Felicitas and Perpetua - Devoted to Christ above All
From the earliest days of the church women were among those used greatly by God in the furthering of His kingdom. Jesus Himself had many devoted women followers; and Paul commends numbers of women for their brave and faithful service to Christ (see the greetings at the ends of his letters). Notable among these was Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, “risked their lives” for Paul. She, together with Aquila, had also helped instill in Apollos a better understanding of the faith. As the church grew dramatically in its first few centuries, women were among those who gave shining witness to their faith by dying martyrs’ deaths.
We begin our series of studies with two women who died in 202 A.D.. They were Roman women, of noble birth, and they lived in Carthage, one of the leading towns in the important Roman province of North Africa. Felicitas and Perpetua were both young married women when they died: Perpetua was just 22. They had evidently been Christians a matter of a few years at most: they were what was then called “catachumens”, or apprentices in the gospel. Catechumens underwent a period of careful instruction in the faith before they were baptised and admitted to full membership in the church. These were still early days for the Christian church, but it appears that the gospel had spread quite rapidly in North Africa among those of Roman descent: that is, those who were the governing families and the social elite of the region. Nevertheless, this was still a dangerous time to be a Christian, since at any moment an emperor who insisted on the customary act of offering sacrifice to his “genius” or persona would create a crisis of conscience for a Christian. Christians were the only imperial citizens who attracted attention for consistently refusing to perform this sacrifice (Jews enjoyed official toleration and were exempt) since they were exclusively monotheistic: unlike the followers of other religions they could not “go through the motions” of Roman requirements in addition to the practices of their own particular sect.
In 202 the emperor Septimus Severus suddenly sparked off a persecution – for reasons difficult to explain, since there were Christian influences in his own household. He forbade conversions to Christianity or Judaism, and the persecution which followed in the wake of this edict was especially severe in Egypt and North Africa. Felicitas and Perpetua were both arrested, along with a number of others. We know quite a lot about their imprisonment because during this time Perpetua wrote a personal memoir or diary. Their faith was very fervent, and she writes of her great desire that death would come soon, as she longed to be with Christ. She describes the darkness and discomfort of the prison, the roughness of the soldiers and the bloodthirstiness of the crowds, but her cheerful attention to the details of God’s provision for the prisoners’ daily needs shows that she was not consumed by fear, and she had not lost her perspective on God’s goodness in this time of trial.
One of Perpetua’s greatest temptations – and it was a severe one- was the pull of family love. It appears that apart from one brother she alone in her family was a Christian. Her husband is not mentioned (was he dead, or an unbeliever?), but her father, mother and unbelieving brother all visited her in prison . Her father’s pleas that she renounce her faith and spare their sorrows were at first affectionate, then desperate, and finally accusing and severe. She knew she grieved her father, and as she loved him dearly, her sorrow was heavy. However, her loyalty to and love for Christ came first, and she must often have thought of Jesus’s command to “leave father and mother” for His sake. But Perpetua’s heaviest grief must have been for her baby son, whom she was still nursing. The most extreme test of her faithfulness must surely have been her willingness to leave him for Christ’s sake. That she was able to resist her father’s pleas on behalf of her baby surely shows God’s remarkable power to give strength in time of testing. Felicitas, too, faced this trial: she gave birth in prison, and had to give her baby up to the care of family.
Both women died the horrible death of being thrown to wild animals in the arena: in those days not even educated women of high birth were exempted. However, they were kept secure in their faith right to the end, and their witness was not without its fruit. The governor of the prison believed when he saw how courageous and single-minded they were; and it is a fact noted even by unbelieving historians that the example of early Christians in the face of death was a key factor in the rapid spread of the gospel among the pagans of the Roman empire. Perpetua’s witness has also lived on as inspiration to countless Christians who have read her diary (it is, today, available on the Internet). And, as a source of reminder for those with gardening interests, there is a climbing rose, bred in France last century of particular sweetness: it is named Felicite et Perpetue.
What lessons can we draw from the lives of these young women? Obviously, the ability of our loving God to give faith and strength in time of severe trial. Felicitas and Perpetua were enabled to remain constant to Christ during weeks of imprisonment, knowing all the time that a terrible death awaited them if they did not give in to the pleas of their desperate families. Neither did they flinch when that particular, public death had them suffer in front of a large crowd of pagan onlookers. Sometimes we fear all kinds of things which might happen, wondering what it would be like if that terrible news were given us, of if that dreadful choice was put before us. But the teaching of the Bible remains true: God gives strength in time of trial, and He promises to help us when we need it. He will give us the words to say, and so on. We do not need that strength when we do not have the trial, we should just trust that He will give it when, and if He sends it.
Another lesson is the help given these two women by their church. These suffering Christians were frequently visited in prison by their fellow believers, and a deacon even pleaded that they be given fresh air and exercise in another part of the prison. This must surely have been at personal risk to themselves. Careful thought obviously went into the particular and specific help brought to Felicitas and Perpetua by their Christian friends. We could reflect on this by asking ourselves - how much effort do we give to encouraging our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution or suffering? Do we visit, pray, seek to cheer them up with words of encouragement, do we offer to meet their specific physical needs? Do we think carefully about what might especailly make their life easier, or most particularly remind them that they have friends that love them and pray for them? Do we even do things which cost us something – inconvenience, time, money, or even personal discomfort?
And yet, there are also negative lessons we can draw from the examples of Felicitas and Perpetua. They were, according to some historians, followers of the Montanist heresy, a fanatical “extreme” movement that looked to visions and direct “words” from the Spirit rather than the unchanging word of Scripture. This is apparent from Perpetua’s diary, which gives a lot of attention to emotional experiences as a source of comfort to her. We need to make sure our stand as a Christian wirness is based on the solid, reliable truths of the Word, rather than on the impressions of the moment, however vivid or attractive they might be.
But Perpetua and Felicitas’s lives and deaths are good for us to contemplate. We live in an age when it often seems that little is asked of us in terms of sacrifice for Christ. But the forces of evil in this world are just as present, as powerful and as seductive. Perhaps we simply need the spiritual wisdom to recognise them.
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / firstname.lastname@example.org / revised July
2000 / Copyright 2000