Before starting seminary, I ate lunch with nine Christian leaders whose lives and ministry I deeply respect. We met all around Seattle, up in Bellingham, over cups of locally-roasted coffee, bowls of ramen, glasses of wine, Texas BBQ – and they shared many different perspectives, from a wide variety of areas of expertise.
One friend, a recent seminary graduate who has worked at multiple churches in a number of ministries, asked: Think of why you chose to study theology and ministry. What is your reason for being here – is there one big question that is driving all you study and do?
I am in seminary because I think the church is most effective when its leaders are representative of the communities they serve – in gender, ethnicity, and other key identities that most represent its congregation.
I’m in seminary because after 10 years in a church that values the voices of women in all levels of leadership, I can’t go back. After five years working on multi-cultural teams, I know it takes intentionality, humility, and care to work interculturally – and I feel God prompting me to keep investing in how I can be a better friend and teammate in our diverse and multicultural world.
In every class, each reading, and every paper I write, the big question running through my mind is: How are we equipping leaders who are representative of the communities and congregations they serve? Are they represented at the decision-making tables?
Women in Church History: Perpetua
This past week, I wrote a paper on Perpetua, a North African noblewoman killed for her Christian faith in 203 CE. Perpetua and her slave, Felicity, both faced wild animals in a Roman amphitheater before being killed by gladiators.
Perpetua died at age 22, but not before writing most of The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity. It’s thought that Tertullian wrote the scene of her actual death. Yet because women in Perpetua’s day were much less likely to be literate, and since male historians weren’t very concerned with keeping record of what they wrote anyway, Perpetua’s story is one of very few first-person narratives by women to survive from the first millennium of Christianity.
In Perpetua and Felicity’s day, producing children was seen a women’s primary responsibility and indicator of value. This belief was strengthened and institutionalized by the Roman empire, but was also quite prevalent in the Bible, particularly throughout the book of Genesis, where the wives of patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all barren for many years. Throughout these Biblical narratives, these women are viewed primarily for their ability to produce offspring. They frequently experience jealously and manipulate the women around them in order to get the children they need to produce to be seen as valuable.
Always talked about through the lens of womanhood
The narrative makes a point of describing Felicity and Perpetua’s bodies at different points, especially after Perpetua’s editor takes over to describe the events of she and Felicity’s deaths. Perpetua speaks of suckling her child in prison and feeling pain when she cannot nurse. When her editor describes how the martyrs are stripped, clothed with nets, and tossed into the amphitheater, he comments on the shape of both of their bodies. We are told almost nothing about the body or physical appearance of the male martyr Sarturus – perhaps the most prominent figure in the text other than Perpetua – nor are we told if he left behind a family or children. The few times men’s bodies are mentioned, it is to illustrate their individual temperament or to highlight God’s physical healing.
Perpetua had many markers of an honorable woman of her day. She came from a well-off family, “respectably born, liberally educated” and was both a “married matron” and the mother of an infant son. Yet British theology professor Candida Moss writes, “Gender, rather than class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, or ecclesiastical rank, is perceived to be the defining aspect of Perpetua’s identity.”
Another Biblical source for the way both Perpeuta and her editor view women goes back to Bible’s origin story for the creation of mankind: Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3, Eve’s decision to follow the serpent’s advice and disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit, and Adam’s choice to follow her lead, is known as the fall of mankind. Because the serpent is understood to be Satan, Eve was tricked and manipulated by Satan. As punishment for Adam and Eve’s sin, the couple is banished from the garden paradise in which they live. Men are cursed to have to work for what they eat (verse 17-19) and women are cursed with having to go through painful childbirth and will be ruled over by their husbands (verse 16). God also promises the snake that God will put enmity between it and the woman, “and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (verse 15).
All women viewed as daughters of Eve
When Perpetua’s narrative is viewed through the lens of Eve and her role in the fall, many parallels emerge. Perpetua has a young son, and Felicity goes through a difficult birth while in prison. For readers raised in a culture that viewed all women as daughters of Eve – holding the guilt, sinfulness, and weakness of Eve as part of their identity as women – associating them with childbirth only served to strengthen that association.
Narrating her story, Perpetua twice mentions her crushing the head of an enemy: once in her vision of the dragon, when she learned she would die for her faith, and once when receives a vision of herself in the Roman amphitheater. Perpetua’s choice of language illustrates that she has overcome the legacy of Eve present in her body. Eve allowed Satan to manipulate her, but Perpetua has twice crushed Satan under her foot. God attributes this act of crushing the snake’s head specifically to Eve’s male offspring, so Perpetua’s act of crushing her enemies’ heads is taking on actions that God attributes in scripture to men.
Perpetua’s father and young son are used as leverage to convince her to publicly reject Christ. She refuses – but this choice: needing to reject your family to choose Christ – is not presented as a decision any of the male martyrs are required to make.
Perpetua clarifies her rejection of femininity for masculine traits more overtly in her battle vision, writing, “I was stripped, and became a man.” In order to gain strength and die a valiant death, she feels a need to physically overcome her femininity by becoming male.
The martyrs Perpetua and Felicity were viewed, both by their culture and their faith, primarily through the lens of their womanhood. Focused on Eve’s role in the fall, the early church was hesitant to elevate women as models of faith. To overcome this, female martyrs needed to reject their identity as daughters of Eve and prove their holiness by displaying masculinity.
Throughout the narrative of her arrest and death, Perpetua highlights numerous examples of her masculinity and her spiritual strength. Her male editors affirm Perpetua and her slave’s identity as a “brave and blessed martyrs,” “truly called and chosen unto the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but they still craft their narrative to show Felicity and Perpetua not just as martyrs, but as martyrs whose biological sex is the key part of thier identity.
How do Christians do this today? Who today is marginalized like Perpetua and Felicity?
For Christians – especially those in positions of leadership – it is crucial to seek to better understand our own cultural contexts and how they influence the stories we tell. In what ways are we unable to see a Christian sibling outside of their sexuality, class, ethnicity, or citizenship, or other marginalized identity, and in what ways might this be this causing us to dampen or limit the witness of their lives of faith?
As the author of her story, Perpetua has a voice, but is still constrained by her culture and historical context. Felicity, her slave, has no voice – and is deeply marginalized in her context.
In the Christian spaces we are a part of, is there any remaining undercurrent of the church’s long history of seeing women as daughters of Eve: understanding women as weaker, more susceptible to being manipulated by evil, or more controlled by earthly impulses?
Like with Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and many Biblical women throughout history, are women today still told – explicitly or implicitly – that having children is an important part of what makes us valuable?
But especially for women who don’t feel as confined by the church’s historical understanding of women, where does this approach to viewing Christians who don’t fit into the majority culture show up today?
As the United States becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse, we hear a lot about the importance of diversity in the church, yet what Martin Luther King, Jr said over 40 years ago is just as true today: 11am on Sunday mornings is still the most segregated hour in America.
As our country becomes more diverse, our churches are mostly staying as culturally homogenous as they have always been. Something needs to change. But it would be a mistake to assume that white Christians – those who have historically been in power – should be responsible for figuring out how to fix our broken system.
Okay … but realistically, what can we do?
Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil outlines a roadmap for how Christians of different ethnicities and cultures can come together to rebuild our broken systems together. This requires people who (like me) have been a part of the group in power to figure out how to effectively share power with those from whom power has been withheld. This isn’t easy. It’s a huge learning process, with many mistakes and misunderstandings bound to happen along the way.
As a white woman in a seminary that is 40 percent female, I’ve found myself in a position of much more power and opportunity than has been afforded to most women throughout Christian history. That is an amazing gift – and something I am so grateful for. But as I read about the history of Christian women, the parallels between the experiences of others who are more marginalized than I am are almost impossible to miss.
In what way are Christian leaders today – especially leaders who are people of color, or otherwise outside of the U.S.’s straight, white, able-bodied male ideal – viewed through the same restrictive lenses Perpetua was?
If I’m so bothered by the fixation with Perpetua’s body, the perception that women are only valuable if they have children, and the ways that she had to reject her womanhood and try to become a man, where in the world around me are other people being asked to do the same thing? Where are Christian leaders today primary viewed through the lens of their marginalization: seen as great leaders, but in the same breath always defined by their marginalized identity?
White Christianity in the U.S. is shrinking, but it’s growing in the global east and south, as well as in the U.S. among immigrants and people of color. Yet white Christians still dominate public perception of Christians and hold most of the money and power.
As a white Christian studying theology, it is crucial that I look understand the history of my faith – its long tradition of marginalizing women like me, and others who are not straight white men – and then seek to use the power I have been given to help address the ways this legacy is still powerful and present in U.S. Christianity today.
- What stereotypes are we putting on Christian leaders who have parts of their identities that are outside of the majority?
- How do we talk about these leaders? Do we view them with the same respect as Christian leaders whose identities all fall within majority culture?
- Is the writing of non-majority Christian leaders taught, preached about, and held in equal respect as leaders from majority culture?
- Are these Christian leaders given the opportunity to speak and teach, outside of being seen as the “women’s perspective” or the “diversity perspective”?
- Do the leaders in our Christian communities represent the people/congregations they serve – in gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc?
- Who are the Christian leaders of color in our lives? Are they the only one in their spaces of leadership, or are they a part of a representative group of leaders?
- If we have identities within majority culture, how often do we invest in learning to see the history of marginalization and power in our faith and in our world? How often are we uncomfortable in the process of seeking to understand out power, and learning helpful ways to share our power with others?
- When this process makes us uncomfortable, do we see that as failure and withdraw? Or do we view our growth like exercise: feeling sore afterwards doesn’t mean we failed, it means we worked hard and our muscles are making sure we know it. You know what they say: no pain, no gain.