I want to introduce you to Perpetua and Felicitas. They lived in modern-day Tunisia, North Africa in the late Second Century. These women were arrested, questioned and eventually sent to their death, maimed by wild beasts and slain by the sword in 203 AD. Perpetua was a noblewoman with one young child and a newfound faith in Jesus Christ. Felicitas was a heavily pregnant slave girl, connected to Perpetua and also a Christian. Perpetua chose to give her pre-weaned child away and be martyred rather than bow to the Roman gods. As a Christian, Jesus Christ was the only God she would pledge allegiance to, no matter the consequences (Matt 16:24). Additionally, Felicitas prayed to go into early labour so she could go to her death with Perpetua. She did, gave the baby to a “sister” and walked to her death still bleeding from the birth. You can read their story in more detail in Perpetua’s diary regarding her court hearings and imprisonment (her death was also documented by someone else).† Early Church Father Tertullian praised the women and the diary spurred on the Early Church to hold fast to their faith. The women and their testimony were incredibly powerful for the Early Church, and despite the persecutions and the death of Christians, the Early Church grew exponentially.
There are two points I want to take from this tragic story:
1) Perpetua was a mother. Felicitas was soon to be a mother. They were also daughters and wives.
2) Persecution, suffering and a martyrs death were not beyond them because they were women. Persecution came to them because they were Christian.
The tale of Perpetua and Felicitas may be less tragic if this kind of persecution of the Church was not happening two thousand years later. To Modern-day Iran, it is women who are leading the way in spreading the Gospel. It is highly likely these women will be raped, beaten, imprisoned and killed for their faith and yet they still go. This isn’t an empty threat but the reality of life in Iran as a Christian who is female.§ Yet, like the Early Church, the Church in Iran is exploding. Statistics are hard to verify but the estimate is between 1 and 3 million converts to Christianity. Similarly, for the Chinese Church persecution is rife, there are high levels of women in leadership and there is rapid Church growth.
So, what has this got to do with Christian feminism, I hear you ask? Well, this is where as a theology student I am going to put it to the reader and contend: if women’s Christianity is foundationally based on what women can do, namely, wife and mother; daughter and sister, then would God not take away the cup of suffering (imprisonment and martyrdom) from women? Yet, when we look at women of the Church, ancient and modern, we see this is not the case. Rather, women are first Christian and with that comes hardship, suffering but also leadership and supernatural courage. I contend that being Christian we must be like the early female martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas, who did not see themselves as Christian mothers, daughters, wives, but simply Christian (Gal 3:28). In the same vein, I would argue that if Iranian women are prepared for the worst act against themselves, specifically rape, then they are also prepared to deny their womanhood for the sake of Christ (Luke 9:23). These women, ancient and modern, are taking Jesus at his word – ‘above everything you are first my disciples’ (Lk 14:26 paraphrased).
Just as the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not gendered, so it seems persecution and martyrdom is also non-gendered. Christian women do not escape the suffering and hardship, even those who are mothers and wives. The popular quote that ‘the greatest thing a woman can do is be a mother’ is clearly theologically incorrect. Why? Because God sees women first as Christians. It is not what womanhood entails that defines a female but whether she is a Christian. Therefore, if women taste the cup of suffering in equal measures to men, if women are rightly seen simply as Christian, then it goes without saying that women must also be equal partners to men in the Church. If a woman’s head is not spared at the executioners chopping block then that same head should be at the centre of Church life also.
Christianity over the ages has risen above gender, no more is this evident than through the suffering and death of Christians; male and female. However, there have also been times of comfort and human control, such is true of the Western Church today. When this comfort and control occurs, not far behind is the institutions and structures of the Church which often leaves women playing gender roles rather than being seen as simply Christian. Yet, when we look at the persecuted Church throughout the ages, it is this Church that grows and does the will of God (Matt 12:50). It is this Church which better positions itself to see the person as simply a Christian, over and above anything else. Therefore, in the Western Church, we would do well to follow in the footsteps of the persecuted Church as best we can to expand the Kingdom of God on earth, which in turn glorifies God. And that is the ultimate goal, right?
† https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tertullian-Martyras-Passion-Perpetua-Felicitas-ebook/dp/B0755F7DDW/ref=sr_1_1keywords=perpetua+and+felicitas&qid=1570122585&s=gateway&sr=8-1 – The Holy Martyrs of Perpetua and Felicitas.
§ https://youtu.be/9SAPOLKF59U – Sheep Among Wolves Volume II (Official Feature Film)