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Published Date: March 4, 2016

Published Date: March 4, 2016

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Women’s History Month: Early Church Women and Desert Mothers

Editor’s Note: It’s Women’s History Month, which provides a unique opportunity to take a closer look at the historical imprint of Christian women. There is a long tradition of truth-tellers and pot-stirrers among Christian women. Ours is a heritage of immense power, prophetic voices, and deep love for the Lord. From the time Jesus walked among humans, women have lived out the gospel, modeling love, boldness, service, and leadership.

In honor of these heroes of our faith, we invite you to join us on a journey through time. We will celebrate a different group of historical women from the early church, the Middle Ages, the modern mission movement, and the early evangelicals. CBE’s president, Mimi Haddad, will profile these women and highlight the mark each has left on our faith. We invite you to walk with us this month, as we trace an outline that, often-obscured, is becoming steadily bolder. Happy #WHM! 

The New Testament & Early Church Women

The earliest Christian documents illustrate the prominence of women, often as forefront witnesses of Christ’s teaching and miracles.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the subject of more literature than any other Christian woman. Many women like Mary were given access to key positions in Jesus’s new covenant community as disciples, apostles, deacons, teachers, and house-church leaders. Christ opposed traditions that oppressed and excluded women (Luke 10:38-42; Mark 5:25-34), just as Paul affirmed their gospel-partnership in Galatians 3:28.

The integral inclusion of women in the life of the church continued after the death of the apostles. Preferring rejection, torture, and even death to renouncing their faith, women served Christ as missionaries, scholars, and pilgrims. Women were also noted among the martyrs of the early church, and their astounding courage and faith changed the world.

Perpetua and Felicitas

The earliest and most extensive narrative by a Christian woman was written by Perpetua. It’s the story of a young mother martyred in North Africa in 203 AD. Perpetua was a noble woman who, though still nursing her child, was arrested beside her pregnant slave, Felicitas, and four others. Like Jesus, Perpetua and her small group endured a cruel mob, abusive guards, and despairing family.

Her biographer describes how Perpetua, tortured and unable to write further, and Felicitas faced their deaths. Perpetua glowed as “the wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare [as…. she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat” (The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, ed. Herbert Musurillo). Brutality ended her life, but her courage ignited a legacy which lives on today.


Like Felicitas, Blandina (martyred 177 AD) was also a slave. She was arrested with her master for professing Christian faith. She endured a lengthy and cruel torture, astonishing and exhausting the guards with her strength.

She was denied a beheading, because she was not a Roman. So, she was tied to a pole and subjected to wild beasts, who seemed uninterested in her. She was then whipped,  burned with a hot iron, thrown to wild animals and tossed in the air by their horns, and finally killed by the dagger of a gladiator. Her life is honored in Lyon, France where she and other leading Christians were martyred.

Catherine of Alexandria

At eighteen years-old, Catherine’s reputation as a leading Christian thinker gained the attention of the Emperor Maximinus who violently persecuted Christians during the 3rd century. When Catherine confronted him for his cruelty and worship of false gods, he was astonished by her courage.

Lacking words to oppose her challenge, he held her captive in the palace and orchestrated a debate with his own scholars. Catherine’s logic won their allegiance. Enraged, Maximinus had Catherine whipped and imprisoned.

The empress learned of Catherine’s skills and visited her in prison. She too became a Christian, was promptly baptized, and then immediately martyred for her faith. In the end, Catherine led two hundred soldiers to faith in Jesus.

As a result, Catherine was condemned to die stretched over a wheel. According to legend though, the entire structure collapsed. Instead, the emperor had her beheaded. A monastery was built in her honor at the foot of Mount Sinai and remains a great center of Christian scholarship to this day.

A Desert Movement

The persecution of Christians in Roman cities resulted in an exodus of wealthy believers to the deserts of Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor. These Christians, male and female, left behind their comforts—food, slaves, fine jewelry, and clothing—to become ascetics, surviving on little food, sleep, and possessions.

These Christians, mothers (ammas) and fathers (abbas), were the early founders of what would become known as The Desert Movement. The desert was selected as a place to seek and hunger after God. It was also a place of spiritual battle where, stripped of comforts and distractions, the desert Christians confronted dependence on false gods with all their lure. The physical move to the desert symbolized a total rejection of their culture’s worship of sex and materialism.

Through a physical detachment from comforts, desert Christians fasted not only from food and possessions, but also from anger, jealousy, power, and greed. By weaning themselves from base appetites, they created enormous space for God. In the desert, surrounded by dust, they found a new freedom and vitality of faith.

Desert Mothers

Many women were leaders in the desert reform. Syncletica, Thecla, Macrina, Paula, and Pelagia are just a few ammas (mothers) who shaped the spirituality of the desert movement


Syncletica was born in the 5th century to a noble, Christian family in Alexandria, Egypt. Well-educated and known for her beauty, Syncletica gave her wealth to the poor, cut off her hair, and moved with her blind sister to the desert outside Alexandria to live in simplicity and prayer.

Other women soon followed Syncletica and she reluctantly served as their spiritual mother. She called her followers to empty themselves of anger, vindictiveness, envy, ambition, and any attitude that did not spring from intimacy with Christ. She was also an avid learner, believing that ignorance hindered spiritual growth.


The sister of two famous bishops, Gregory and Basil, Macrina taught that humility and love were the goals of philosophy. Macrina turned her family home into a monastic community where all possessions were shared. Her holy life attracted many followers. As her fame spread, she became known simply as “the Teacher.”


A beautiful actress, and perhaps also a prostitute, Pelagia lived in Antioch during the 5th century. After hearing Bishop Nonnus preach in Antioch, Pelagia turned to Christ and her life was radically altered.

Pelagia gave away all her belongings to widows, orphans, and the poor. Just before she was to be baptized, she disappeared, wearing Nonnus’s cloak, and was never seen in Antioch again. Taking the clothes of her mentor, she assumed the identity of a monk and retreated to the desert.

Years later, one of Nonnus’ monks traveled to Jerusalem to pray with a holy man named Pelagius. He was moved to return a few days later only to find that Pelagius had died. In preparing the monk for burial, he discovered Pelagius was actually Pelagia, a woman.

Bible Scholars


Paula (347-404 AD) was also a desert mother. After the death of her husband, Paula left behind family and wealth to pursue Christ in the desert of Palestine. Paula gave away her vast fortune to build hospitals and care for the poor in Rome and Palestine, and she also established monasteries and churches.

Perhaps most importantly, Paula mastered the Hebrew language, a priceless resource in her partnership with Jerome. Together, they produced a Latin translation of the Bible, widely considered to be one of the best translations in all of history.

Paula made some very difficult choices. She was heavily criticized for rejecting traditional roles for Roman women of her class, choosing instead to give the world a modern translation of the Bible.


Thecla, a first-century woman from Iconium, heard Paul preach during his first missionary journey to Asia Minor (Acts 13:51). A young woman from a wealthy family, Thecla was engaged to an equally wealthy man until she heard Paul preach from her bedroom window. After hearing the gospel, she longed only to sit at Paul’s feet.

Reportedly, Thecla’s family took drastic and cruel action to punish their daughter for becoming a Christian. Legend claims her parents attempted to have her burned, raped, and thrown to wild animals, all of which she miraculously escaped.

Thecla forsook all the comforts of her class to serve Christ as an ascetic and missionary near Antioch, where she led a dynamic ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, and baptism.

In fact, Basil and Gregory, two early church fathers, celebrated Thecla’s ministry in Syria as a center of teaching and healing. A team of German archaeologists excavated her hospital in 1908, describing its dimensions as the size of a football field.

A mural of Thecla and Paul was recently excavated in an ancient church outside Ephesus, illustrating her prominence in church history. Thecla is a model of women in ministry in the early church. She assumed the respected position of teacher and leader in the desert community.

Over time, the desert Christian communities became prosperous. They remained centers of great learning and service, establishing an enduring legacy of female leaders in church history.

Other articles in this series:
Women’s History Month: Mystics and Monastics
Women’s History Month: Women in the Modern Mission Movement
Women’s History Month: Early Evangelical Women

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