Church Mothers

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 12, 2002

Everyone knows about the Church Fathers. They were men like Jerome, Athanasius, and Augustine. These were the great theologians who helped organize the church's thinking on central Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. But what about the Church Mothers? How come no one ever talks about them? The truth is that there were some great women in the early church, and that they too have left us their legacy.

A striking testimony to the character of Christian women in those days comes from the famous preacher John Chrysostom, whose father died while he was an infant, and who thus was raised by his mother Anthousa. Through the years this godly widow made many sacrifices to educate her children. Eventually Chrysostom was able to study with Libanios, the famous rhetoric teacher at Antioch. When Libanios learned of the costly and courageous way Anthousa had raised her family, he looked around at his pupils and said: “Great heavens, what remarkable women are to be found among the Christians!” [quoted in J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, Baker, 1995, p. 7].

There were many women like Anthousa in the early church. They were not great theologians, if by that we mean someone whose thinking and writing helped to shape Christian theology for generations to come. But many of the Church Mothers were good theologians who carefully studied the Scriptures so they could live for the glory of God.

One of these women was the Roman widow Marcella. Marcella was a friend of the great Bible scholar Jerome, who praised her passion to know what the Bible really said. She was like the Bereans whom the apostle Paul commended for “examining the Scriptures every day” to make sure that what he said was true (Acts 17:11). According to Jerome,

[Marcella] never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that by asking, she might learn… . What virtue I found in her, what cleverness, what holiness, what purity… . I will say only this, that whatever in us was gathered by long study and by lengthy meditation… this she tasted, this she learned, this she possessed. Thus after my departure, if an argument arose about some evidence from Scripture, the question was pursued with her as the judge [Jerome, “Epistle 127,” quoted in Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, InterVarsity, 1998, p. 44].

Another of Jerome's close female friends was a wealthy woman named Paula. Paula did many good things for the sake of the gospel. But in a letter written shortly after her death, Jerome especially praised her intellect, and her thirst for biblical knowledge:She had memorized the Scripture… . [S]he urged me that she, along with her daughter, might read through the Old and New Testaments… . If at any passage I was at a loss and frankly confessed that I was ignorant, she by no means wanted to rest content with my reply, but by fresh questions would force me to say which of the many possible meanings seemed to me the most likely [Jerome, “Epistle 108,” quoted in Hall, 44].Some of the Church Mothers were, in fact, mothers. Probably the most famous was Augustine's mother, Monica. The great joy of Monica's life was to see both her pagan husband and her rebellious son receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Although she had catechized Augustine in his youth, for many years he turned his back on the Christian faith. But Monica did not despair. She kept praying for her son's salvation, and eventually Augustine came back to Christ. Monica's motherly intercession was the great work of her life, and the legacy that her son left the church was also her legacy.Not all the Church Mothers had children of their own. Some of them were single. Earlier I mentioned John Chrysostom. One of the significant women in his life was Olympias, the famous deaconess of Constantinople. Olympias had a personal fortune that she willingly dedicated to the needs of the poor. She also took an active role in church life. In the words of one ancient historian, “She contended eagerly in no minor contests for the name of the truth, taught many women, held solemn conversations with priests, honored the bishops, and was deemed worthy to be a confessor on behalf of truth” [Palladius, quoted in Hall, 45]. Everything she did was adorned with personal godliness. An ancient biographical work entitled The Life of Olympias, Deaconess, describes as having “an appearance without pretense, character without affectation… a mind without vainglory, intelligence without conceit… character without limits, immeasurable self-control… the ornament of all the humble” [quoted in Hall, p. 46].These are only a few of the Church Mothers mentioned by the Church Fathers. There was Melania, Proba, and Macrina, the sister of two famous theologians: Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great. And of course, there were many other women whose names have been forgotten. They studied the Bible, prayed for their children, and cared for the sick and the poor. The Church Mothers set a high standard for all the Christian women—and all the Christian men—who follow.The way to claim the inheritance these women left behind is to live in close communion with Christ, being devoted to his teaching. Be like Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn theology, and of whom it was said: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42b). If you have children, teach them to follow Christ and pray for their salvation. Be like Eunice, whose faith came to life in the ministry of her son Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5). And remain active in service and mercy. Be like Dorcas, “who was always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). The church needs mothers like these in every generation.[For more information about the Church Mothers, consult Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983]

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