The other day some friends of mine from college and I were discussing women in the church, specifically the impact that single women can and do have on the church (don’t worry, this is not a post about singleness). This led me to reflect on some amazing women from church history. I wanted to post about a few different women, so I decided to break it up into three parts. The first part concerns probably my favorite martyrological account: Perpetua and Felicitas.
For those of you who don’t know, Perpetua and her handmaiden Felicitas were martyred in Carthage in c.203 C.E [See In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought, edited by Amy Oden (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 26-37. All parenthetical citations come from the source as presented in Oden’s work.] In this account, there are several interesting and powerful visions. In one Perpetua sees her brother, Dinocrates, who had passed away, suffering from thirst, but unable to drink. She prays for him for several days and receives a vision that his suffering has been relieved (pp. 30-31). Elsewhere, she receives a vision of herself in the arena as a man battling an Egyptian man, whom she defeats in the vision by stepping on his head. She then is awarded a “green branch with golden apples” (31-32). Perpetua herself notes that this foretold that she would be battling the devil in the arena, not just the wild beasts (32).
While these visions are packed with imagery and interesting theological points (such as praying for the dead), I want to point to two other passages in particular that have always struck me as profound and instructive. The first is that Felicitas, because she is 8 months pregnant, is not allowed to be martyred even though she is imprisoned with the others. So she and the others prayed and she gives birth early “suffering greatly because of the additional pain natural for an eighth-month delivery” (34). Felicitas herself actually wishes for and prays for a premature delivery in order that she can be torn to pieces just a few days later by wild beasts. I don’t know if I will ever have faith such as this: not only to walk into an arena in which immanent death presents itself in the form of hungry wild animals, but to actually pray for early labor (a pain I will never know) just so she could be martyred. It’s actually a quick part in the narrative but one that always makes me pause and think.
The second passage I want to point out actually concerns Perpetua’s death. She had been tossed about by the wild animals, but they would not kill her (35-36). The account of her death is rather poignant: “Perpetua, in order to feel some of the pain, groaning as she was struck between the ribs, took the gladiator’s trembling hand and guided it to her throat. Perhaps it was that so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not have been slain had she not herself willed it” (36-37). Again, I am struck by the faith of this woman. She has endured attacks from wild animals and even a blow to the ribs. She then has the piece of mind and the faith to guide her executioner’s blade to her throat.
I want to bring this post to a close with a personal anecdote. Back when I started Seminary, I personally thought that no women should be pastors. Pretty early on in Seminary, I encountered enough gifted, called women that were already or would shortly become pastors. I am thankful for this, because through these individuals, I could see God working in order to shape and mold the church. God clearly uses the unique and wonderful gifts of both women and men in the church in order to make an impact. I take a similar lesson away from Perpetua and Felicitas. These women, precisely because they are women, have greatly shaped the theological understanding of martyrdom and faith throughout the history of the church. Felicitas’s story of childbirth comes to mind in proving this point. Also, most of the account is written by Perpetua (or, if you take the perspective that it’s written by a man, is at least told from her point of view). Not only do you have a woman author (or narrator) in an early church document, you have a history of the church preserving it and honoring it. After all, both Perpetua and Felicitas are saints.
Finally, I would urge any of my readers who have not read this account to do so. It’s online and easily accessible. Also, if any of my readers believe that women should not be pastors/ teachers, I urge you to rethink that position in light of the many gifted women in the church today as well as throughout its history. One of my favorite books on this subject is Ruth A. Tucker’s Daughters of the Church. As always, I welcome your comments and thoughts on this.