Perpetua: My Kind of Woman

Women’s ministry today is primarily driven by emotion. It responds to our feelings of inadequacy in the face of singleness, marriage, and motherhood. It is often about helping women get through the day, keep their heads above water, survive.

But Scripture gives us a different picture of the Christian life. We are to be more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37), not merely survivors. It is a life of courage, boldness, and daring. Rather than using the Gospel to merely heal our lives, it empowers us to give our lives away, to lose them.

With that vision in mind, I offer you the story of a woman named Perpetua. She was about 22 years old when she wrote the letter you are about to read, and she was martyred in Carthage shortly after. The letter itself comes from her time in prison, and scholars estimate that she died around the year 202.

To give you the context of this letter, Perpetua had just given birth and was awaiting execution. She spent most of her time alone in a dark prison, nursing her baby. The only visitor she received was her father, who came only to persuade her to deny her faith.

Perpetua provides us with a new paradigm for women’s ministry. Perpetua never saw herself as weak, and she never saw herself as a victim. She instead viewed her persecution as a blessing, an opportunity to glorify the Lord more fully. Compared to today’s American norms of female discipleship, she is quite radical. Unparalleled, in fact.

This is the kind of woman I want to be. So I offer you now, the letter of our courageous sister, Perpetua:

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“While we were still under arrest, my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’

‘Yes, I do’, said he.

And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’

At this my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favor after the water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.

Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.

A few days later there was a rumor that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me.

‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head–have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.’

This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.

I tried to comfort him saying: ‘It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.

And he left me in great sorrow.

One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighborhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: ‘Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby!’

Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’

‘I will not’, I retorted.

‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus.

And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’

When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for his pathetic old age.

Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.

Now the day of the contest was approaching, and my father came to see me overwhelmed with sorrow. He started tearing the hairs from his beard and threw them on the ground; he then threw himself on the ground and began to curse his old age and to say such words as would move all creation. I felt sorry for his unhappy old age.

The day before we were to fight with the beasts I saw the following vision. Pomponius the deacon came to the prison gates and began to knock violently. I went out and opened the gate for him. He was dressed in an unbelted white tunic, wearing elaborate sandals. And he said to me: ‘Perpetua, come; we are waiting for you.’

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The rest of the letter tells of her vision. The next day she was executed. And if you ever care to read the account of her death, I assure you that she died valiantly.

Ladies, this is what we should aspire to be. This is the kind of woman that our ministries should produce. It is time for change.