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/wealthy-women-first-century-roman-world-and
     
  7. Muir, A Woman’s History, 9.
     

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Women In Early Church History

Macrina (327-379 AD)

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Part of a wealthy aristocratic family in Turkey, Macrina (330-379) was a famous theologian in the fourth century. She was a natural leader and an intellectual genius who eventually took over management of her family, encouraging all to embody Christlikeness. Dedicated to following the life of Christ, Macrina also influenced her wealthy family to offer their emergency resources to the poor, a completely counter-cultural move. She also emancipated her slaves and encouraged her servants to view her as their equal.

She devoted herself to reading and studying and is thought to have had one of the most extensive educations of her time.42 In this spirit she established her own community dedicated to Christian study. Through her deep faith, her brother, Basil, converted to Christianity and remained under her mentorship for four years. Both he and their brother Gregory of Nyssa became key church leaders and developed the doctrine of the Trinity. Basil credited much of his theological learning to Macrina. Though the church rightfully honors both brothers, they have largely forgotten Macrina, their teacher, mentor, and sister.

To learn more, see: “Single But Never Alone,” by Mimi Haddad in Mutuality.

Notes

  1. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 18.
     
  2. Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles through Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 66.
     

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Paula of Rome (347-404 AD)

by Kimberly Dickson

 


A mother of five who was widowed in her early 30’s, Paula joined a study with other wealthy widows in Rome, where she became a Christian. Here she met Jerome and decided to devote herself to a monastic life. Leaving Rome to tour the holy lands, she was accompanied by her daughter Eustochium who joined her in monastic life. In Bethlehem she established three monasteries, one for men run by Jerome, one for women which she ran, and one for tourists where the proceeds helped sustain their work. The women in her monasteries became experts in the ancient languages and worked to duplicate ancient texts so that contents would be preserved for centuries. She retained a superior knowledge of the ancient languages, and Jerome said her Hebrew far surpassed his own.43

Though Paula was completely convinced of the ascetic value of self-denial to more fully experience God, she did not limit her spiritual life to inward ascetism alone. Jerome writes that her commitment to the poor was so extreme that she impoverished herself and her family’s riches to care for the destitute. She then used her aristocratic influence by begging for resources to care for the sick, impoverished, and those in need.44

When the Pope asked Jerome to begin a new Latin translation of the Bible, she convinced him of the necessity. To ensure the project was successful, she sought out and paid for the rare books and transcripts needed for the translation from her own wealth. As Jerome translated, she and her daughter, Eustochium, edited the entire work. Not one of their edits was rejected. Further, the mother-daughter team were solely responsible for the translation of the Psalms. The teamwork of Paula, Jerome, and Eustochium produced the longest lasting translation of all time, the Latin Vulgate, used for over 1000 years.

To learn more about Paula, see: “Single But Never Alone,” in Mutuality by Mimi Haddad.

Paula of Rome” in Know Your Mothers by Kimberly Dickson.

To learn more about women Bible translators, see: “Correcting Caricatures: Women in Bible Translation,” by Mimi Haddad.

Notes

  1. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII To Eustochium, Memorials of Her Mother, Paula,” in In Her Own Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, ed. Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 73.
     
  2. Jerome, “Paula, Jerome’s Letter CVIII,” 70.
     

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Women During the Reformation

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742 AD)

by Kimberly Dickson

 

 

Susanna Wesley was married to a Church of England pastor. She also homeschooled her 19 children, though only ten of them lived to adulthood. Her life was not easy by any standards. They struggled financially, and her husband did not endear himself to their community. Twice their house caught on fire. Her son, John Wesley, recounted one of these events escaping only because a neighbor found and threw him from an upstairs window.45

Susanna became a spiritual leader in her community. When her husband traveled, Susanna, displeased with the assistant pastor’s preaching, held services in her home for those in and close to her family. Navigating her era’s restrictions on women, she read aloud the writings of her husband and other pastors. Her household so enjoyed her services that word spread and her services grew to over 200 people. The assistant minister grew jealous, as his services only attracted around 20 people, so he complained to her husband who was away in London. When Mr. Wesley suggested to Susanna that she stop the services, she wrote to him saying:

If you do, after all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me that you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send me your positive command, in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity of doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He decided to let her continue.46

Susanna’s spiritual influence is seen in her deep theological letters advising her sons, John and Charles, the leaders of the Wesleyan Revivals.47 Likewise, her lived example gave John Wesley the flexibility to recognize that God’s spirit can indeed call women to preach. Thus, during his lifetime, John Wesley ordained several women as preachers in the Methodist Movement.

To learn more about modern day women’s leadership in the Wesleyan church, read: “A Global Fight for Egalitarianism and Holistic Justice” by Sarah Rodriguez.

To learn more about the Holiness Movement, John Wesley, and the influence of his mother, see: “Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: The Rise of Women’s Ordination in the Holiness Tradition,” by Michelle Sanchez in Priscilla Papers, October 30, 2010.

Description of books that contain more information on Susanna Wesley can be found here:

The Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters

We Need to Read Books on Women in History

Notes

  1. Glenn T. Miller, The Modern Church: From the Dawn of the Reformation to the Eve of the Third Millenium (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 95. See also, John Wesley The Preacher: A Dramatic recreation of one of the most powerful preachers in all of church history.“ BBC Film. April 2008.
     
  2. Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 182-183.
     

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Women In Modern History

Sojourner Truth (1797-1887)

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Sojourner Truth: Abolitionist, Suffragist, and Preacher,” by Mimi Haddad

Sojourner Truth (1797-1887) was an abolitionist, suffragist, preacher, and social reformer. She caught the attention of many political leaders, and even President Abraham Lincoln was one of her admirers. Sojourner Truth, or Isabella, was born a slave and remembers hearing her mother cry long into the night as she mourned the loss of her children who had been sold away. Isabella's mother reminded her,

Now ‘chile, when you’re grown up, you may be sold away from your mother an’ all your ole friends, an’ have great troubles come on ye; an’ when you has these troubles come on ye, ye jes’ go to God, an’ He’ll help ye.48

Isabella was sold away from her parents and "married" to a slave on her plantation at the age of 17. After giving birth to five children, Isabella decided to run away, convinced that God wanted freedom for the slave. She hired herself out as a house servant to a Quaker couple, and for the first time, she earned money for her labor. She changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth because, as she said:

My name was Isabella, but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa'n't goin' to keep nothin' of Egypt on me, an' so I went to the Lord an' asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an' down the land, showin' the people their sins, an' being a sign unto them. Afterward I told the Lord I wanted another name, 'cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth because I was to declare the truth to the people.49

Truth felt called to preach the gospel. She traveled from Connecticut to Massachusetts preaching as she went. So fiery were her sermons, the farmers would leave their work to enjoy her skillful preaching.

The abolitionists Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison discovered Truth's talent as a speaker, and they persuaded her to address audiences on behalf of the American Antislavery Society . Not only did Truth electrify crowds with her poignant wisdom and impeccable allegory, but she also eventually published her accounts as a slave.

Many of the abolitionists became advocates for women's suffrage, as the parallels were endless. Sojourner was a popular speaker for women's rights. When she rose to speak, her stature was imposing and her voice was powerful, with rich tones that no one dared to interrupt. During a suffragist convention in Ohio, Truth gave what was perhaps her most famous lecture on women's rights and her words ring immortal. She said:

I born my children and seen most of them sold to slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard—and ar'n't I a woman?...Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can't have as much rights as man, cause Christ weren't a woman. Whar did your Christ come from?" As she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him."50

Lest you think this uneducated woman was not theologically astute, this same reasoning is used by Karl Barth and the Cappadocians who argued that there is a subtle judgment on men in the birth of Christ, who was conceived without their involvement.

In 1864, Sojourner Truth met Abraham Lincoln, who told this freed slave that he had been observant of her work for years. She was commissioned by Washington to work on behalf of the Freedmans Hospital, where she was obliged to ride the street cars. Anticipating the civil rights movement years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Sojourner challenged the Jim Crow laws which segregated the street cars by race. Exhausted by her duties at the hospital, Truth sat in a seat reserved for white people. The driver pulled her from her seat dislocating her shoulder. He was promptly fired, and after the ordeal, Sojourner had the pleasure of observing that the street cars "looked like salt and pepper on the inside."

In 1887, Sojourner died having failed to secure a land act on which she hoped to relocate and employ former slaves. Her funeral procession was attended by a thousand persons: abolitionists, suffragists, and friends who recalled how Truth had served her country and said how happy she was "that the stars and stripes of the American flag no longer represent the scars and stripes of the slave."

To learn more, see: “Celebrating Sojourner truth as Extraordinary Also Means Lament, Why She Had to Be,” by Sarah Lindsay.

To see applications for today see “Muted in the Movement for Equality” by David Hart.

Notes

  1. Susanna Wesley, “Letters and Writings (1709-1725),” in In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, ed. Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 250.
     
  2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, ”Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl,” in The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1863/04/sojourner-truth-the-libyan-sibyl/308775/.
     
  3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, ”Sojourner Truth, The Libyan Sibyl,” in The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1863/04/sojourner-truth-the-libyan-sibyl/308775/.
  4. Women’s Rights National Historic Park, ”Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman?” in National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm.
     

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Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915)

by Kimberly Dickson

 


Amanda Smith was born into slavery in Maryland in 1837. Her father, dedicated to buying his family out of slavery, worked all day making brooms and then in the fields until the early hours of the morning. He eventually succeeded in freeing his entire family. Amanda reflected on this when she became a Christian saying, “I often say to people that I have the right to shout more than some folks. I have been bought twice and set free twice, so I feel I have a good right to shout Hallelujah!”51 Like her father, Amanda worked long hours, often as a scrubwoman for twelve hours, followed by hours of ironing.52 However, her most significant impact came from her faith.

Amanda Berry Smith was deeply influenced by the Holiness Movement that grew out of Wesleyan Methodism. A charismatic movement known under many names, its preachers emphasized the power of the Holy Spirit to engage all people in the work of God – regardless of sex, race, or class. The Holiness Movement, specifically known for its emphasis on entire sanctification, which,

believed that sanctification redefined who a person was. No longer were sanctified people primarily marked by sin, their past, or the norms of society. Rather, their identity in Christ was what mattered. This emphasis on sanctification and the death of self relativized the gender norms of American culture and empowered women preachers in the Holiness tradition.53

Amanda Berry Smith internalized this redefinition explaining, “You may not know it, but I am a princess in disguise. I am a child of the King.”54

Convinced that she was called by God to preach, Amanda did not wait for a church ordination but instead preached to both white and black camp meeting congregations across much of the United States. As she said, “The thought never entered my mind, for I had received my ordination from him who said, ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that you might go and bring forth fruit.’”55 Many people’s hearts were first opened to her because of her beautiful singing voice, and through her preaching many came to a saving knowledge of Jesus. She received invitations to preach from Maine to Texas and was highly regarded by the leading women of the Holiness Movement in England. Hannah Whitall Smith and Mary Broadman invited Amanda to preach as the first international black woman evangelist in England.

The Holiness Movement also focused on the conditions of the oppressed, working to change and improve their situation. Amanda’s life reflected these values. After her speaking tour in England, she traveled to India where she labored for two years, both in small villages and large cities. But it was in Liberia and Sierra Leone where she dedicated eight years of her life (1881-1889) to

helping with churches, establishing temperance societies, and working to improve the status of women and education for children. . . .Smith’s ministry in those countries was so prolific that at its end, famed Methodist missionary William Taylor insisted that she had done more for the cause of missions and temperance in Africa than the  of all missionaries before her.”56

Her outreach did not end there. Back in the United States, she adopted homeless children and eventually founded an orphanage for black children in the city of Chicago. Despite the prejudice and racism Amanda experienced her whole life, she allowed the word of God to redefine her. As she said,

Somehow I always had a fear of white people—that is, I was not afraid of them in the sense of doing me harm or anything of that kind—but a kind of fear because they were white, and were there, and I was black and was here! But that morning on Green Street, as I stood on my feet trembling, I hear these words distinctly. . . . ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free there is neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28). . . . And as I looked at white people that I had always seemed to be afraid of, now they looked so small. The great mountain had become a mole hill. ‘Therefore, if the Son shall make you free, then are you free, indeed.’ All praise to my victorious Christ!57

In this reliance on scripture to redefine her identity, Amanda realized she only needed to answer God’s call, and God called her to preach. Through her courage and obedience to the call of the Holy Spirit, she brought countless lives across the globe to a transformative knowledge of God.

To understand Amanda Berry Smith’s work ethic, read: “Our Heritage-Part 3,” by Liz Sykes.

The impact of Amanda Berry Smith’s ministry is discussed in “In the Name of the Gospel,” by Estrelda Alexander, in Mutuality, September 5, 2009.

Amanda Berry Smith is one of many voices highlighted in this deep dive into the consequences of our belief: “Ideas Have Consequences,” by Mimi Haddad in Priscilla Papers, January 30, 2012.

To more deeply understand the Holiness Movement, see: “Your Daughters Shall Prophecy: The Rise of Women’s Ordination in the Holiness Tradition,” by Michelle Sanchez in Priscilla Papers, October 30, 2010.

10 Awesome Women Pastors from History,” by Ruth Perry, March 6, 2018.

Women’s History Month: Women in the Modern Mission Movement,” by Mimi Haddad.

Notes

  1. Leanne M. Dsubinski and Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 136.
     
  2. Liz Sykes, ”Our Heritage – Part 3,” Mutuality (January 20, 2014). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/our-heritage-part-3.
     
  3. Dzubinski, Women in the Mission of the Church, 136.
     
  4. Walter B. Sloan, These Sixty Years: The Story of the Keswick Convention (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1935), 91.
     
  5. Sykes, ”Our Heritage,” https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/our-heritage-part-3.
     
  6. Estrelda Alexander, “In the Name of the Gospel,” Mutuality (September 5, 2009). https://www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/mutuality-blog-magazine/name-gospel.
     
  7. Paul Chilcote, The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2017), 104.
     

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Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922)

by Kimberly Dickson

 

Pandita Ramabai was born a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste in India. Her father defied Hindu tradition and taught his daughters to learn the Hindu holy texts. This progressive bent was surprising, considering he married Ramabai’s mother when she was only nine years old. However, at an early age both of her parents died of starvation during a national famine, leaving Ramabai and her brother as orphans. To stay alive, they traversed India performing recitations of the holy Hindu texts to earn income. Ramabai was so adept at recitations that she was noticed by Hindu scholars of her day and became an example of what Indian women could accomplish if they were allowed to study.

Like her father, Pandita Ramabai defied strict Hindu tradition and married a man from a lower caste. Though her husband died young, through her experiences in marriage and life, Ramabai was exposed to the evils of Hinduism that devalued women and low caste people. She found that women in particular suffered from child marriage, wife burning, the denial of education, temple prostitution, abandonment, and more. Thus, when she was exposed to Christianity in the late 1800’s she became convinced that Christ was good news for Indian women. But Ramabai was concerned about the Christian faith she saw in India on two counts.

First, she discovered that Indian Bible translations incorporated Hindu ideas that were oppressive to low caste people and women. To address this need, she deepened her studies of Greek and Hebrew, and then translated the entire Bible into Marathi, the Indian language in her area. This translation was true to the Jesus she had learned about from missionaries and in her own studies. Ramabai’s translation no longer used Hindu terms, ideas, and names for God that symbolized oppression and racism to low caste men and women.

Second, she felt that women needed a safe place to recover and experience salvation. So, she founded the Mukti Mission, which means “Salvation Mission.” Her mission housed 800 abandoned babies, the blind, the handicapped, abandoned mothers, and the ill. Within the strictly separated caste system of India, this mission radically embodied the egalitarian stance of the gospel, by requiring all the women – whether from high or low caste – to work alongside one another according to their ability to help care for one another and the operation of the Mission. Just as Galatians 3:28 declares there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or freed, there is no longer male and female; for you all one in Christ, the women of Mukti Mission learned to work together, to serve and be served as a family. Her work was so impressive that secular and Hindu Indians replicated these homes to bring healing to women.

Ramabai’s intelligence, work, and studies were noted and appreciated by India. To honor her, her image was placed on a national postage stamp of India – a high honor for an amazing Christian mother of the faith who impacted thousands of lives through her writings and service to the poor and marginalized.

To learn more, see: “Pandita Ramabai’s Legacy: How Gender Conscious Bible Translation Impacts Ministry” by Boaz Johnson.

To learn more about women Bible translators, see: “Correcting Caricatures: Women and Bible Translation,” by Mimi Haddad.
 

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