October 24, 2013
This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here.
It is well known that for every person who is famously influential in history, there are many more who are influential without being well known at all. Nowhere is this truth more important than in the history of the Christian church, a history that is full of little-known stories of faithful believers who lived hidden lives that were of immense value to the progress of the Kingdom. One impressive example of such an unknown influencer is Macrina, a nun who lived in Cappadocia (central Turkey today) in the fourth century. I sometimes refer to Macrina as “the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of.”
Macrina was the oldest of 10 children born to wealthy, devoutly-Christian parents, Basil (a professor and attorney) and Emmelia. Her father betrothed Macrina at age 12 to a famed orator, but he died very suddenly before they were married. Macrina called the betrothal a marriage and resolved to spend the rest of her life alone and celibate, rather than marry someone else. In order to secure this resolution, she persuaded her mother (who was widowed by this time) to join her in establishing a nunnery that later became the pattern for all of female monasticism in the Greek Church. Macrina also founded a hospital and an organization to care for the poor, funding them with money inherited from her parents. She was so thorough in giving her wealth to the service of others that when she died at age 52, she owned nothing except the tattered garment she was wearing.
As impressive as Macrina’s life was, we might never have known about it except for one other detail. She also possessed an extraordinary combination of immense education and desire to use her knowledge for God’s glory. She dedicated herself to the education of her nine younger brothers and sisters, and two of those excelled so much under her tutelage that they were later sent abroad to obtain first-rate philosophical educations. But Macrina did not simply give her brothers their start. She also popped the bubble of pride that sprang up within them as their education progressed, and she convinced both of them to use their learning for the service of Christ.
Those two brothers are known to history as Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Together with their best friend, Gregory the Theologian, they are styled “the great Cappadocians,” and the three were the Greek Church’s most brilliant Trinitarian theologians in the period after the death of Athanasius. They took the mantle of leadership during the tumultuous years at the end of the Trinitarian Controversy, and they were the most influential figures on the Council of Constantinople in 381, at which what we call the Nicene Creed was ratified.
Gregory of Nyssa wrote a moving biography of his sister, in which he described her life-long ambition to be the bride of Christ, to long for him, and to serve his people. Gregory’s account means that Macrina’s life is known to us, and the story reminds us of how important and influential a single life can be. At the same time, we are reminded that there are countless more lives of faithful, ordinary Christians of which recorded history has no trace, lives that are equally valuable in their obscurity, equally worthy of celebration by God’s people. We are also reminded that we never know what the Lord is going to do with our own (usually obscure) ministries. We never know whether that person we disciple will be a new Basil the Great. Perhaps this reminder can encourage us to continue to pursue our callings faithfully, just as Macrina did.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.