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Published Date: March 11, 2020

Published Date: March 11, 2020

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Fearless Women in Church History: Rereading Thecla’s Story

Young Thecla sat in her dark jail cell with rats as her only company. She was startled when the jailer suddenly appeared with his burning torch and fumbled with the keys that hung from his belt. He unlocked her cell door and led her down several corridors with large cages containing lions, bulls, and other fearsome animals, which would eventually be released to kill their victims in the arena. When they finally turned the corner and arrived at the last passageway, the woman could see a bright light shining ahead. The sound of a roaring crowd grew louder as she and the guard stepped closer to a rusty iron gate at the end of the tunnel. As soon as the gate opened, she felt the guard push her outside into the arena. She winced as the glaring Roman sunlight burned her face.

In Thecla’s day, the stadium was always packed for an execution in the arena. A prisoner’s death could have taken many forms. A man or woman might have been shown relative mercy from the Roman Empire by a quick execution from a gladiator’s sword. However, the Romans also found pleasure in watching prolonged human suffering, and so it would have been equally possible for someone to be burned at the stake or to be torn apart by wild animals. Thecla’s crime was serious enough that even her own mother condemned her to be burned alive.1 Thecla had rejected her fiancé after hearing the apostle Paul preach a sermon about chastity,2 which led her to believe that being a virgin would prepare her better for Christ’s second coming.3

When it came to capital punishment, the Romans knew that human suffering was not limited to physical pain. If a criminal’s sense of dignity could be taken away, it increased the spectators’ twisted sense of satisfaction that justice had been served, especially in the context of their honor-shame culture. Consequently, when the guard suddenly ripped Thecla’s clothes off, exposing her further to the spectators, the crowd’s jeers became deafening. Her life was now in their hands, and the crowd’s anger over her social defiance had finally erupted into rage as tens of thousands of spectators screamed for her death.

Try as they might, they could not provoke Thecla to despair. There was no fear in her eyes because she believed that she was God’s servant, which meant that God would be with her through everything she would endure.4 She was a legendary figure for her time; in addition to wild animals that threatened to eat her alive or trample her to death, she also encountered ravenous seals in a baptismal pool.5 God saved Thecla from martyrdom, and then she was commissioned by Paul to “teach the word of God,” which she did in addition to caring for the poor and healing the sick in Seleucia (present-day Baghdad in Iraq).6

Thecla’s ministry is especially fascinating because in the stories told about her, there is no indication that her audience was restricted to women and children. Furthermore, when she disguised herself to look like a man before reuniting with Paul,7 Thecla probably assumed that apostleship was reserved for men.8 However, she “prove[d] that it is possible for a woman to have a [supposedly] masculine ministry, because it is possible for a female to become more masculine (just as male priests must develop allegedly feminine characteristics like patience, sympathy, and compassion) . . . Thecla’s spiritual gifts are given with her eventual apostleship in mind, and aspects of her personality are fitted to that ministry.”9

Thecla most likely lived during Paul’s ministry as an itinerant preacher in the first century, and we find an account of her life in a second-century work called Acts of Paul and Thecla. When I met her for the first time in a global church history course at my seminary, I became so fascinated by what she embodied that I wrote my term paper about her life. I saw my research as a means to accomplish two objectives. First, I wanted to honor Thecla’s commitment to proclaim the gospel in whatever manner God had called her to. Second, by reflecting on Thecla’s life, I was eager to continue rethinking my previous assumptions about all that a woman’s involvement in ministry could entail.

Prior to enrolling in seminary, I had only been exposed to complementarian teaching in the local church, and so I was always persuaded by the argument for a male-only pastorate. When my eyes were opened to other convictions about women’s ordination, I started asking close friends and family about other ways to understand a woman’s role in ministry. The response was always the same. I was told that if I claimed to affirm the authority of Scripture, then I needed to heed Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:12 without questioning them, regardless of how troubled I felt about the implications of doing so.

Needless to say, this approach to applying Scripture wasn’t helpful as I tried to understand why Paul would include such an alarming prohibition. As I wrestled with this issue that did not seem as “cut and dried” as my complementarian friends and family had made it out to be, I discovered egalitarian interpretation, and I felt refreshed as I found answers to my questions. Having read various articles and books, I still affirm the authority of Scripture and I believe this authority requires me to interpret the Bible holistically. By the time I met Thecla, I had gotten to the point where I felt comfortable challenging my denomination’s views about women serving as pastors, and so I seized the opportunity to do so as I studied Thecla’s life and world.

As I’ve been on this journey toward mutuality and affirming women in ministry, I’ve been enriched by what others have written about the subject, and I’ve seen how my own study of Thecla has created opportunities to learn from and affirm my fellow seminary students who are women. I’ve also had great conversations with women who are already ordained, and they’ve offered a variety of perspectives on how we should apply Paul’s message today. Many of these conversations were helpful early on in my journey because they corrected a misconception I held, that I had to compromise on my conviction about the Bible’s sexual ethic in order to affirm women’s call to pastoral ministry. I am thankful I can be an egalitarian without compromising! My exploration has been especially helpful for the ministry God has called me to as a US Navy chaplain because I have a greater respect for the sacrifice and commitment that female chaplains have made to be faithful to their calling.

I admit I still have room for learning and personal reflection about the subject of women’s ordination. Perhaps this is why I’m thankful for Thecla’s story, it presents a different—one might even say refreshing—look at what God calls women to do, compared to what has typically been presented in modern evangelical circles, or even by some early church fathers. For example, when Tertullian uses harsh rhetoric to condemn women for their immodesty, I cannot help but wonder if church history has been stained by misogyny: “You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack.”10

Reading about Thecla’s life during Women’s History Month can certainly empower Christian women today as they face their own challenges while preparing for ministry. However, I would argue that women’s history is for men as well. When we as believers, regardless of our gender, are more aware of women like Thecla who were instrumental in church history, we have a more complete understanding of our roots. In other words, church history becomes less crowded in our minds by male accomplishments. This ought to level the playing field for men and women in ministry today, which should give Christian men a reason to encourage their sisters to pursue whatever form of ministry God has called them to, as both genders come together to share in God’s mission of hope and healing to a hurting world.

1 John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, eds., “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” in Readings in World Christian History, vol. 1 (New York: Orbis Books, 2006), 49.
2 Coakley and Sterk, “Acts of Paul and Thelca,” 48–49.
3 Elizabeth A. Clark, “The Celibate Bridgegroom and His Virginal Brides: Metaphor and the Marriage of Jesus in Early Christian Ascetic Exegesis,” Church History 77, no. 1 (March 2008): 12.
4 Coakley and Sterk, “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” 51.
5 Coakley and Sterk, “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
6 Susan E. Smith, Women in Mission: From the New Testament to Today (New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 40.
7 Coakley and Sterk, “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” 52.
8 David J. Dunn, “’Her That Is No Bride’: St Thecla and the Relationship between Sex, Gender, and Office,” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 53, no. 4 (January 2010): 56.
9 Dunn, “’Her That Is No Bride,’” 59.
10 Coakley and Sterk, “Tertullian of Carthage: On the Apparel of Women,” 44, emphasis from source.

Photo by Nick Kane on Unsplash.