Last month while doing some research in Italy, I went with my family to visit the catacombs in Rome. Much of what I saw moved me. But the most inspiring part of all was hearing a story about a strong woman.
Our guide pointed to a sculpture memorializing Cecilia, whose bones had once rested in that place. Apparently Cecilia was born in Rome of wealthy parents about the year A.D. 200. She had such zeal for the Christian faith that when her parents coerced her into marriage with Valerian, Cecilia counseled her bridegroom on their wedding night to go to Bishop Urban to be baptized. Valerian converted, and shared the gospel with his brother, Tiburtius, who also trusted Christ. Soon after, both men were condemned to death for their witness. Led to the place of execution, these brothers shared their faith with the captain of the guard, Maximus, who believed and ended up martyred with them.
Cecila buried their bodies together. She was then brought to trial. When the judge asked her the source of her boldness, she said, “From a pure conscience and undoubting faith.” Cecilia endured cruel torture before her tormentors condemned her to beheading.
When her time came, the executioner struck her three times on the neck with the sword. Yet instead of killing her, he ended up only badly wounding her. So he left her there to die, and she suffered for three more days.
As our guide showed us the sculpture, the gash in Cecilia’s neck was immediately apparent. But then he drew our attention to her hands. “This is how her body was found,” he said. A glance at her fingers revealed they were making a symbol similar to the “peace” sign, which we often see on icons. The two fingers held up signified the dual nature of Christ, and the other three fingers held together signified the Trinity. Through making this hand sign, Cecilia lay until she died testifying unashamedly to her faith in Jesus Christ. What courage and strength!
Last week I met with one of my male students to discuss an independent study he is doing with me. At one point in the conversation he told me about one of his professors who recently suggested to his class that perhaps America should not have allowed women to vote. This professor went on to warn, “Beware of strong women.”
My student was grieved. “I love strong women!” he pleaded in earnest. Then he told me about how a passive woman nearly let her invalid husband die because he was barking at her not to help, and she was being “submissive.” But this student’s wife had the courage to tell her to speak up and help save her husband’s life.
“The passive one is the kind of woman we applaud,” this student told me. Yet with tears in his eyes he insisted, “My wife has courage. She is not afraid to tell the truth when someone needs to hear it. She is strong. And it’s beautiful! I love that about her.”
Also last week a former student told me about the ministry of her sister, Tiffany, among women rescued from human trafficking. When Tiffany told them the story of Nabal and Abigail (1 Sam. 25), these former slaves—well experienced in dealing with powerful men—“pulled out amazing truth and application” from the passage. Abigail saved the lives of her entire family by refusing to say “Yes, dear,” when her man put people’s lives at risk.
John Eldredge says every “man needs a battle to fight.” Yet Paul applies the metaphor of battle to every Christian woman, too, concluding with: “Finally, be strong in the LORD, and in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10). Paul’s instructions about the full armor of God apply to every believer, not just men.
The writer of Proverbs 31 described God’s ideal woman by using numerous warfare-related words, such as “valor,” (v. 10), and physical “strength” (v. 17). The text says she is clothed in “strength and dignity” (v. 25). God calls women to be strong!
Of course no Christian should be ambitious for power—a temptation all humans inherit. But we should definitely aspire to have influence for Him, to tell the truth in love, to walk with courage, to boldly share the gospel “from a pure conscience and undoubting faith.” I believe that is why, after giving instructions about submission, Peter adds an important phrase that normally gets ignored: “Do what is right without being frightened by any fear” (1 Peter 3:6).
We must not shrink back from courageously doing and standing for what is right, even if the fear that might hold us back is that others will disparage us by labeling us as “strong.”