Would Things Be Different? Women in the Early Church: Tabitha

Based on a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, May 8, 2022. Scripture:  Acts 9:36-43

On so many levels and for so many reasons, this story from the ninth chapter of Acts is a remarkable one.  It’s a story about the early Church, the gathering of people around a new idea and concept, importantly and significantly without a few things:  no helpful handbook with policies and procedures, like the Top Ten Things that Every Church Should Have or Do; no library of systematic theology, not to mention no books on liberation theology or feminist theology; no “How to Be a Church for Dummies”; no internet and no Google.

How in the world did they do it?  How in the world did they go from that fearful group locked in a room to what eventually became the Church?  It’s mind boggling.  And, here we have this amazing story from the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s not a surprise that the story usually invokes a great deal of curiosity regarding Peter.  What’s going on here?  When did Peter develop the ability to resurrect people?  Why?  How?  What for?  Did he know that he could do this?

There’s certainly plenty here to consider and reflect on.  What is going on with THIS resurrection story?

But, let’s not do that.  Let’s not focus on Peter.

Instead, let’s consider the very first phrase:  “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha.”

Tabitha, whose other name was Dorcas, was known for her good works and acts of charity.  She was also a disciple.

Disciple.  This isn’t some translational attempt at making her into something maybe she wasn’t.  She is clearly referred to, in the Greek, as a disciple.  She’s the only specific woman in the entire New Testament with this designation.

Tabitha was a disciple.  And she was definitely not a man.  But, there’s not much attention paid to this little tidbit offered by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles—as if she’s just that someone who offers Peter a great opportunity to show some of his new-found abilities.

But, Tabitha was a disciple.  And, she’s right there in the text.  Not hidden away.  Not buried in a long narrative stretch.  She’s right there.  There’s not a lot about her.  She doesn’t even get to speak.  Still, that the word “disciple” is attached to her should get our attention, our full attention.  As a disciple, as someone known for her good works and acts of charity, surely she was one of those who helped form and frame the early church, one who, through her own leadership, contributed to making the Church and drawing people into this new thing, this new faith, this new way of being, of knowing oneself, one’s relationship with others, and one’s connection to the Divine.

I’ve been spending quite a lot of time recently in wondering, letting my mind cast itself off in imagining.

What would it be like if we took Tabitha more seriously?  What if her significance had extended beyond the early Church?  What if the Church Universal held a decided claim on Tabitha, on her as a disciple?  What if the Church through the centuries had a more active and engaged connection to Tabitha, a disciple, and more than that, a disciple so important that Peter felt compelled to resurrect her after her death?

I’m perhaps more attuned to thinking along these lines after Old South’s Lenten theme this year of the Women Around Jesus.  But, I’m also wondering in relationship to recent events, like the leaked Supreme Court decision that signals that the Court will overturn Roe v Wade, with Justice Samuel Alito commenting on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Constitution.  Well, maybe that’s because there were no women who participated in the writing of that document, and surely at least part of the reason no women were there was the influence of the Church, which had surely gone astray in leaving behind and ignoring the women of the New Testament, women who were profoundly significant to the gathering of, the expansion of, the forming of, and in the leadership of, the early church.  That women were then so neatly and thoroughly cast aside and kept cast aside is a huge and problematic issue for the Church and for its profound influence on culture and society over the centuries. 

I stumbled upon a page online, as I was thinking about all of this, a page that championed the wives of the writers of the Constitution.  The page noted and listed the wives left behind, supporting the Founding Fathers by taking care of their affairs while they were away.

It’s too bad a few of those women didn’t work their way into the process of the writing of the Constitution, demanding to be heard, demanding to speak up for the women.

Would things be different, if the Church recognized not simply the contributions of women, but their leadership, their partnership, in the framing and forming of the Church, from the very beginning?

Would things be different?

The Church has had a huge impact on culture and society in this country.  Would things be different if the Church had kept the leadership of women active throughout the life, practice and development of the Church and its many expressions?

Would the leadership of women ensure that women were treated as full human beings, with a clear understanding of rights over their own bodies?  I’m not sure, but I would hope so.

Would anyone be thinking that women’s reproductive rights be left to the whim of voters, when we don’t act in the same way regarding the reproductive activities of men?

Would things be different if we kept in the forefront of our understanding of relationship with the Divine, and the gathering of the Church meant to continue the life and mission of Christ, if we kept faith with Jesus’s treatment of and relationship with women, and then the early church, and the discipleship not only of men, but of women, women like Tabitha?

Would things be different? How could they not be?

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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