Christian Leadership Center



A Few Words


The following quotations were taken from a little collection published as GenderBabble, The Dumbest Things Men Ever Said About Women, by David Olive (New York: The Putman Publishing Group, 1993).  These opinions underscore the difficulty that the Church faces in trying to discover what the Bible actually teaches. 

AThe male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind@ (Aristotle, 384-322 B.C.).

AThe wife ought not to have any feelings of her own but join with her husband in his moods whether serious, playful, thoughtful, or joking@ (Plutarch).

AMan, but not woman, is made in the image of God.  It is plain from this that women should be subject to their husbands, and should be as slaves@ (Gratian, a 12th century Italian theologian).

AGirls begin to talk and stand on their feet sooner than boys because weeds always grow up more quickly than good crops@ (Martin Luther, 1483-1546)

AThe husband hath by law power and dominion over his wife, and may keep her by force, within the bounds of duty, and may beat her, but not in a violent or cruel manner@ (Francis Bacon, 1561-1626).

AIntellect in a woman is unbecoming@ (Cardinal Richelieu, 1585-1642).

AVery little wit is valued in a woman, as we are pleased with the few words of a parrot@ (Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745).

ASir, a woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs.  It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all@ (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784).

AWhen the day comes that American Express Company has to hire a female employee, it will close its doors@ (James Congdell Fargo, president of American Express, 1881-1914).

AFeminists and all these radical gals--most of them are failures.  They=ve blown it.  Some of them have been married, but they married some Casper Milquetoast who asked permission to go to the bathroom.  These women just need a man in the house.  Most of these feminists just need a man to tell them what time of day it is and to lead them home.  They blew it, and they are mad at all men@ (Jerry Falwell).


And as a counterpoint:

AIt may be the cock that crows, but it is the hen that lays the eggs@ (Margaret Thatcher)








From the very beginning of the Church women played a significant role in its service and ministry; and from the beginning that role was challenged from various people for different reasons.  Women have always taken an active role in society and religion; but prevailing attitudes, social conditions, and council decisions have all worked to curb and control them.  At the beginning of this study of women and the Bible, a survey of some of the most significant women in the history of the Church will provide a good introduction to the direction we shall take.  Once we have worked through the biblical text and ended up at the formation of the early Church in the apostolic era, we may then re-visit this subsequent history as we develop some principles and patterns for contemporary congregations.

As today, the ancient Church yielded a variety of opinions about women (as did the Synagogue).  For example, Clement of Alexandria said, AMany women have received power through the grace of God and have performed many deeds of manly valor.@  Jerome wrote this about Marcella: AShe was in the front line in condemning heretics.@  But at the Synod of Carthage in 398 it was affirmed that Aa woman, however learned and holy, may not take upon herself to teach in an assembly of men.@ 

And then there is Tertullian, who in a bit of excessive rhetoric (which is characteristic of him) said to women, AYou are the Devil=s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first forsaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach.@  And yet, on the other side, Tertullian spoke in praise of Christian women for their activities in going to houses, especially of the poor, to visit the brethren, for faithfully gathering with the saints, attending the Lord=s Supper, and visiting the martyrs in jail.

In the days of the early Church there were numerous house assemblies that sprang up in the homes of noble women.  These women may have been leaders in the assemblies--we do not know--but they at least were influential (we shall look at the New Testament references later).

Clement of Alexandria in the second century reports that women accompanied the apostles on their journeys as colleagues to minister especially to women.  As time passed and the number of single women increased, the Church ruled that they could have a more active role in ministering to different segments of society.  The Shepherd of Hermes (148) includes instructions that one copy be given to Grapte, a woman, to use to exhort widows and orphans, and one copy be given to Bishop Clement to share with the elders.  It looks like these were the representatives of female and male leaders.  Many high-born Christian women seized the opportunity to study the Bible in Hebrew and Greek.  A circle of women who worked with Jerome were particularly scholarly.  One of them, Marcella, Jerome referred to solve hermeneutical problems for the clergy.

At the risk of overlooking important women, or simplifying the events, I should like to set the tone with this preliminary sketch of some outstanding women in the history of the earlier Church.  As with the names of famous men in the history, these stand out because their works were preserved more than others.  And we can only draw on the records that we have; there were no doubt many women who were not wealthy or of the nobility, but served faithfully nonetheless.


Women in the Early Church


This section will survey the four centuries after the close of the biblical period.  We shall deal at length with the writings of the apostles later--and the women they mention and describe.



Candace of Ethiopia (c. 25-41 A.D. for her reign) is one of the earliest to be noted.  Tradition says that after the Ethiopian eunuch returned home his queen was converted to Christ through his testimony.  She then began to promote Christianity in her land.



Cecilia (2nd century) is remembered both for her martyrdom and her contribution to the music of the Church--she is sometimes referred to as the patron saint of music.  Tradition says that she was the inspiration for the musical maiden in Chaucer=s AThe Second Nun=s Tale.@  Cecilia wanted to devote herself to celibacy in the service of God, but her parents engaged her to a Roman man instead.  Just a few hours before the wedding he converted to Christ, and for this was immediately beheaded.  Her life was often threatened, but only later was she martyred in Sicily.


Anthusa of Antioch (c. 330-374)

Like so many women of her day, Anthusa was widowed at an early age.  She was cultured, attractive, and wealthy.  Rather than remarry, she chose to rear her two children, a girl, and a boy--John Chrysostom.  John writes that his mother not only taught him to love the Bible, but that her life was a model of the biblical teachings.  She certainly shared in the great ministry of her famous son, the Bishop of Constantinople.



Helena (4th century) is best known for the influence she had on her son, the Emperor Constantine.  Constantine, known for the council of Nicaea, making Sunday holy, appointing Christians to high offices, and using Christianity in his approach to affairs of state, publicly revered his mother.  Helena, credited with building the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (called the Church of the Resurrection before Islam), was one of the first pilgrims to the Holy Land.  She went throughout the land finding the holy sites and building churches and shrines to preserve them for the pilgrims.



Macrina (4th century) came from a remarkable family and had a positive influence on her brothers who became Church leaders in Asia Minor--Basil the Great,  Bishop of Caesarea; Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa; and Peter, Bishop of Sebaste.  Macrina was born in 327 and grew up in Pontus.  Basil, recognizing her intellect, arranged a theological education for her. In 355 she established a religious community for women in Pontus, and urged Basil to start a monastery for men.  During the Arian controversy when Gregory was banished to Nyssa, she urged him to stay and accept this as a work for God; he served for 20 years and won the day at the Council of Constantinople in 381.  Macrina was generous, and died penniless in 379, not even having a suitable garment for burial--she had given it all to the poor.



Marcella, born in 325 to a noble Roman family, offered her palace as a sanctuary for Christians who were being persecuted, and led Bible classes and prayer meetings for other noble women.  Marcella was widowed at an early age, without children, but she chose to remain single and serve Christ.  She was highly revered by Jerome, who, when he was commissioned to translate, moved into her retreat house for the task.  Jerome depended on her for the criticism of his work, the Vulgate.  Marcella founded the first convent in the Western Church.



Marcellina (4th century) was known for effective prayer ministry, her teaching abilities, and her influence in the life of her brother, Bishop Ambrose of Milan.  After her father died, she assisted her mother in the education of Ambrose.  Later, she resided with Ambrose, received some of his most important theological writings, and had his book De Virginibus dedicated to her.



Olympias (b. 368 in Constantinople), the daughter of Count Seleusus, inherited a substantial fortune.  The Emperor Theodosius wanted to ensure the money was well used, and so he arranged a marriage for her.  But the man died within two years.  Olympias decided to remain unmarried and devote her life to the LORD and her inheritance to helping the poor.  The Emperor tried to seize her inheritance and put it in a trust until she was 30, but she outwitted him and gained control of it.  The sick, widows, prisoners, beggars--all were recipients of her charity.  She even bought hundreds of slaves and freed them.  She became a deaconess of the Church and a good friend of John Chrysostom.  When he was banished, she was eventually banished as well, her assets seized, and her projects shut down.  He died in 407; she died within a year, a pauper.  She was remembered as a great Christian woman who gave generously to the poor, regularly studied the Bible, and served faithfully as a deaconess in the Church.


Religious Options for Women in the Early Church


Specialized Orders began to emerge in the early Church for women:  virgins, widows, deaconesses, and presbyteresses.  Some women in these orders were formally ordained and sat with the clergy in front of the congregation.  Yet, as early as the second century the majority of Christian churches opposed equality.



Early on Clement of Rome argued that virtue properly pertains to men, but that through grace women could be elevated to AManhood.@  It is in Ignatius= Letter to the Smyrnians that we learn of virgins as a class, supported by the Church and obligated to it.  Perhaps gnosticism promoted the idea of virginity as much as anything.  But the Acts of Paul and Thekla also present virginity as the most noble and truly Christian life.  So the model is presented early that the woman who would be a good Christian and good teacher can do so only if she is virginal, despising marriage and the flesh.  And ultimately martyrdom would lift the virgin, or the widow, out of the feeble earthly condition and make her equal with men in the power of intercession before God against evil.  Clement of Alexandria balanced the picture by showing how wives too can achieve perfection and the blessing of God.  Nonetheless, the ideal of the virgin would never be relinquished.



This was a part of the ordained clergy.  In the Testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ, a fifth century work based on Hippolytus, there is evidence that the selection process and ordination parallels that of deacons and bishops.  Widows were primarily charged with prayer, fasting, and dealing with the sick.  They were to instruct catechumans, to gather for prayer, encouragement, and purity, and to rebuke the wayward and restore them.



By the first half of the third century, according to the Didascalia, this became a distinct order.  Deaconesses were honored as figures of the Holy Spirit.  Their tasks were more arduous than those of the widows.  They were to visit believing women in pagan houses (where ministers could not go), to visit the sick and minister to the needy, to assist with the baptism of women, to give communion to women, and to instruct.  The Council of Chalcedon set down rules for their ordination.



The word for Aelder@ in Greek is presbyter; its feminine form is often translated Aold (elderly) woman@ but at times it clearly represents a part of the clergy.  The Cappadocian father Basil uses the term for one who was a head of a religious community.  In certain situations, then, women could function as elders.



The English word for Apriest@ is derived from the Greek presbyter, Aelder.@  A few scattered references connect women to the priesthood.  Pseudo-Ignatius= Letter to the Tarsians instructs honor for virgins as priestesses.  The Cappadocian Gregory refers to Theosobia as priestly, a colleague of priests, and worthy of the sacraments.

The catacombs in Rome, especially the Priscilla Catacomb, portray many women in prayer postures normally reserved for men.  One fresco of the late first century shows a woman breaking bread at an early eucharist (most of the participants look like women).  Another painting (from the second century) shows a woman veiled, praying.  In fact, the frescoes portray Aorant@ (praying) women more often than men--hands raised in the leadership role.

The question must be asked, however, whether these paintings represent actual women, or the Amother church.@

It is also affirmed from the Didaskalia Apostolorum that the practice of ordaining women priests for female deities is a pagan custom, and that sacerdotal and teaching functions are limited to the ordained men in the Church.

From the middle of the third century on, the controversies over women=s ministries in the church orders teach us much about women=s leadership.  Women were evangelizing, baptizing, teaching, interpreting Scripture, doing visitation, functioning as leaders of groups within the Church and speaking at assemblies.  But the Church orders from this time also indicate that such ministries brought conflict.  The difference was this: during the first two centuries women=s leadership would have been exercised in the private sphere, house assemblies; during the third and fourth centuries these ministries would have continued, but Christian worship began to be perceived as public and formal, and since Hellenistic women were not allowed to exercise authority in public, women=s ministries would have been returned to the private sphere.



Women in the Medieval Church


With more study being done on the place of women in Christianity, more information from Church history is coming to light, especially with reference to  many remarkable women during the lifetime of the medieval Church.  In many ways their struggles and contributions inform what is happening in the modern age.


The Sixth Century

Brigid of Ireland

Brigid of Ireland (450-523) founded Ireland=s first nunnery and spread Christianity there.  She served as the Abbess of the nunnery, and Bishop Mel gave her (and her successors) the episcopal order.



Clotilde (474-545), the queen of the Franks, converted her husband King Clovis, who laid the foundation for the French nation.


Theodora I

Theodora I (500-547) was the co-empress of the Byzantine Empire who helped bring about moral reform.



Radegunde (518-587) was the queen of the Franks.  She maintained her Christian faith despite King Clothaire=s adulteries and his murder of her brother.  Later she founded a key monastery.

At the end of this century there were some significant events in the history of religion.  Pope Gregory I, the Great, was in power from 590-604.  Augustine was sent to convert the English in 596.  And in 622 Islam was born with the hajira of Mohammed to Mecca. 


The Seventh Century

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby (614-680) founded an English monastery and became the Abbess, ruling both the communities of men and women.  Whitby trained five bishops in its time.  Hilda also hosted the famous Synod of Whitby in 663.



Fara (600s) founded a religious community in northern France.  She ruled as Abbess and assumed priestly and episcopal power, hearing confessions and even excommunicating people.



The Eighth Century

In the next century the Moslems dominate the events.  They crossed over into Spain in 711, but were stopped at Tours in 732.  In England the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English (731).  In Germany the work of Boniface, begun in 718, continued to evangelize the Saxons.



Lioba (700-780) is connected with this mission to convert the Saxons.  Boniface called for women to help convert the Germans, and thirty responded, including Lioba.  She headed up the work in Tauberkirschofsheim where she founded an abbey.  Her letters to Boniface survive, as does some of her devotional poetry.  She was so devoted to the Scriptures that she had younger nuns read to her while she slept; if they missed a word, she would awaken and reprimand them.  She was highly respected, even invited to the court of Charlemagne.



The Ninth Century

At the end of the century Charles becomes the Holy Roman Emperor (800), but by 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided his empire.  In 863 Cyril led a mission to the Slavs.



Dhouda (b. 840) of Septimmania wrote a manual on feudal and religious conduct, urging her son to practice charity and to serve the King and the Church. 


Ebba the Younger

Ebba the Younger was the Abbess of a remote monastery in Scotland.  In order to protect her orders of virginity and chastity, she mutilated herself to avoid molestation by the invading Danes.


The Tenth Century

The tenth century saw major changes:  the Vikings who had besieged Paris in 885 were given land to settle, and this led to the founding of Normandy; the Monastery at Cluny was founded at about the same time, 910; later in the century there were notable religious developments--Otto I was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 962, Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, and Olav brought Christianity to Norway in 995 (-1030).



Hrotsvit (932-1002) was a German woman who wrote history, verse, and drama.  Her dramas are the first known in Church history.  AHrotsvit@ means Aloud voice@; it was probably her pen name.

Hrotsvit von Gandersheim was a Canoness of the Imperial Saxon Abbey of Gandersheim. She was quite a pioneer--besides being the first dramatist of Christianity, she is the first Saxon poet, the first female Transalpine historian, and the author of the only extant Latin epics written by a woman.  She objected to the popularity of the Roman author Terence, whose plays depicted lascivious pagan women frolicking in the pleasures of the flesh.  She wanted to substitute chaste women firmly resisting the insidious advances of pagan men.  Her intent was to show frail virgins triumphing with Christ=s help.  Her writing also has a sense of humor as she makes fun of the pagan men.


The Eleventh Century

There is more information available in the next few centuries.  The eleventh century is perhaps best known for the east-west schism in 1054, and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 in which William of Normandy became King of England.  But in the first quarter of the century Stephen, the King of Hungary, converted his people to Christianity, and at the end of the century, 1093, Anselm became archbishop of Canterbury.


Margaret of Scotland

Queen Margaret of Scotland (1046-93) vigorously reformed the Church.


Anna Comnena

Anna Comnena (c. 1083--c. 1150) was the daughter of the Byzantian king Alexius I; she wrote the most detailed history of the Byzantine Church and empire of her day.  Called the Alexiad, the work remains the primary source of this period.


Christina of Markyate

Christina of Markyate (c. 1097--c. 1161) overcame many family obstacles (pressures toward marriage) to live the life of poverty and of prayer.  She influenced the Abbot of St. Albans toward holiness.


Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) may be the most prominent Christian woman of the era.  She was founder and first Abbess of the Benedictine community of Bingen, Germany.  She wrote a massive trilogy that combines doctrine and ethics with cosmology, a compendious encyclopedia of medicine and natural science, correspondence of hundreds of letters to people in every level of society, two saints' lives, and a body of exquisite music that includes seventy liturgical songs and the first known morality play.  She received many visions; twenty-six of them formed her most important religious work, Scivius.  She wrote to kings and clerics alike.  And at the age of 60 she began a preaching tour to reform the Church.  The daughter house of her community continues today in Eibingen, Germany.



Queen Matilda corresponded with Anselm (1093-1109) on religious  matters of the day.



The Twelfth Century

Notable persons and events of the twelfth century include the founding of a monastery by Bernard of Clairvaux (1115), the Concordat of Worms (1122) to compromise on Church and State feuds, Gratian laying the foundation for Church Law (1141), the beginning of Medieval Universities (1150), and the murder of Thomas a Becket (1170).


Frau Ava

Frau Ava (1100s) lost her husband and eldest son in the crusades; so she retired to a life of prayer in Melk, Austria.  She wrote a poetic version of the New Testament.


Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) ruled one-third of France, and later co-ruled with Henry II half of France and all England.  She joined a crusade to the Holy Land; she also financially supported Fontrevault Abbey.


Blanche of Castile

Blanche of Castile (1188-1251), the queen of Louis VIII of France, won disputes with the French bishops.  She was best known for performing acts of charity.


Clare of Assisi

Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) renounced wealth, founded the Order of Poor Clares, and won from the Pope the right to maintain absolute poverty.  She also helped save Assisi from being sacked.


The Thirteenth Century

In the 1200s the Crusades were still going on, Constantinople was sacked (1204), Francis of Assisi renounced wealth (1208), King John signed the Magna Carta in England (1215), Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council affirmed transubstantiation and condemned the Waldensians (1215), Dominic founded his order (1220), Marco Polo traveled to China (1271-1295), and Aquinas wrote Summa Theologiae (1272).


Elizabeth of Hungary

Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) was a noblewoman who ministered to the poor and established a hospital.  She was the daughter of King Andrew II; she was betrothed at the age of 4, married at 14 to Ludwig of Thuringen, who died six years later.  Her husband=s brother opposed her handing out bread to the poor, fearing that it would deplete the treasury.  Her hospital was in Marburg--for the poor.



Mechthild of Magdeburg (c. 1210--c. 1280) criticized Church corruption and wrote Flowing Light of the Godhead.  She was one of Germany=s most outspoken and famous visionaries.  Her criticism of corrupt clergy brought much hostility to her.  Her book was based on her visions of Christ in many courtly images.  She was an advocate of personal and intense devotion to the service of God.



Hadewijch (writings c. 1220-1240) is the best known Dutch mystic.  As a beguine (see below) she had reformist ideas.  In her letters she encouraged people to help the needy and devote themselves to the ardent love of God.  Her work centers around Alove,@ the human soul=s longing for the Divine.


Angela of Foligno

Angela of Foligno (c. 1248-1309) devoted herself to prayer and austerity in the Franciscan Third Order; she wrote Experience of the Truly Faithful.


Gertrud the Great

Gertrud the Great (1256-1302), after her conversion at the age of 25, led a life of contemplation in the Cistercian monastery of Helfta, Germany, a center of mysticism.  She was venerated by the people, but held in suspicion by the hierarchy.  Her visionary text, Messenger of Divine Kindness, records an intensely personal union with God.


The Fourteenth Century

The fourteenth century was a difficult century; it was the time that the papacy was exiled to Avignon (1309), the beginning of the 100 years war (1337-1453), the first wave of the Black Death (1347), and the papal schism (1378).  But it was also the century of Dante and Wycliffe.



Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden (1303-1373), widowed after 30 years of marriage and eight children, devoted herself to religious work.  She was one of the must erudite female saints of the Medieval Church, and perhaps the finest Scandinavian writer of her time.

Bridget and her husband experienced a religious conversion on a pilgrimage to celebrate their anniversary.  He entered a monastery and she moved to a residence attached to it.  Here she received a vision of Christ to found a new religious order.  Her revelations became popular; they were directly from Christ, Mary, and John the Baptist; they depicted Christ=s suffering and the suffering of souls in Hell.  She journeyed to Rome and became a reformer in the Church, calling for the pope=s return, whom she chastised for Church corruption.  She told Gregory XI that arrogant pride ruled in his curia, as well as insatiable cupidity and execrable luxury.


Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich (1343-1423) lived and wrote of solitary life in devotion to God.  She is the most famous female exegete of the Trinity.  She had chosen to live the life of an anchoress (see below) attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich, England.  At the age of 30 she was very ill, but Christ granted her a series of visions and she recovered miraculously.  Her tone in Revelations of Divine Love is consistently optimistic--God is good and merciful.  Julian celebrates Christ=s mother-like qualities of nurturing and loving.  She was a mystic, not a theologian, emphasizing devotion more than reason as a way to unity with God.


Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) lived 33 years with a vibrant faith; she was made one of only two women to be Drs of Theology (1970).  She was born in Tuscany, but was soon touched by the movement of the Holy Spirit and saw visions.  She resisted marriage, and instead entered a tertiary, the Third Order of the Dominicans (see below) for religious lay women.  She devoted herself to helping the poor and to evangelism.  She used letters to make her appeals, always centering on Christ the redeemer.  She managed to persuade Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome.  She began to devote time to the care of people in the Black Death.  She preached a crusade in Pisa (amid much criticism).  She had intense mystical power, often collapsing in rapture in prayer.  She was attacked by an anti-papal mob for her part in bringing the pope home.  Her life was recorded in her own works.


Agnes of Bohemia

Agnes of Bohemia (1366-1394), betrothed to Emperor Frederick II, founded a monastery.


Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe (1373-1439) is best known for her pilgrimages and the first known autobiography in English.

Margery Kempe was accused of fraud and heresy, and ridiculed for her actions as hysterical and crazy.  She was an illiterate woman and so dictated her spiritual autobiography, the earliest known autobiography in English.  She was converted from her religious apathy when she was at the brink of death, and required a vow of chastity of her husband (after fourteen children); she then began spiritual pilgrimages all over the world.  Her fits of crying and shrieking while contemplating the passion of Jesus Christ, as well as her practice of rebuking and admonishing people, made her presence troublesome.  On one voyage her co-travelers contemplated throwing her overboard, but instead merely abandoned her when they got to the holy land.  It is amazing that the events of the world around her--Agincourt, the life of Joan of Arc, to name but two, receive no attention in her autobiography, for her work is primarily of her own spiritual pilgrimage.


Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (1412-1431), following supernatural voices that she heard beginning at the age of 13, led the besieged French forces to victory, taking eight cities in eight days, and even surviving a wound of an arrow and returning to battle.  She was captured by the English and burned at the stake as a schismatic and heretic, but was later declared innocent.  Her actions crippled the gigantic war that had continued for nearly a hundred years.



Religious Orders for Medieval Women



Women of this period either married the men their families chose for them or entered a convent as a bride of Christ, following a life that was more independent and intellectually creative than normal marriage.  The women who could do this were upper class women, whose families could afford to sustain them in the convent.

Nuns lived communally under rule (and so called Aregulars@); they took the monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.  They came to the convents often as children, from the families of the rich and powerful, and lived a life sheltered from the world and devoted to prayer and meditation.  Sometimes the decision of a nunnery was made by the family; often the choice was the woman=s against the wishes of her family.



In the eleventh and twelfth centuries some women rejected the regulated communal life of the convent for the desolation of the wilderness.  They went to the forests, deserts, and bogs, and like many men of this period, lived solitary lives.  They lived in small groups, or alone in makeshift dwellings and sought a mystical union with God.

These activities were possible because the countries were mostly rural.  There was much land on which a nobleman could found a convent; and there were many forests in which a hermitess could dwell.  Not surprisingly, these activities grew and in time tamed the environment, clearing land and founding places of civilization that eventually encouraged the growth of towns.  By the thirteenth century Europe was deforested, and the eremitic age was over.



The beguine was a religious woman who took temporary vows, usually of chastity and simplicity of life, wore a habit, and pursued good works.  As a product of the flourishing cities, the beguine worked in the cities with the sick and homeless.  Because she did not belong to an order, she could live at home or with a group who shared her work.

This movement was begun and sustained by women.  It probably grew up because of the great imbalance in the numbers of men and women.  From the many unattached women came those who wanted a life of devotion and service.  The movement was appealing because the beguine could always leave and marry.

Two examples of this movement are worth mentioning.  Ivetta of Huy (1157-1228) was married at 13 and widowed at 18, the mother of three sons.  She spent ten years using her home as a hostel for pilgrims while working in a leper colony near Liege.  She moved to a cell in a leper colony as an anchoress and stayed there 48 years til she died.  Mary of Oignies (1177-1213) was married at 14 against her will; she convinced her husband to take vows of continence so that they could work together taking care of lepers.  She worked for 15 years in this capacity; her fame attracted a community of workers around her.  She too lived in a cell for the last six years of her life, dying at the age of 36.

The concept of the beguine was that the religious life could be lived in the world rather than withdrawing from it.  The movement swept through Europe and drew women of more middle class status.  The women supported themselves with honest work while serving the needy.  In the city of Cologne itself, with a population of 20,000, there were 1500 beguines.  Estimates are that one in ten residents was a beguine.  They were, unfortunately, degraded by many; the word Abeguine@ itself actually meant Aheretic,@ perhaps at first in a positive sense referring to those who went a different way than society would expect.  It offered women an uncomplicated life of work and service with the freedom to turn to marriage.



After the success of Francis of Asissi there arose a number of communities with vows of poverty that depended on alms for their living (Amendicant@ communities).  These were organized into three orders: the First Order were the Friars, wandering preachers sworn to absolute poverty; the Second Order was for women in nunneries and convents who also took the vows of poverty; and Third Order took in lay persons, male and female, married and single, who identified with the reforms of Francis.  Many women, virgins and widows, entered this order, took (revocable) vows, wore habits, and led religious lives.  The most famous was Catherine of Siena.  The driving force here was how the Franciscan movement had awakened an interest in Scripture.



The anchoress was a solitary person who made the decision to live alone, took vows, and became bound to her cell.  She was usually enclosed by herself in a house attached to the church.  The anchoress practiced total withdrawal and great asceticism.  A typical cell might have three windows, one for light, one into the church for communion, and one to the outside for conducting necessary business.  While men and women occupied cells in the twelfth century, they were mostly occupied by women in the thirteenth.

Life for women in these periods was very complex.  Those who were in the religious orders or following lives of devotion of one sort or another were in the center if not the forefront of the religious mood of their day.  In view of life in the world as they knew it, life in a nunnery was paradise.

So for fifteen centuries women pursued a variety of forms of service and ministry, limited by cultures and councils in a number of ways.  These representative women and orders provide us with points of reference as we work through what the Bible actually says.  Once we have surveyed the biblical data we shall look at the role of women in the modern age.






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