Archive for June, 2010

Is it possible for a woman to write the history of her family or ancestry without receiving criticism because she is a woman?

Is it possible for a woman to write the history of the congregation of the church that she attends without receiving criticism solely because she is a woman?

Now let’s suppose that a woman wants to write the history of the denomination of the church that she attends. Suppose there were things in the past that the members would rather not talk about. Perhaps there were one or two corrupt ministers in days gone by. Perhaps the church officials had rules that did not honor Christ or God’s Word. If this woman gives an honest account, should the book be rejected just because it was written by a woman? If a man wrote the same historical account, would it be acceptable?

“That’s ridiculous,” you might answer. “This is the twenty-first century. As long as a woman uses reliable resources and writes in a fair and balanced way, of course her book should be acceptable.”

You may be surprised to find that there are still many religious groups that will reject the writings of women that are about religious topics. That is a subject that I hope many readers will weigh in on.

Be that as it may, certainly in the sixteenth century, women writers were not appreciated. There were many women who did write, however, and we respect them for their courage in following what they believed to be their call from God to contribute to the Reformation movement.

Marie Dentiere (1495-1561) was one of those writers. She was a Genevan Protestant reformer and a theologian in her own right. She played an active role in Genevan religion and politics, helping to close Geneva’s convents, and preaching and teaching with such reformers as John Calvin and William Farel. In addition to her writings on the history of the Reformation, she wrote to many influential people, such as Marguerite de Navarre.

Marie wrote to give a history of the Reformation in Geneva and to defend the female perspective in the rapidly changing world. 
She believed that women could read and understand the Scriptures themselves, and coupled with the idea of the priesthood of all believers, women should be able to teach and spread the Gospel along with the men.

Much of Marie Dentière’s early life remains unknown. She was born into a relatively well-off family of nobility, and entered an Augustinian convent at a young age, eventually becoming abbess. However Martin Luther’s preaching against monasticism led her to leave the convent. She fled to Strasbourg to escape persecution–not only for abandoning her position as a nun but for converting to the Reformation. Strasbourg was a popular refuge for Protestants at that time.

While in Strasbourg, in 1528, she married Simon Robert, a young priest. Soon they left for an area outside of Geneva to preach the Reformation. They had five children together. Robert died 5 years later in 1533. Later, Marie married Antoine Froment, a follower of Calvin, who was at work in Geneva with Farel.
 Antoine Froment stood by Marie while she wrote her treatises and some believe even co-authored the first book.

Marie’s work stresses the importance of the Reformation, but also the need for a larger role for women in religious practice. To Marie, women and men were equally qualified and entitled to the interpretation of Scripture and practice of religion. In Geneva in 1536, she composed The War and Deliverance of the City of Geneva. The work was published anonymously, and called for Genevans to adopt the Reformation.  Kirsi Stjerna, in her book cited elsewhere on this Blog, calls her an early feminist. She says that Marie argued, as did women before her, that they were in the time of an emergency and it was necessary “for the benefit of the Christian faith for women to transgress the artificial boundaries set up by humankind.” (Stjerna, page 134) Did God raise up fervent, intelligent, courageous women at this time to aid in the spread of the true Gospel?

Nevertheless, Marie’s encouragement of female involvement in writing and theology angered the Genevan authorities. They arrested her publisher and destroyed as many of her books as they could. No other female writings were published in the city for the rest of the 16th century. This did not discourage her, and as a woman, she was criticized for her persistence and good works that a man would have been praised for. She and many other courageous women of the Reformation remained in obscurity for many years.

At last, centuries later, on November 3, 2002, her name was chiseled onto the “Wall of the Reformers”, one of the world’s principal monuments of the Protestant Reformation and one of the most visited sites in Geneva, a cradle of the Reformation. Marie took her place on the monument beside Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and other luminaries, finally getting the recognition she deserves for her part in the Reformation. Today, thank the Lord, some of her surviving writings are being found and published.

Note, however, what Marie said about the unusual times requiring unusual measures. Was God just using women in a special way at this time of tremendous change to help further the Reformation? Many women came to the aid of the Reformation, and even if some of them were neglected, their works helped spread the true Gospel to all of Europe. Have there been other times in history when this happened?

Getting back to the original question in this essay, should women be allowed to write on religious topics?

Just at special times?


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One courageous woman who lived during the Reformation and wrote many pamphlets and other religious poems was Argula von Grumbach.

Reformation leader, Martin Luther published his first treatises in 1520 and his friend, Philip Melancthon laid out Luther’s teachings in a book. By 1522, Luther had finished his translation into German of the New Testament. Argula von Grumbach read all these writings, and by that same year she had become a follower of Luther and had begun a correspondence with Luther and other Reformed leaders. She would later meet Luther face to face in 1530.

The authorities in Bavaria had forbidden anyone to read Lutheran ideas at the time, and in particular the city of Ingolstadt enforced that mandate. In 1523, Arsacius Seehofer, a young teacher and former student at the University of Ingolstadt, was arrested for Protestant views and forced to recant. The incident would have occurred quietly, but Argula, outraged over it, wrote what was to become her most successful writing, a letter to the faculty of the university objecting to Seehofer’s arrest and exile. In her letter she asked the authorities to examine the Scriptures and not just follow Roman traditions. It also said she had decided to speak out even though she was a woman because no one else would. An excerpt from her letter as follows:

“To the honorable, worthy, highborn, erudite, noble, stalwart Rector and all the Faculty of the University of Ingolstadt: When I heard what you had done to Arsacius Seehofer under terror of imprisonment and the stake, my heart trembled and my bones quaked. What have Luther and Melanchthon taught save the Word of God? You have condemned them. You have not refuted them. Where do you read in the Bible that Christ, the apostles, and the prophets imprisoned, banished, burned, or murdered anyone? You tell us that we must obey the magistrates. Correct. But neither the pope, nor  the Kaiser, not the princes have any authority over the Word of God. You need not think you can pull God, the prophets and the apostles out of heaven with papal decretals drawn from Aristotle, who was not a Christian at all. . . .

You seek to destroy all of Luther’s works. In that case you will have to destroy the New Testament, which he has translated. In the German writings of Luther and Melanchthon I have found nothing heretical. . Even if Luther should recant, what he has said would still be the Word of God. I would be willing to come and dispute with you in German. . . . You have the key of knowledge and you close the kingdom of heaven. But you are defeating yourselves. The news of what has been done to this lad of 18 has reached us and other cities in so short a time that soon it will be known to all the world. The Lord will forgive Arsacius, as he forgave Peter, who denied his master, though not threatened by prison and fire. Great good will yet come from this young man. I send you not a woman’s ranting, but the Word of God. I write as a member of the Church of Christ against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. . .”          —Argula von Grumbach, 1523

In the entire long letter she cited over 80 Scriptures with which she made logical comparisons to the behavior of the university theologians to argue her case that they were wrong.

Her letter, which was turned into a booklet, provoked a huge reaction, greatly angering the theologians and became nearly an overnight sensation. It went through fourteen editions in two months, and became a bestseller. Argula wrote more letters and copies of the first one to other significant figures like Duke Wilhelm to also argue her case.

Theologians wanted her punished, and her husband lost his position at Dietfurt over the controversy. Argula was also called by many offensive epithets by her critics, especially through the sermons of Professor Hauer who called her things like “shameless whore” and a “female desperado.” Well, I guess if you can’t win an argument honestly, you can resort to name-calling! Things really haven’t changed much.

Argula wrote poems in response to the slander of her character, such as one she wrote against a poem apparently written by someone from Ingoldstadt which attacked her and accused her of being a neglectful wife and mother. This poem was the last of her published works but she continued correspondence with Luther and other Reformers.

Argula was highly controversial and shunned by her family but she also had admirers for her writings. She was praised by a Lutheran preacher Balthasar Hubmaier in nearby Regensburg, who wrote that she “knows more of the divine Word than all of the red hats (canon lawyers and cardinals) ever saw or could conceive of” and compared her to other heroic women in the Bible.

Even though her challenges to the university were largely ignored and her efforts to promote her Protestant beliefs unsuccessful, Argula was undeterred, and continued writing pamphlets. She did things like traveling alone to Nuremberg which was unheard of for women, to encourage German princes to accept Reformation principles.

She has finally been recognized for her contributions to the Reformation and today there is a mural on the wall of the University of Ingolstadt where she debated with the professors about her reformed views.

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Angela Merici

It takes a lot of courage to pass up fame and the approbation of someone as important as the Pope, but that is what Angela Merici did. Pope Clement VII had offered her a great honor and a wonderful opportunity to take charge of a religious order of nursing sisters. But Angela knew that God had not called her to nursing. God had called her to serve Him by helping the girls in her country who were denied an education because of their poverty. She wanted the nuns to teach these girls, but the Pope wouldn’t let them. They were not allowed to leave their cloisters. So, she decided to do something about it herself.

During the time of the Reformation only wealthy women and nuns were well educated. We have already told the story of another very well educated nun who lived during this period in history, Katherine von Bora Luther, who left the cloister to eventually marry a famous preacher and have a family. Angela Merici left the cloister also, but to give her life serving Christ by teaching poor girls who would not otherwise have received an education.

Angela was born in 1470. Her parents died when she was very young. She and her sister went to live with her uncle in a neighboring town. After her sister died she became a Franciscan tertiary at age 15. She lived a life of much devotion and prayer.

When she was twenty, her uncle died and she returned to Desenzano, her hometown. She was appalled at how many young, poor, untaught girls there were. She had a burning desire to give them an education. She wanted them to at least learn the basics of Christianity. Since there were no teaching orders of nuns in those days, she decided to try something new. She went out into the streets and along with friends and other Franciscan tertiaries, gathered up the girls they saw. These women had little money and no power, but they were bound together by their devotion to the girls and their love of Christ.

Angela converted her home into a school where she instructed the girls daily in the basic truths of Christianity.  She and the other women who joined her met daily for prayer and soon the school was a great success. She started other schools as well in many other cities. Many people were impressed, including the Pope.

In 1524, she went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She became blind after an illness while on the island of Crete. She continued her pilgrimage anyway. On the way home, she recovered her sight. She believed that God was reminding her not to shut her eyes to the needs of the poor that she saw around her. She must also not shut her eyes to God’s call for her life. So when the Pope invited her to stay in Rome, she turned him down. She was not interested in fame or publicity.

She went to Brescia, where she laid a foundation for a new group, the Company of St. Ursula, later called the Ursulines. These women would carry on the work of teaching underprivileged girls. This group did not become a formal religious order in her lifetime. That would happen many years later. But it was the first group of religious women in service to work outside the home. Angela was considered a radical in her day. Today, we don’t think anything of women working outside of the home. Thanks to women like Angela, who wanted to help others no matter what the cost, unmarried women eventually were acceptable as teachers outside of the home.

In 1535, Angela put together The Company of St. Ursula in a small house near the Church of St. Afra, in Brescia. She would lead the fellowship until her death in 1540 at about seventy years old.

We remember her as a pioneer in leading women to serve Christ by serving others. She was successful because she kept her focus on helping others. She also had the courage to follow through, no matter what the temptations or obstacles.

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There are stories of many courageous women in the Bible. We think of Ruth, Naomi, Miriam, Mary, and Esther to name a few. We admire the courage of Esther as she risked her life to approach King Ahasuerus and plead for her people.
But there is another woman in the Scriptures who risked her life by disobeying, even lying to her king. That woman was Rahab.

This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under the heavens, who, when they hear the report of you, will tremble and be in anguish because of you.” — (God, speaking to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land. Deuteronomy 2:25)
“For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.  And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath”. (Rahab, speaking to the two spies. Joshua 2:10-11)

These words, “ for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” are nothing short of miraculous when we consider Rahab’s life, and how she was raised and educated, the culture she lived in, and what influences affected her.

Rahab is one of those characters from the Old Testament, though while familiar to us, is a person that most of us don’t quite know what to do with, and so we may overlook her and little appreciate her. Also, most Christians can’t understand how God could use and so esteem a harlot and a liar. How can she be a heroine when she lived such a sinful life? What are we to do with this woman? How are we to understand her place in the history of God’s people? How are we to understand the fact that she is given a place of honor in the role of the faithful (Heb. 11:31), and the fact that her faith is commended to us (James 2:25), and the fact that she is even included in the lineage of God’s Son (Matt. 1:5)?

At the time of this story Rahab was a young woman living by herself in her own house. This in itself was unusual in her culture and indicated some measure of wealth and independence. She did have family who lived nearby, however. She had been a harlot, and her reputation had followed her, and she still wore that label. Her house was situated on the wall of the city and was probably near the main gate as that would be a help to her in her career as a harlot.

But something had changed in her life. She seems to have given up the life of a harlot and was now a manufacturer and dyer of linen.  We know this is so by the fact that she had flax drying on her rooftop, and had a stock of crimson or scarlet line in her house. So we can see that she was now engaged in a new line of work as an industrious, intelligent, and probably well connected woman in the city.

She was also very well informed with regard to historical as well as current events. She knew all about the events of the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the utter destruction of Og and Sihan, pagan kings who lived south and west of Canaan. She must have followed the relentless advance of the Israelites towards Canaan, and so she was not taken by surprise when the Israelite spies turned up on her doorstep. Something in this knowledge had prepared her for their arrival and how she would deal with them.

How these men ended up at her house is a matter of some speculation. Some commentators have said they had heard of her reputation as a harlot and so came to her house thinking that they would be inconspicuous there. Others have speculated that she was also an innkeeper, and so they came looking for a room in her house. But inns were not a part of this time and culture. Some have suggested that the change she underwent in her life caused her to go to the gate and watch for strangers to offer them a safe and hospitable place for the night, much like Lot had done in Sodom (Gen. 19:1). It seems that this latter reason may be what brought this woman and the spies together, plus a little providential help from God. He had prepared her heart to believe in Him.

Quickened by the Spirit, faith was planted within her soul, and so when the report reached her of God’s wondrous works, she received it “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13), and therefore she said, “I know that the Lord hath given you the land.”

She then demonstrated the reality of her faith at great personal risk through decisive action. She took the two spies and hid them defying the law of her king.

Rahab and the Spies

The Israelites had just entered the Promised Land with Joshua. He sent the spies to check things out, especially at Jericho. The king of Jericho heard that spies had entered the land and heard that they had gone to Rahab’s house. The king thought that Rahab would help him capture these spies. “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house,” he commanded. But, she had hidden them and actually had the courage to lie to the king, and she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. . . .the men went out; I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” The king’s men went off on this false chase. The city gates were shut, and then Rahab went up on her roof, where she had hidden the spies, and made a deal with them. She had hidden them so that the Israelites would spare her family when they conquered Jericho. Notice that she says that the news about the Israelites had caused the other residents of Jericho to melt in fear (See Joshua, chapter 2).

Not so for Rahab. Instead of leading to fear and hatred for the spies when they arrived, her knowledge caused her to have faith in Jehovah as the one true God over all. She also understood that God had a plan and a purpose with regard to His people and this land, and she knew she could either melt in fear like her neighbors, or submit to Him and His plans and have faith in this God. Rahab chose the latter, and it is quite miraculous that she did so.

Consider that even the Israelites who “heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the fire” and witnessed the “signs and wonders and by war and by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm and by great terrors” (Deut. 4:33-36) had trouble placing their trust in Jehovah. They saw what the Lord God had done for them in Egypt and through their desert wanderings, and still refused to trust Him. They had visible proof in front of them, and yet many did not believe God.

This makes the faith of Rahab so miraculous. She was not a personal witness to God’s mighty wonders; she had only heard about them. Yet, she believed in God so strongly that she acted on it by hiding the two spies sent by Joshua into Jericho, and risking death by lying to the king.

It is the easiest thing in the world to believe when everyone else believes, but it is not so easy to stand against the crowd, to take a stand against your culture, even to defy your king, to be a solitary champion of God’s righteous cause when all around you are different. This was Rahab’s courage and faith. She had no one else who felt as she did, no one who could comfort or encourage her, no one who realized the value of her faith and her stand. She stood alone, yet she did not waiver.

She preferred to follow God’s will and word rather then follow the dictates of her culture. She was willing to risk her own safety for that of the spies. By faith she renounced all for God. She showed the courage of her convictions.

As a final encouragement, remember that Rahab’s faith became acceptable to God, and by it others were saved. Through her faith and courageous action her entire family escaped the death prescribed for the wicked living in Jericho. Her faith caused her to have concern for her loved ones, and to work for their salvation. Would that our faith cause us to have the same concern for our unsaved loved-ones, as well as any others that God brings across our paths needing the Gospel.

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