I’m a minister with the Churches of Christ denomination. Churches of Christ in Australia sent their first overseas missionary to India in 1891; let me tell you about her.
The zeal of Mary Thompson
In 1891 Mary Thompson responded to a call for men to serve in India. When no men volunteered, in desperation her call was accepted. She was described as gentle, yet earnest. She was known for her zeal and her indifference to discomfort. It was said that Miss Thompson was a person worthy of admiration for the pursuit of her heart’s desire; the bringing of Christ to India’s people. She served the nation of India for 40 years.
Sunday March 8th was International Women’s Day; in the light of this occasion let’s explore the wonder women of the early Church.
Lydia the leader
In Acts chapter 16 Paul has a vision to take the gospel to Macedonia. Paul arrives in the town of Philippi and meets Lydia who is described as a merchant of expensive cloth. The Lord opens Lydia’s heart and she is converted. Later, after Paul and Silas are released from prison, Paul and Silas met with the believers at Lydia’s house. Not only is Lydia the first Christian convert in Europe; she appears to be leading Europe’s first Church. Women leading house Churches is not unusual in the New Testament. Both Chloe in the book of first Corinthians and Nympha in the book of Colossians appear to be leading house Churches also.
Outstanding female leadership
Priscilla and her husband Aquila are co-workers of Paul. Priscilla’s ministry role extends far beyond simply being the wife of Aquila. They are always mentioned together and unusually for the culture of the first century; Priscilla is often mentioned first. Paul works with several couples in the New Testament such as Andronicus and Junia who Paul considers to be outstanding among the Apostles.
Paul worked with women
Paul certainly wasn’t afraid to work with women. In Philippi Paul shares the good news alongside Euodia and Syntche describing them as his co-workers. In Romans chapter 16 Paul praises Phoebe who is a deacon in the Church in Cenchrea; Paul says she is worthy of honour. There are women everywhere in Romans 16: Phoebe is worthy of honour, Priscilla risked her life, Mary has worked hard, Junia is outstanding among the apostles, Tryphena, Tryphosa and Persis are all commended for their work.
Jesus enters a male-dominated world
Such was the inequality in first century Israel; it was common for Jewish men to pray each morning thank you God for not making me a gentile, a slave or a woman. Women had few rights in the first century. Women received minimal education, could not be witnesses in court or make contracts or own property and were viewed in all respects to be inferior to men. One Rabbi taught: “Better to burn the Torah than teach it to a woman.” Jesus enters this male dominated culture and in John chapter 4 his disciples are shocked to find him talking with a woman.
Jesus empowered women
In Luke chapter 10 Jesus allows Mary to sit at his feet and learn from him. This might not sound unusual but it was completely countercultural. To sit at the feet of a Rabbi was to be that Rabbi’s student. Prior to his conversion the Apostle Paul sat at the feet of the Rabbi Gamaliel. Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel and Mary at a time when women were rarely educated was a disciple of Jesus. It was taboo for men and women to travel together in the first century but in Luke chapter 8 we find Jesus breaking these social norms. Mary Magdalene, Johanna, Susanna and other women are travelling with him and being his financial supporters.
Women leaders today
Jesus and his early followers empowered women in a way the world had never seen before. Today women of the Church should be encouraged to speak, lead and to follow in the footsteps of outstanding female leaders in the New Testament. I’m grateful to know many women who are serving in the Church today as Pastors, Elders, ministry leaders, missionaries and disciples of Jesus everywhere. Go you wonder women of the Church!
Travis Barnes lives in central Victoria with his wife and two daughters. He is a contributor for Christian Today and a sportswriter.