When we were in Rome, I saw a book called “Lives of Roman Christian Women.” The bookstore was charging an outrageous price for it, but I wrote the title down and put it on my birthday list. I received it for my birthday, and got around to reading it in October. But it wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
The first woman written about is Perpetua, a martyr in Carthage in the 3rd century. I knew of her life from a book called the Bronze Ladder, and once had been her for Reformation Night. Hers is truly a story of courage and faith, inspiring and challenging.
But from there I became less and less excited. I was expecting more stories like Perpetua’s, but instead I read of ascetics. They denied marriage because they felt it was earthly and bad. The unspoken but clear worldview was that if you are the bride of Christ, then to marry on earth is adultery. This is not what we see in scripture, and the Bible even warns us of people who will forbid marriage and says they are devoted to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Timothy 4:1-5. this also speaks of forbidding certain foods, which many of these women did). Instead of holding marriage in high esteem as a picture of Christ and the church and understanding that it is a calling some are called to and others are not, they wrote it off as a distraction.
Many held to Augustine and followed his teaching above scripture, but even more than disagreements I have with some of Augustine’s theology, they fell prey to Platonic philosophy. They thought the flesh was bad and should be denied almost all comfort, whether in extreme fasting, dressing in rough clothes, or sleeping on a hard bed. I could understand having a bad bed if you can’t afford a good one because you’re giving your money to God’s work – but some of these women did it just because, and slept on soft beds if they were sick. It wasn’t that they didn’t have a good bed, they just thought it was more godly to sleep on a hard bed.
Often they were inward focused and their personal holiness was so extreme and took so much time they had little or no time for other believers or evangelism to unbelievers. Often they kept commands they imposed upon themselves rather than devoting themselves to clear teaching of scripture.
One thought that came to me repeatedly was that they denied things Jesus did, in a way that was almost the student being greater than their Master. “Jesus may have drunk wine, but you shouldn’t drink wine.”
What they aspired to was good, however, poor teaching and bad theology led them to unbiblical extremes. But that’s not to say that there weren’t things to learn.
A re-occurring statement in the book was about how they shouldn’t really be called women because they were so manly. I had to think about that for a while, and finally concluded that while compared to most Roman women they were very strange, it should be the norm for Christian women to be sturdy and courageous. Not prim-and-proper fragility but women who can face lions and hardship while still being clearly women.
While I disagree with the extremes to which these women took their asceticism, I think there is much for us to learn. These women devoted themselves to caring for the poor and worshiping God. They put off materialism and gave freely of their money so they could store up more in heaven and use what God had given them. We could use more of this. So often we live in a luxury mentality rather than a “wartime” mentality, as John Piper says. However, this does not mean we need to live like prisoners of war, like many of these women thought.
So, while not becoming ascetics, still we can learn from their radical discipleship that encompassed all of their lives, not just Sundays and 10%. There are two questions to ask here –
– Are we denying self, taking up our crosses, and following Him? Or is our Christianity comfortable, feel-good, prosperity theology that is so caught up in materialism? Are we giving, serving, and sacrificing for Christ?
– In doing that, are we denying things that are good gifts, like marriage and foods (1 Timothy 4:1-5) for unbiblical reasons?
In Lives of Roman Christian Women, there are things we should shy away from, but there are also important lessons for us to learn from 1800 years later.