Interview with Dr. Stephanie Yazge
An Interview with Dr. Stefanie Yazge for the 2013 Orthodox Institute:
If you could be any person in early Church, who would it be?
I would want to be one of Mary Magdalene's best friends. We only get snippets of who she was, with the exception of the post-Resurrection accounts in the Gospels. And those vary widely. For what I hope would be obvious reasons, John's account would be my favorite. To have been someone she would have gone to tell what she had experienced in that encounter with the risen Christ would be phenomenal. But I am more curious about how her life in the Church grew from there.
You've written about women in the early Church. What are a couple of the most interesting/surprising things you discovered?
Several things have struck me. First would be the role and Order of Widows. In the OT, they were a protected class among the Jews. God gave pretty explicit instructions that they (and orphans) were to be cared for by His people. The reason was simple: widows had no inheritance rights. They were property, like the land, cattle and anything else the husband owned. If a kinsman redeemer did not claim them, along with all the material property, a widow would be left with nothing. The story of Ruth presents how the system worked. The widow was someone who was the recipient of others' goodwill and ministering.
However, that situation changed in the early Church. The widow emerges not just as one who received the care and service of other, but she is now one who serves others, as a ministry in these new communities! The initial ministry was one of prayer, and hospitality. In St. Paul's first letter to Timothy, he summarizes that a woman in this ministry "trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day." He continues that she must be a woman who has been "faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord's people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds." If a widow – a person among the lowest in their society – had a ministry, it would appear that everyone has a ministry, a call to offer what gifts each person has in service to others.
I have also come to see how women in general had a more active role than most people realize. But it takes some real digging to find them and understand their participation in the life of the growing Church. Priscilla and Lydia are among my favorites. Most briefly, Priscilla and her husband Aquila were "co-workers" of St. Paul. Lydia was a single woman who either was a member of a growing freed slave merchant class and/or possibly a widow. And her home became a gathering place for a growing community, where Paul himself was a guest.
Some people might see these as examples as no big deal. But given the culture, both Jewish and Roman, we need to realize that women were not sitting on the sidelines as spectators. They were working alongside men. And institutional clericalism did not exist. The "people of God" were truly understood to be all the people of God, called to offer their gifts and talents for the "growth of the body (of Christ) in love."