Women in World Mission: Controversies and Challenges from a North American Perspective (1)

Article excerpt

Since the times of Jesus, women have spread the gospel message of his life, death, and resurrection. Upon meeting Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman ran and told her neighbours that he was the Lord. The women at the tomb were the first to learn of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' supporters in life, became the "apostle to the apostles", as she spread the news of his victory over death. In the Book of Acts, we see that Priscilla gave theological instruction to the convert Apollos, who subsequently became an important evangelist. Consecrated virgins, widows, and female martyrs were some of the most important witnesses to the gospel during the first few centuries of the church. Even in periods of history in which women have been discouraged from engaging in mission and ministry, the memory of early women's mission work lingered in Christian legend. One legend told of Mary and Martha of Bethany, who were sisters of Lazarus and close friends of Jesus. In the Bible, we read of how Martha waited on her guest while her sister Mary sat listening to his words. The story spread that, after Pentecost, the two sisters sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and became missionaries to the Gauls. Both sisters publicly preached the gospel. Then Martha settled into pastoral ministry and even fought a duel with a man-eating dragon. Mary gave up public preaching and became an anchoress, living a life of prayer and "meditation in a remote cave". (2) Although the story of the missionary travels of Mary and Martha was a legend and not "history" in the modern sense, it nevertheless points to the neglected reality that women have enacted missionary vocations since the time of Jesus Christ.

In the history of North American Christianity, mission work was the major way in which 20th-century women engaged in ministry. In the early 1900s, over three million lay women belonged to over forty different denominational missionary societies, thus making missions the largest grassroots movement of North American women. Around the time of world war I, the United States overtook the United Kingdom as the largest provider of Protestant foreign missionaries in the world. This expansion of the American mission force in the early 20th century coincided with an increase in women missionaries, so that by 1916 women constituted 62% of American missionaries. (3) Throughout the 20th century North Americans made up the largest body of cross-cultural missionaries, and a substantial majority of these formally appointed mission personnel were female.

Yet, despite the precedents in scripture, Christian tradition, and women's roles in the expansion of Christianity over the last century, insufficient attention is paid today to the mission theories and contributions of women. Appalling ignorance of their own rich mission legacy characterizes "mainline" churches. In theologically conservative denominations, on the other hand, the roles of women in mission can be lightning rods for dissent over the larger role of women in church leadership. In this paper I will speculate on why the topic of women and mission was neglected in missiological circles in the late 20th century, and why global realities demand that issues of gender be reintroduced into broader discussions on the meaning and future of Christian mission.

I. Where are women in missiological analysis?

Every January, the International Bulletin of Missionary Research publishes the highly regarded "Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission" by David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson. This statistical tour de force, based on information supplied by informants around the world, and meticulously compiled by skilful researchers, has become the benchmark for analysing trends in world mission. For example, the 30 June 2003 cover story in Time magazine, "Should Christians Convert Muslims?", relied on the database of Barrett and Johnson. Not only are long and short term trends in mission updated regularly, but Barrett and Johnson analyse their information in numerous ways: geographic regions, population by religion, categories of Christians, "ecclesiastical megablocs", national and alien Christian workers, finance, numbers of computers in use, Christian literature, distribution of scriptures, urban mission, Christian broadcasting, and more. …