“Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” – Acts 1:13-14
These are the names of the great cloud of witnesses in the early church. Notice the women included in that list. Later in Acts, Peter continues to describe this Great Cloud of Witnesses. “Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled….” Do not be mistaken. The words disciples, men, and brethren are actually gender-generic terms and include the whole body of the churchmen and women. Acts 6:3 further describes women as part of the decision-making in the early church leadership.
“Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” – Acts 6:3
And yet, a multitude of women have often been excluded from leadership – both in and out of the church. After all, it is one thing to say you agree with women in ministry; it is another to affirm and support them in ministry. B.T. Roberts, the founder of Free Methodism, boldly declared in his book Ordaining Women, “The church has no right to forbid the free exercise of abilities to do good which God has given. To do so is usurpation and tyranny.”
Roberts highlights the reigns of Queen Elizabeth, Catharine II of Russia, and Queen Alexandrina Victoria of England. All three women held positions typically occupied by men, and yet they governed well despite widespread concerns they would be too emotional. Princess Alexandrina Victoria actually won her people’s hearts through her pathos – her emotions were precisely why she was so well-loved. All three of these leaders recognized their emotions were not a weakness, but something to be embraced. That recognition allowed them to lead with honesty, vulnerability and integrity – a refreshing reality much needed in our world leaders today.
Our emotions are what make us human. They help us connect with one another. It’s interesting that the word “religion” actually comes from the same root as “ligament” and it means, “tying together.” As such, all leaders – but religious leaders in particular – need to be reminded of their own humanness as they lead through difficult seasons and strive to “tie together” people with one another, themselves and God.
One such woman is my grandma, Evelyn Mathews. Although she didn’t follow in the steps of her relatives by joining the convent and becoming a nun, she is still a modern-day saint in her own right. Throughout my life, she has been the person who continuously chooses the path that Jesus has set for all of humanity. One of love. One of suffering.
Even with physical and emotional suffering, my grandma is content with the life she lived, but believes she is still here for a God-ordained reason. She has continuously pursued helping others by enduring new experimental treatments for the cancer she has fought. She agrees to the treatments not out of wanting to live longer, but to “hopefully help a younger woman fighting this battle that needs to live her life to the fullest.” A completely selfless action. God calls us all to selfless actions like this that reflect His love and grace onto others.
This Great Cloud of witnesses does not just include the men and women from Acts. It does not just include strong leaders who embrace their emotions and humanness. It does not just include my grandma, Evelyn Mathews. It includes men and women you know and love. Men and women who have impacted your life. Who are those men and women who are included in the Great Cloud of Witnesses?