The Biblical Foundations for a Feminist and Participatory Theology of Mission

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The question of the biblical bases for a feminist and participatory theology of mission takes us back to the beginnings of Christianity in the first and second century, when the first Christian communities were starting to develop their religious and cultural identity and to gain an understanding of themselves as the church of Jesus Christ. Just as the idea of being church was still in a state of flux, so too was the idea of what we today call "mission". What this concept comprised, who could participate in mission and help decide how it was to be done, differed according to the thinking of different local churches and itinerant ascetic apostles. The biblical foundations for mission are difficult to ascertain, because the relevant concepts (1) appear in the New Testament in connection with a variety of activities and groups of people. For example they include such disparate things as the work of itinerant apostles among Gentiles in the known world at that time, as well as leadership tasks within local churches such as proclamation, teaching, responsibility for the sacraments, as well as caring for the needy and for prisoners. But they also include standing up for one's faith under persecution, holding fast to the true faith, and transmitting the legacy of the faith to the next generation. (2)

The public dimension is the one characteristic that does stand out in the multi-faceted subject of mission, in all the forms mentioned. Mission, at its core, urges Christians towards public activity, anchored as it is in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus' own understanding of the purpose for which he was sent was that it was a public action which he carried out in the public sphere, in the streets, market squares and in the temple. Called to account for it by the high priest at the beginning of his passion, Jesus said: "I have spoken openly (parrhesia) in the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret (en krypto)" (John 18:20). From the beginning the mission of Jesus' disciples involved active participation of church members in public tasks, in worship, communication within and beyond the congregation, as well as in public work outside the church among people of other faiths (ethne). Did women take part in this? Could they actively and publicly participate in missionary tasks, and be involved in decision-making, in view of the fact that in the Mediterranean world at that time, offices and functions in the public sphere (polis) were generally the affairs of men? (3) What follows is an exploration of women's role in mission in the early church, by asking whether, in what ways and to what degree women participated in the public work of the early church. On this basis, the biblical premises for women's involvement in mission will be established, in the context of a feminist and participatory theology of mission.

The scope for women's mission activities basically depended on whether local churches, in ordering the way they operated within and beyond the congregation, held to androcentric and consequently unbalanced gender images, of whether and to what extent they thought up and realized alternative forms of community life. As a first step, I will sketch out the different ways in which Christian communities dealt with this issue (1). An outline of an understanding of mission beyond established gender models will be given on the basis of Galatians 3:26-28 (2). Then I will explore the beginnings of "gendered missions", typified by hierarchical gender role stereotyping within the New Testament canon (3), and from there proceed to develop some perspectives, on the basis of four key biblical passages, for a feminist and participatory theology of mission (4). Finally, whether and how women took responsibility for mission beyond New Testament times will be shown by a few examples from the early church (5).

I. Women's opportunities for participation in the early Christian communities

In the period between the ministry of Jesus and the finalization of the Old and New Testament canons at the end of the second century, the degree to which women were able to participate in mission and the forms that this participation took were exceedingly varied. …