She Shaped the Church

PaulChilcote by Dr. Paul W. Chilcote

Women have always outnumbered men in the church. That does not mean men or women have acknowledged the role and influence of female disciples and leaders. Given the fact that men have dominated the ranks of historians through the past two millennia of Christian history, it should be no surprise that men and their interests have shaped the written history of the church. Nonetheless, women have shaped the church and continue to do so today in remarkable ways. During the lifetime of most reading this article, moreover, greater attention and concern has been given to this “lost history” of women. Whether you realize it or not, it is highly likely that your own vision of the Christian faith, your experience of God, and your efforts to be a faithful disciple of Jesus reflect the influence of famous and even unknown women. Women, as well as men, are called by God, and those callings often come at great cost.

Mary: Called to Humble Obedience. It is somewhat inconceivable to address the issue of women, their calling and influence within the Christian family, and not start with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary, we could easily say, had a somewhat remarkable calling in life. Can you even imagine? She would conceive through the agency of the Holy Spirit and bear a son who would be named Jesus. You know the rest of the story. While Mary certainly shaped this life of her son in remarkable ways, she has exerted her influence upon millions of Christians through the ages, primarily through her example of obedience to God. It is not too much to say that the reverence shown to her is owing to this one great act – this response to God’s costly calling.

Mary’s song-response – generally known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – shapes us still. For those who worship in a liturgical heritage that includes Morning and Evening Prayer, many pray this prayer with her every evening:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Just imagine the shaping influence of her words. Ponder each phrase for just a moment or two. This prayer epitomizes Mary’s obedience. It elevates the human spirit in adoration of the one, true God. It demonstrates the nature of God’s ways and rule in the world and invites us into that realm. In words I read fairly recently, Mary’s moment of obedience “triggered two millennia of reverence.”

Paul W. Chilcote, PhD is Academic Dean; Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary. You can contact him at pchilcote@ashland.edu 

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