Since the fall in Genesis, the role of women in the church has been a debated topic. Are women allowed to hold leadership positions in the church? Do current restrictions on women leading in the church also apply to women missionaries? Women have a formidable role in world missions today. According to a study done in 2005, over half (52%) of the women in full-time missions are unmarried (Lee). The vast majority of missionary work is undeniably open to women. The question arises, though, as to whether there is any missionary role in which women should not serve. The Bible’s teaching regarding women’s limitations in church leadership is universal to all cultural contexts, but the understanding of the Bible’s teaching is not universally agreed upon.
While the Bible teaches that a woman cannot be a shepherding pastor or an elder in a church, she can still evangelize and plant churches. As clearly seen with Prisca (Romans 16:3-4) and Junia (Romans 16:7), women missionaries are encouraged in the Bible. Context, also, is always important to look at in missions; a woman would not normally perform the duty of an elder or shepherding pastor, rather she would evangelize and plant churches by building up those that are a part of the culture around her. Therefore, in no sense should any Bible passages discourage women from missionary work. God calls women, single and married, to serve Him on the mission field, and God often uses women missionaries in powerful and amazing ways. Since the biblical limitations for women’s involvement in missions is not an issue, a look at tradition, reason, and experience is needed to understand how Christians throughout the ages have regarded women and their involvement with missions.
A theology on women in the church can only be found when looking at commentary on scripture. Bible commentaries look at different verses individually, and not holistically to create a theology on women in the church and women in missions. Since a clear theology on women in missions is nearly impossible to come by in church history, a look at the way that women have been restricted or accepted in missions can help to create a picture of what the theology behind the actions of the church has been regarding women in missions. Women have a long history of being involved in mission since those first followers of Jesus discovered his empty tomb and rushed to give the other disciples the news, so a broad look at women in missions over the centuries shows a progression of women becoming more and more accepted as missionaries.
In the Catholic tradition, priests, bishops, and nuns built churches and hospitals and founded schools and orphanages to establish the faith. Women who experienced a call to mission first had to join a celibate religious order. Catholic mothers were to have families as their primary responsibility. Not until the mid-twentieth century could lay women freely participate in official foreign missions with the full sanction of the Church. Catholic sisters were the first trained nurses in the United States. They nursed the wounded during the Revolutionary War and founded some of the first American hospitals for the poor in the early nineteenth century. Mother Mary Joseph in the 1920s founded the Maryknoll Sisters, who focused on direct evangelism, seeing themselves fully participating in the church’s apostolic work.
The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century brought about changes in the roles of women in Christianity. The Reformers reemphasized that women’s roles were in the home and supporting men. Because women were restricted in serving within the institutional church, they were attracted to responding to serving God in mission work, where the limitations were less restrictive. In the early days of the Protestant mission advance, most women who went to the field were wives of missionaries. Women often felt a deep commitment to missions, but were required to marry before they could fulfill their own missionary calling. Some male missionaries recognized that significant contact with women in most non-Western societies was impossible, so the missionary wives not only managed the home and children, but also developed programs to reach local women and girls. Ann Judson, who was the wife of Adoniram Judson, demonstrated how wives not only cared for the family and ran a household in a foreign country, but developed their own ministry as well. Ann ran a small school for girls, did evangelistic work with the women, was a pioneer Bible translator in two languages, and was the leading female missionary author of the early nineteenth century. Her letters and journals of their work with the Burmese inspired many to support missions and even consider missions as a vocation.
It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that single women were accepted as missionaries in any significant numbers. Single women were first sent to the field to care for missionaries’ children and serve alongside the missionary family. Little by little as opportunities arose, single women missionaries began to supervise women’s schools for nationals. Mission societies realized that their traditional strategies were not reaching women who were kept in separate quarters in countries such as India and China. Quietly women missionaries helped reach out to the local women who were secluded from society. In 1827, Cynthia Farrar responded to a field request from India for a single woman to supervise the schools for national girls that had been started by the mission and she was appointed to the American Board. She became the first unmarried woman sent overseas as an assistant missionary. Since existing American mission boards were reluctant to recruit and send single women, women’s mission boards developed in the USA during the nineteenth century. As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century nearly half of the mission-sending boards in the USA were women’s boards. Women were on the move in missions, organizing and managing their own structures, and sending women to be involved with women’s issues. Over three million women were involved, and by the early twentieth century this had become the largest women’s movement in the USA. This was short lived though. Church and mission leaders became concerned that women’s mission agencies always seemed to have enough finance while other agencies were struggling. Because of the reduced giving from local churches in the 1920’s and pressure within denominations, the women’s missionary movement was dismantled and the male-controlled general boards took the money raised by the women. Despite women’s evident ability to maintain independent and separate structures, they had no laity rights in the churches and were forced to accept the eventual collapse of their organizations.
Though women have not had as much participation in the administrative side of missions or freedom in their missionary roles since the women’s missionary movement, there is an estimated twice as many women missionaries as men missionaries in missions today. There are very few women running mission agencies, but women seem to be far more interested in missions than men, so women are not blocked from being sent as missionaries as often as they used to be. Women missionaries are able to effectively reach unreached people, and missions agencies are beginning to realize that women seem to be more prone to receive the gospel – perhaps because of the marginalization and alienation they experience in the own cultures. In China, the house church movement has grown largely through the faithful work of women missionaries. In Korea, the gospel came ﬁrst to the women because they were willing to read the Bible in the new simpliﬁed Korean script, while the men insisted on only reading it in Chinese. About 70% of Christians in African indigenous churches are women, 80% of house church members in China are women, and in Korea cell groups mainly consist of women. Women are engaged in all areas of mission service and their approach is generally holistic. For the work in the spread of the gospel to be most effective, there is a need to acknowledge, in structures, in thinking, and in planning, that women, all over the world, are the majority participants in mission – as both givers and receivers.
When looking at the history of women in missions, it becomes apparent rather quickly that Christians throughout the centuries have struggled to develop a clear theology regarding women in Christian ministry. Women and men are often left to wonder what the Bible says about women serving in the church, as it has not been seen as an issue important enough for the general public of Christians to be educated on what exactly the Bible says and what exactly that means for women in the church. As a result, women feel suffocated and confused about their God-given abilities that would serve the church well, but their church leadership has restricted the use of such abilities by women.
Doctrine and practice are not to be determined according to modern cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends. Scripture alone must be the final authority in all matters of faith and conduct, but theology needs to be done in every generation. (2 Tim 3:16-17; Heb 4:12; 2 Pet 1:20-21). Not that God changes or the basic eternal truths of Christianity change but that in order for contemporary Christians to understand these truths they need to be explained in new ways in particular contexts, new social locations, and changing historical situations. Theologies need to be articulated in ways that help Christians understand their life experiences and their questions as a part of the whole community of Christians. In no sense should any Bible passages discourage women from missionary work, so we as the Church, need to write and speak about these things so that in our communities and in our mission work as a church we can more fully understand for our own time the depth and riches of the wisdom and love of God who has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
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