Seeing Yourself in Scripture
As friends and I met for dinner to enjoy pictures of mutual friends' wedding, their four-year-old joined in the fun. At one stage I asked this child which picture was her favorite, and she quickly pointed to one saying "This one!" When I asked why, she pointed again and said the name of her best friend. Her parents and I strained our eyes to have another look. We'd been focusing on the images of adults and failed to observe a little girl - her best friend - poking her head just slightly around her mother's knee. We all broke into laughter, realizing we had missed something precious to this child. This little girl noticed an individual similar to herself in the photograph while the adults were looking only at the other adults. It was one of those profound moments when you realize how experience shapes observation.
The same is true when women read Scripture. Women tend to observe other women. It should not surprise us that as women entered universities in the 1800s, they were among the first to note women evangelists (Mark 7:24-30, John 4:5-42, John 20:17, Phil. 4:2-3); deacons (Rom. 16:1-2); teachers (Acts 18:24-26, Col. 3:16); leaders of house churches (Acts 16:13-15, 40; Acts 18: 1-3, 18, 24-26; Rom. 16:3; 1 Cor. 1:11; Col. 4:15; Phil. 1-2; and 2 John 1:1); Junia the apostle (Rom.16:7), and women like Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis who "worked hard in the Lord" (Rom. 16:12). To "work hard in the Lord" is how Paul describes his own missionary work.
Women were also at the forefront of recovering the contributions of women throughout church history. Here are a few examples:
The Early Church
The earliest Western translation of Scripture was the work of a 4th century male-female translation team - Paula (347-404 A.D.) and Jerome. Jerome, a prominent early church leader, hailed Paula's mastery of Hebrew and her ability to speak it without a Latin accent. In gratitude for her, Jerome dedicated much of his work to her.
Macrina (330-379) was the older sister to Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, and both credit her for their theological education. Insisting that humility and love are the fruit of scholarship, Basil (famous for his defense of the Nicene Creed) and Gregory (known for his theological understanding of the Holy Spirit) both called Macrina "teacher."
Apollonia was a prominent deacon in the Alexandrian church who was brutally martyred in 249 A.D. Like all deacons, she cared for the ill, provided a theological education to converts, anointed the sick with oil, and held a position of leadership in the church.
Throughout the Middle Ages women like Theodora (500-548 A.D.) continued to reform the world. She and her husband Justinian, emperor of the Byzantine Empire, built Constantinople, the most architecturally advanced city in her day, as well as Hagia Sophia, one of the most impressive churches in all of history. Passionate about the plight of women, Theodora limited forced prostitution and built homes for them. She gave women a greater voice in divorce and advanced laws that allowed women to hold property. Theodora also built unity among Christians factions.
Celebrated for her learning, holiness, and unceasing service, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179 A.D) was one of the most celebrated women in all of history. She was a physician, composer, and political leader, and her counsel was sought by popes, bishops, and kings. As an abbess over a double monastery, she exercised authority over monks and nuns. Hildegard revived the spiritual health of a church that had become morally and spiritually indifferent.
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380 A.D.) worked tirelessly to oppose corruption and abuse of power. She demanded that bishops and popes lead righteous and humble lives. God called Catherine to public service at the age of 21. She cared for the victims of the plague and confronted the greed, corruption, and spiritual poverty of church leaders. Catherine boldly entered the pope's palace at Avignon where she reminded him of the church's highest mission, that of saving souls.
The Modern Missionary Movement
During the "golden era" of missions in the late nineteenth century, women outnumbered men two to one on mission fields around the world. Their efforts shifted the density of Christian faith outside of the west to places like Africa, Asia, and South America. One of these women was Charlotte "Lottie" Moon (1840-1912), the best known Southern Baptist missionary. Originally sent to teach children in China, Lottie defied her field director's advice and began evangelistic work in Northern China. She lived among the people, dressed like them, mastered the language, and began churches, a school and a medical clinic. She taught male converts and prepared several to pastor the churches she started. Lottie shared everything she had and eventually died of starvation when food was scarce.
Amy Carmichael (1868-1951) was also a celebrated missionary. Born in Northern Ireland, she lived and worked more than fifty years in India, rescuing over 2,000 young women and girls from temple prostitution. Amy established a home and school for these children and published numerous books that inspired other missionaries.
Concern for women and children was also a consuming passion of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), founder of the Mukti Mission - one of the best examples of Christian faith in action. An advocate of women's intellectual ability, she and other women not only translated Scripture into a prominent Indian dialect; they also printed and distributed this Bible.
If our experiences as women bring insight not only to history but also to Scripture, then women offer something of great value to these fields. Perhaps this is why Christ (who lived in a very patriarchal era) used females as key figures in many of his parables and other teachings. Clearly, Jesus loved and valued women, making this visible by including their voices and experiences throughout his work. If we are followers of Jesus, should we not be doing the same?