What if I were to tell you that one of the most famous missionary in the early church was a woman named Thecla? Are you acquainted with her? Though her name is not cited in the New Testament, she is mentioned in ancient documents like the Acts of Paul and Thecla—a second century document. What is more, scattered around Asia Minor are murals and artifacts celebrating her leadership.
Who was this remarkable woman? A first century woman from Iconium, Thecla heard the Apostle Paul preach during his missionary journey to Asia Minor (Acts 13:51). A young woman from the upper class, she was engaged to an equally wealthy man, until she heard Paul preach from her bedroom balcony. After hearing Paul’s gospel message, Thecla longed only to hear more. According to legend, Thecla refused to eat or sleep, and repeatedly attended Paul’s sermons despite the disapproval of her family. Because Thecla became a Christian, her family was outraged, viewing her conversion as a betrayal of Rome and all Rome represented. Legend claims her parents attempted to have Thecla burned, raped, and thrown to the wild animals, all of which she miraculously escaped.
Thecla rejected the status and comforts of her class to serve Christ, as an ascetic and missionary near Antioch. There she had a dynamic ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. In fact, Basil and Gregory, two early church fathers, referred to Thecla’s ministry in Syria, as a prominent center of teaching and healing. A team of archaeologists excavated her compound in 1908, describing its dimensions as approximately the size of a football field.
Thecla was a popular figure in early Christian art work, often pictured between two lions, kneeling down in submission to her holiness. Thecla served as a pious model of women’s ministry in the early church. Murals celebrating her legacy of teaching beside Paul suggest she had a prominent reputation as a teacher and leader.