This is a guest post by Rebecca VanDoodewaard, author of Reformation Women.
Most Christians are familiar with the idea of the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). But I wonder if the church today realizes the gift that it is. We can often feel like we are running our race, way down at the bottom of the huge stadium, and all the saints triumphant are way up in the stands, so distant that we can’t see their faces. And the race can be so hard that sometimes we can’t hear the cheers.
But the cloud of witnesses watching us are not spectators who show up in the hope that they get to see someone break a record. They are not there to be impressed or intimidate. They are there to encourage. It’s not like someone buying tickets to a professional sports event to enjoy the crowd and the hot dogs. It’s like a mother at the track meet cheering on a nervous daughter who is working hard. God gave us the cloud of witnesses partly because it helps to know that another Christian walked the same, hard road and made it safely to glory. It helps to have great grandmothers in the faith.
That is what I hope the figures in Reformation Women become for many Christians today. In a day when gender and identity are confused and confusing, these women bring us clarity. We tend to think of our own time—this era of church history—as unique in its problem of sorting out women’s roles. Different churches and denominations have different approaches—even for groups that are complementarian, there can be large differences and disagreements. But the church has dealt with this matter before: the Reformation was a period of huge social adjustment as Roman Catholic tradition dealing with women’s roles fell apart under a scriptural examination. Runaway nuns, female mystics, and powerful Roman Catholic queens revealed real issues confronting early Protestantism.
As the church developed a biblical understanding of womanhood, Protestant women lived out the full scope and power of that womanhood in Christian witness. Women educated themselves and their children. They wrote and published theological works. They rebuked heretics. They ruled. They directed armies, fighting wars to defend religious freedom for their Church. They understood their Bibles, creeds, and theology; critical Roman Catholics were often silenced by biblical examples and principles that gave these women a holy legitimacy.
A range of personalities, abilities, and positions give us a sample spectrum of what faithful, strong service to Christ and His Church looked like then. These same principles and examples are invaluable for helping women today bear fruit within the broad boundaries that God gives us in His Word.
But these women are not just examples; their lives are encouragements to us. Few 21st century women will ever lead an army or lecture in Latin. But our daily struggles are the struggles of women since Eve. It is hard to find a situation in today’s church that a believing woman did not have to deal with in the 1500’s. Sexual, physical, and spiritual abuse; abandonment; difficult marriage; infertility; dead babies; apostate children; poverty; church conflict; chronic illness; war; slander—someone went through it then, and went through it faithfully. We don’t face any temptations today that aren’t common to women through history (1 Cor. 10:13). When we see others’ lives, we can often see how God used suffering to sanctify them and build up the church. It give us perspective, models, and comfort.
This should be a huge encouragement for us. God gave us these women’s stories as part of our spiritual heritage. They weren’t perfect, but they were striving after the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). We can enjoy their stories and learn from them, knowing that they see us walk through many of the same things and cheer us on in faithfulness. Thank the Lord for giving us people whom we can follow as they followed Christ.