Not Your Father’s Church History

Author's Note: The following post originally appeared in Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith which tells the story of over fifty remarkable Christian women. 

For far too long, church history has been told as HIS-story. The strong, empowering voices of women have been silenced. It’s a sad pattern that we can trace back all the way to Hagar. 

Fortunately, a fair and balanced narrative of church history shows that women have always spoken God’s truth in love to change lives with Christ’s changeless truth. For two-thousand years women have engaged in gospel conversations to minister to hurting and hardened people. It’s time for church history once again also to be Her-story. 

When we think of the early church, our minds focus on the Church Fathers. Sadly, we normally fail even to consider the Church Mothers. Yet, these godly women heroically waged spiritual warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil. 

Their loses and their victories, their pain and their joy, their walk with Christ and their journey with one another are all an inheritance from which each of us are eligible to draw. There is a mighty company of gallant women believers from whom we can learn. 

Vibia Perpetua (181-203) heads that company. The early Church preserved her manuscript, The Martyrdom of Perpetua, as a martyr’s relic because it is one of the oldest and most descriptive accounts of death for Christ. It is also the earliest known document written by a Christian woman. 

Anyone who has ever suffered for the faith or has been oppressed by the powerful can carry on a conversation and feel a bond with Perpetua. In fact, in the introduction to her story, we read that she wrote it “expressly for God’s honor and humans’ encouragement” to testify to the grace of God and to edify God’s grace-bought people. 

Of course, even reading the word “martyr” likely causes us to imagine that Perpetua was a spiritual “super woman” whose life and ministry we could not possibly emulate. The story of her life, however, demonstrates just the opposite. 

Perpetua lived in Carthage in North Africa during the persecution of Christians under Septimius Severus. At the time of her arrest in 202 AD, she was a twenty-one-year-old mother of an infant son. Born into a wealthy, prominent, but unbelieving family, she was a recent convert with a father who continually attempted to weaken her faith and a husband who was, for reasons unknown to us, out of the picture. Nothing in Perpetua’s situation or background prepared her for the titanic spiritual struggle God called her to face. 

Perpetua, her brother, her servant (Felicitas), and two other new converts were discipled by Saturus. We learn from Perpetua of the arrest of all these faithful followers of Christ. 

“At this time we were baptized and the Spirit instructed me not to request anything from the baptismal waters except endurance of physical suffering. A few days later we were imprisoned.” 

Perpetua candidly faces her fears and expresses her internal and external suffering. 

“I was terrified because never before had I experienced such darkness. What a terrible day! Because of crowded conditions and rough treatment by the soldiers the heat was unbearable. My condition was aggravated by my anxiety for my baby.” 

This very human woman exudes superhuman strength. In the midst of her agony, she empathizes with and consoles others. Her father, completely exhausted from his anxiety, came from the city to beg Perpetua to recant and offer sacrifice to the emperor. 

“I was very upset because of my father’s condition. He was the only member of my family who would find no reason for joy in my suffering. I tried to comfort him saying, ‘Whatever God wants at this tribunal will happen, for remember that our power comes not from ourselves but from God.’ But utterly dejected, my father left me.” 

To learn what happens to Perpetua and her friends, read part two of Perpetua’s life in my next blog post: The Road to Hope

Why do you think we have silenced the voices of godly women in church history?

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