Ten Christian Women

by Elizabeth Myers | July 31, 1988

JUNIA – Apostle

Junia, the female companion of Andronicus, has the unique distinction (for one of her sex) of being referred to by St. Paul as an apostle (Romans 16:7). Although she was one of Paul’s relatives, coming to faith ahead of her more famous kinsman, we know but little about her ministry. We do know that, whatever the nature of her activities, they were enough to land her in a Roman prison. Some church historians (from the fourteenth century onwards) have had the gall to think that she must really have been a man. John Chrysostom, however, spoke in glowing terms about her, knowing her to have been a woman. Considering some of the things that he had to say about women, that seems a fairly convincing proof of her gender.

The exact nature of Junia’s apostleship remains unclear. In normal New Testament (and subsequent ecclesiastical) usage, the word ‘apostle’ refers to individuals such as the Twelve, Matthias (who succeeded Judeas) and Paul himself. We do, however, read of Barnabas being named an apostle, without first fulfilling the usual requirements. Whilst we should not assume that Junia necessarily held some distinctive office, it would also be a mistake to assert that she could not have served the church in some way deserving of the appellation. She is one of ten women (out of a total of twenty-nine names) to be specially commended by Paul in this important chapter – and we can safely assume that the Holy Spirit would not have brought her to Paul’s remembrance at that point had He not wished her to stand as a source of encouragement to women of later centuries.

BLANDINA – Martyr

Blandina died in the year 177, thrown to the wild animals in front of the hostile Roman crowds, gathered in the amphitheatre for the gruesome spectacle. One source of our knowledge of her faith and her resulting martyrdom comes from the writings of the church historian Eusebius. Writing the revised edition of his Ecclesiastical History a century and a half after her death, he gives a vivid description of her last moments. He recounted how the power of God was evident in her life even as she experienced the terrible pain of physical torture. As she hung on a stake exposed to the wild beasts, he says that her fellow martyrs “saw in the form of their sister him who was crucified for them.” She was taken down from the stake when it became apparent that the animals were not going to touch her there, and she was eventually killed by a bull.

Martyrdom was a fate much prized in the early church; and while most of those martyrs whose names have come down to us were male, there were evidently a good many women also. The fact that Blandina’s story should have been told in such detail in a volume not completed until the year 325 gives some indication of the regard in which she was held by her contemporaries as a faithful Christian who followed so closely the example of her Lord.

PAULA – Spiritual leader and scholar

Paula (347-404) spent her early years as an affluent member of the Roman aristocracy, a descendant of the family of Agamemnon, living on the Aventine Hill (the ancient equivalent of Beverly Hills). On finding herself widowed at a young age, however, she turned her back on her former pleasures and, under the influence of the monk and scholar Jerome, she adopted a severely ascetic lifestyle. Accompanied only by her daughter Eustochium, she journeyed on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, leaving her three other surviving children behind her in Rome. Joining Jerome in Bethlehem, she immediately began caring for the poor and needy of that town. With the proceeds of her own wealth, she became the overseer of an ambitious building program – three monasteries for women and one for men, together with a hospital and guest house.

Paula became the spiritual leader of the women’s monasteries, pursuing the ascetic life that had first attracted her after her husband’s death. She continued the Biblical studies that she had begun in Rome under Jerome’s tutelage, learning to read the Scriptures in Hebrew, hand-copying them, and becoming a noted scholar in her own right. By the time she died, she had recruited a total of fifty women to the monasteries in Bethlehem. Her austere, restricted lifestyle was one that offered true freedom to women of her age who wished to pursue a vocation of spirituality and scholarly study. Where many daughters might seek to escape such a rigorous upbringing, her own daughter Eustochium paid perhaps the ultimate tribute to her mother by succeeding her in the leadership of the monasteries and by bringing up her little niece (also named Paula, after her grandmother) to succeed her in her turn.

HILDA OF WHITBY – Educator

Hilda (614-680) was born into the royal family of Northumbria and was brought up at court by her great-aunt, Queen Ethelberga (a daughter of Queen Bertha of Kent, who had first welcomed Augustine and his fellow missionaries to the British Isles). The priest who accompanied Ethelberga from Kent to Northumbria on the occasion of her marriage had much success in evangelizing the people of the north; and Hilda was baptized in her teens, alongside her great-uncle, King Edwin. When the king invited Aidan to come from Iona to establish Christian centers in his kingdom, Hilda devoted herself to assisting him.

She founded the Abbey of Whitby (a double monastery housing both men and women) in about the year 656, and quickly gained a reputation as a scholar and teacher. Not only did she educate King Oswio’s daughter (who was eventually to become her successor as Abbess), but five of the men whom she trained at the Abbey went on to become bishops, including Bosa, the later archbishop of York. She is perhaps best remembered for her nurturing of the talent of Caedmon, the Anglo-Saxon poet who translated many Bible stories (hitherto only available in Latin) into metrical verse.

With the backing of King Oswio, the Abbey of Whitby became an important religious center, being chosen as the location for the famous Synod of 664. As Abbess, Hilda possessed considerable power, temporal as well as spiritual, administering the Abbey lands and participating in councils of church and state on equal terms with bishops, lords and kings.

LIOBA – Scholar and charismatic missionary

Brought up in a monastery from an early age, Lioba was the natural choice of her cousin Boniface to help him in his mission to the warring pagan tribes of Germany in the eighth century. Journeying to Saxony in 748, along with six other English monks and five nuns, she promptly became the Abbess of Bischofsheim on the Tauber. From there, she trained leaders whom she then sent out to establish other monasteries.

Lioba was held in high repute as a scholar. During her time at the monastery back in England, she had become expert in the Church Fathers, theology and ecclesiastical law. Her knowledge of the Scriptures was enhanced by her mastery of the classical languages. Such erudition gave her almost magical authority – quite apart from practical power in ordering church affairs in her adopted land. Accounts of her life, however, also stress that she had something of a mystic nature and a personal sense of vocation to missionary work. She is credited with performing many miracles, not fearing to take on the elements! This ‘strategy’ of power evangelism proved very appropriate for the wild forests of Germany, as both she and Boniface discovered. The newly converted local people were eager to grow in discipleship – and Lioba’s holiness of life was an example to them all.

She was so highly regarded by her brother monks that they permitted her to enter their monastery at Fulda to share counsel and to pray, the only woman ever to do so. To her the cloister indeed meant freedom – freedom to pursue God’s calling to her as a scholar and a missionary.

JULIAN OF NORWICH – Mystic

Born in 1342, a contemporary of Wycliffe and Chaucer, Julian sensed at a young age her call to the contemplative life. She chose the solitary lifestyle of an anchoress, spending most of her life enclosed in a cell built onto the wall of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich. Had she not grown up in England, she might have chosen to live the life of a desert hermit – but the vagaries of the English weather forced her indoors.

Little is known of her life: even her real name is lost, for she was known simply by the name of the church where she lived. What we do know is that she fell ill in May, 1371, having prayed that God would purge and cleanse her from all love of worldly things. In the course of a single day she received sixteen ‘shewings’ or revelations of the love of God, following which she recovered quickly.

Two tests of the Revelations of Divine Love had come down to us – one short, the other long. Julian is believed to have written the short version very soon after receiving the visions, and then to have meditated on them for some twenty years before writing the longer text. She spent long years contemplating the nature of the Trinity, coming to a profound understanding of God’s love. Years before her time, she found herself able to express that love in feminine images: “And so in our making, God Almighty is our loving Father, and God all wisdom is our loving mother…” “The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and does, most courteously and tenderly, with the blessed sacrament.” Towards the end of her life (she lived until at least 1416), Julian’s counsel was much sought by those who could travel to Norwich. Her writings, however, were largely forgotten until their publication half a millennium later, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, once again, she is bringing a whole generation of English-speaking Christians to understand more of the nature of the love of God.

JENNIE TAYLOR – Missionary wife and mother

The young Jennie Faulding travelled to China in 1866 as a missionary with the China Inland Mission. Experimenting with new patterns of ministry, she was the first European woman to don Chinese clothing in order to visit Chinese women in their homes. Writing home, she tells of the tumultuous reception she received: “I should think when I go out I often speak to more than 200 persons.” By the following year, she found herself jointly in charge (with Mr. and Mrs. McCarthy) of the mission station at Hangchow. However, the pattern of her life was about to change dramatically. In 1870, Hudson Taylor’s wife, Maria, died. Two years later, Hudson and Jennie were married – making her the stepmother of four young children. Every year or two for nearly three decades, Jennie was to endure the long voyages between England and China (Hudson’s work necessitated his presence in England for administrative purposed as well as visits to China to oversee the work on the field).

In 1876, Jennie (now the mother of two children of her own, as well as having the care of Maria’s four and an adopted daughter) remained behind in England. Hudson rejoined her at the end of 1877. But in early 1878, so soon after their long separation, the Taylors heard news of the famine that was ravaging China in their absence. Hudson was sick and could not travel. Leaving her seven children in the care of Hudson’s sister, Amelia (who already had ten of her own), Jennie took the courageous step of travelling back to China alone to head up the mission’s relief program. Arriving in Shanghai, she set out for the interior – the first woman to do so. The success of her mission was to play an important part in convincing her husband that the interior was no less accessible to women than to men, opening the way for other women to follow her example. Hudson was well enough to join her at the end of 1878, and they spent the next three years ministering together before she returned to her children in London. From 1890, when her children were sufficiently independent, until her death in 1904 (just months before that of her husband), Jennie travelled tirelessly with Hudson as his partner and co-worker in the mission.

AMY CARMICHAEL – Missionary and author

Amy Carmichael (1867-1951) was turned down for service with the China Inland Mission on medical grounds. China’s loss was India’s gain! Testing her vocation for missionary work overseas, she went briefly to Japan from 1893 to 1894, before making the voyage from England to India in 1895. She was to remain in India, never revisiting her homeland, until her death 55 years later.

A lively, unconventional girl, she spent her first few years on the field battling with the local language and beginning her work as an evangelist among young girls and children. She soon discovered that, for these girls, becoming a Christian meant breaking caste – and thus finding themselves homeless. Her answer was to adopt them! The first girl to be adopted, Arulai, was to remain and work with her for the rest of her life. Others, however, stayed for shorter periods of time.

Amy Carmichael’s life-work can truly be said to have begun in 1901, the year in which she rescued the first of many hundreds of girls from the slavery of temple prostitution. Needless to say, this did not make her very popular with the religious authorities. Buying some property at Dohnavur, she created a safe house and school for the girls. The pattern of community life adopted by the Dohnavur Fellowship evolved gradually in response to the changing needs of the ministry. Later to be known as the Sisters of the Common Life, Amy and her helpers (both Indian and expatriate) adopted a monastic rule, derived at least in part from her reading of Thomas a Kempis.

The work expanded rapidly. A house for boys was founded in 1918, and by 1923 there were thirty nurseries in operation. In 1926 a hospital building was added to the compound. This came none too soon, for in 1931 Amy met with an accident that was to confine her to bed for the remaining twenty years of her life. Overseeing the continuing development of the ministry from her bedroom, Amy now found the time to write extensively. She authored no less than 35 books, encouraging readers the world over with the lessons that she had learned both from her ministry and her confinement. Her biographer’s only complaint was that she consistently concealed the role that she herself played, as instanced in this memo from one of her notebooks: “Had torn up all the rest of this notebook when Arulai came in and begged me to stop, and remembering difficulty in verifying dates, I did. When finished with, destroy.”

SUSAN PERLMAN – Missionary in the media

Susan Perlman, still in her thirties, is the Media Information Officer of Jews for Jesus. A former political activist (“I survived the march on the Pentagon, but I was never the same”), she became a Christian in her early twenties. “I told God that I wanted the forgiveness he offered through Jesus and that I wanted to live for him. As far as I knew, I was the only Jewish believer in Jesus on the face of the earth.” Susan had to face the negative reactions of her family and friends, arising out of the Jewish supposition that Jesus is the “god of the Gentiles,” the one in whose name the Jewish people have been persecuted down through the centuries.

Discovering that there were in fact other Jewish believers in Jesus, Susan decided to devote her life to reaching her own people with the Gospel. “I wanted to use my ‘cause-oriented’ zeal as well as my experience in writing and drama to work at dispelling these misunderstandings.” A former advertising copywriter for J. C. Penney, Susan now controls the media advertising campaigns of Jews for Jesus, placing full-page Gospel statements in the secular media in the U.S.A. and in other parts of the world, emphasizing that you can be Jewish and believe in Jesus. Many thousands of responses come onto her desk every year from people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have never had the opportunity to hear the message of the Gospel before. Her advertisements reach those who would never darken the doors of a church service or evangelistic meeting.

Some 40,000 Jewish people around the world are now on the mailing list for Issues, a bi-monthly magazine which Susan edits in the form of a soft-sell “Messianic Jewish perspective.” She frequently appears on television and radio and is involved in advising other missionaries all over the world on relating to the Jewish and secular media. Truly a woman of her time, Susan has built up a network of contacts all over the place, Christians whom she is able to motivate to write letters to their local editors. She serves as a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is much in demand as a representative at consultations on evangelism, since she falls into three sought-after minority categories – she is young, Jewish, and female.

THE TENTH WOMAN

As I see these nine women of God, devoting their lives to the furthering of his kingdom on earth, I see in the dim shadows behind them another figure, ministering, healing, teaching. I don’t know her name. I can’t even see her face clearly. I don’t know anything about her life, her story.

She’s a woman of faith, giving herself in God’s service. She never wrote a book. Nobody ever wrote a book about her. After she went to meet her Lord face to face, they never even recalled her name. They simply buried her.

Today no one remembers that she ever lived. No one tells the tales of the miracles that she performed, the words of wisdom that she spoke, the hardships that she endured. No one visits her shrine. Her last resting place is unknown.

But her name is written large in one volume from which is will never be erased – the book of life. With the unknown women of the history of the church, she stands beside the heavenly throne. One day I hope to be able to embrace her there and share the joys and sorrows of her story. For I know who she is. She is my sister.