In the sixteenth century, Roman Catholic Europe had distinct roles for women—like mother, nun, and queen. But these roles (as they were defined then) were often far from biblical: mothers lived with guilt for marital sex, nuns enjoyed the church’s wealth and often vied for position, and queens wielded unhindered, though often unofficial, power in decadent courts. As the Reformation spread, there was a significant social adjustment as Roman Catholic tradition, which dealt with women’s roles, fell apart under scriptural examination. Runaway nuns, female mystics, and ruthless 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 of that womanhood. 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.
Often, the church today does not respond biblically to feminism. This is one way that the cloud of witnesses is so useful to us. Because the principles that guided them were biblical, we can use them as well. Different cultures, centuries, and personalities will create different expressions of biblical womanhood, but the motives and the spiritual fruit will be the same. Women from these seminal centuries of Protestantism have much to teach us.
Some began life wealthy and some were poor; many were beautiful, aging prematurely because of difficult lives. Many simply did what they were raised to do. For others, rebellion against their godless upbringing was the beginning of faithfulness. Many had wonderful marriages, while others suffered because of their husbands. Many were single. But several characteristics were common to all of these believing women.
Characteristics of Reformation Women
Reformation women were devoted to the growth and health of the Protestant church, most often expressed in sacrificial service to their local congregations. But women did other work, too. Sometimes their contributions were direct—issuing edicts, writing theological works, and helping establish congregations. One paid for a church building out of her own pocket, overseeing the construction herself. Others found themselves in a position to bring reform indirectly by supporting husbands, reviewing book manuscripts, sheltering refugees, and educating children to carry on the work. Regardless of how it was done, they devoted their lives to the establishment and growth of a biblically Reformed Church.
These women were also devoted to hospitality, to a level that is almost unheard of in the West today. Groups of orphans, refugees, visiting pastors, and many others crowded their homes and estates. Hospitality was a tool that they used to feed, clothe, encourage, teach, and comfort God’s people. They generously sacrificed their energy, time, and finances.
Moreover, they were committed to education consistently. Protestant women typically stewarded their own intellectual abilities, working to understand Scripture and theology, reading, discussing, and corresponding with theologians to that end. This was no ivory tower experience—there were far too many babies and guests for that! Instead, they used their God-given intellect to bear fruit in education. For some women, education began in childhood; others had to compensate for a lack during their upbringing. For all of them, education was a life-long endeavor, another tool in their arsenal to fight the good fight.
Reformation women in this period also tended to be very brave. Once they saw the right course of action, they obeyed even in frightening circumstances. Facing angry monarchs, assassins, persecutions, exile, and other challenges with fortitude seemed to have been standard. They may have been princesses, but there was no princess complex, as they took in deprivation, hunger, threats, and violence with bravery and resolve.
The Centrality of Sanctification
These dispositions did not happen programmatically. Their service to the church did not come because they wanted a platform. It wasn’t a women’s lib movement. It did not come out of an efficient women’s ministry. It did not even come from mere orthodoxy, though orthodoxy was something that they all pursued. The reason these women could live as they did was sanctification. As selfless love replaced natural selfishness, they became fruitful by God’s grace.
Reformation women actively pursued holiness. They weren’t hanging out on social media or mommy blogs, waiting for spiritual maturity to happen. They regularly engaged in Bible reading, prayer, attendance in worship (often several times a week), fellowship with the saints, theological study and discussions, and a conscious self-denial—which matured and equipped them into useful servants that God blessed. Personal projects, comfort, and plans were subservient to the mission of the Great Commission. The great fruit that believing women bore in this era flowed out of a love for Jesus. They loved their Savior, and conformity to His image resulted in fruitful holiness. Love for Christ and His Church overflowed into holy action that God used to transform a culture.
Faithfulness in the Mundane
Each woman had her own strength—intellectual, emotional, or physical. But spiritual strength was something that they had in common, drawn from a knowledge of the Scriptures and personal communion with God. It was conformity to God’s Word that taught them how to live and how to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to their Redeemer. There is no such thing as a “superwoman.” But there is such a thing as an obedient, sanctified woman. In an array of talents, situations, personalities, tastes, and even blind spots, each woman bore kingdom fruit as each of their souls took on biblical shape. The primary attribute that these women had in common was Christlikeness. And every believer today has the same calling.
When we study the lives of Reformation-era women, their unusual deeds stand out to us. They fled in disguise, directed war, and endured persecution. But it’s often their everyday faithfulness that was most formative for the church—supporting husbands, teaching children, sheltering saints, and reading and distributing Bibles. Few women today have the opportunity to command an army, but all believing women can be faithful in the ordinary and the mundane, obeying and serving Christ in their own circumstances. Perhaps that is the more challenging and daunting call. It is the example of everyday faithfulness changing families, churches, and nations that makes these women’s stories so valuable for us today.