Women in Mission
Dr. Laji Paul
History records the lives of Christian women who by implicit trust and obedience to God have impacted global missions. It is important to know about their lives and celebrate their heritage.
The Bible affirms the priesthood of all believers. The Church is entrusted with the task of encouraging, equipping and empowering both men and women to fulfil the great commission. History tells us that gender has never limited God from accomplishing his purposes. He is always willing to use those available for active and responsible participation in the life and mission of the Church.
Women as mothers play a unique role in influencing the world view and faith of their children. There is no doubt that this has a long term impact for the Church. In the face of rejection and adverse situations, several women have chosen to serve the Lord. They have impacted nations and are an inspiration for us.
This article will focus on women whom God used to advance his purpose on this earth. By making themselves available for God’s purposes, they have blessed history. Firstly, we will look at women in the Bible who made themselves available for accomplishing God’s work in their times. The role of a few women who were key and strategic in historical and modern mission will also be dealt with. The purpose is to thank God for their legacy of leadership and service to Christ and to spur women today to make themselves available for the Kingdom.
In the Old Testament we have narratives about Miriam a singer and leader. We also read about Deborah who was a married woman, a prophetess, a judge and ruler. God himself appointed her to this role. She was a courageous and forceful woman. (Judges, Chapter 5). The Bible also talks about Huldah a prophetess during King Josiah’s time and Queen Esther whom God used to deliver his people.
In Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in the gospel of John chapter 4, we see that she had the revelation that Jesus was the Christ, the Saviour of the world. While his disciples were worried about food for their physical bodies, the woman was busy introducing the Messiah to her people.
Though not called to be part of the twelve apostles, several women served Jesus in his ministry. They were present at the foot of the Cross (Luke 23:49) and assisted at the burial of Christ (Luke 23:55). They were entrusted with the task of proclaiming the message of resurrection (Luke 24:1-10); and prayed with the Apostles in the upper room as they were tarrying for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14).
In the book of Acts we read about Priscilla, a woman of Jewish faith, and a native of the eastern area of Asia Minor. She lived with her husband Aquila in Rome and was used by God to touch the life of Apollos and several other believers’ in Rome, and Asia Minor.
Early Christianity and Middle Ages
Historian Peter Brown in his book, Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World (Cambridge, 1995), states that Christian women in the Roman world through their work and service had a ready platform of interaction with the society. Thus, they were able to influence various groups of people leading to the expansion of Christianity.
Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey in his book History of Christianity (Penguin, 2012) is also of the opinion that women probably comprised the majority in early Christianity and played and prominent role in the church. According to him the early church’s informal and flexible organization opened doors for women to take up significant roles
The high middle ages (800-1299 AD) records the narratives of several women who were committed to the cause of the Kingdom and were willing to pay the price of God’s call on their lives. One such example in the 7th century is Hilda Abbess of North Eastern England. She was a missionary teacher and educator and led a large community of men and women in Bible studies, preparing them for God's service. Several of her students rose to leadership positions in the Church and played a significant role in advancing God’s purposes during their times.
In the early missionary movement during the early modern era (1720-1906), women were instrumental in Bible translation projects, educational and medical service. Lay women in America in the 1800’s have organized mission societies. In 1869 women from the Methodist church organized the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society. Both these societies sent missionaries and Bible women evangelists to minister to the migrants and the urban poor. Several opted to serve the Lord in overseas mission.
The Methodist women served as the first female medical missionaries in India and China. In addition to providing essential services to women and children, they opposed evil practices prevalent in these nations like female infanticide, child marriages and foot binding. In Africa, they sheltered girls fleeing forced marriages and rescued abandoned children.
Many women missionaries served as trained social workers in Asia, Africa and even in America. In rural areas they ran child welfare clinics and in cities they established kindergartens and social service centres. These served as effective platforms to proclaim the gospel both in word and deed. As a result many were led to the saving knowledge of Jesus.
One of the finest colleges in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh – Isabella Thoburn College and the largest women’s college in Asia – Ewha Women’s University in Korea, was their contribution to the field of education.
The mission magazine published by the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society was instrumental in impacting several young men like John R. Mott who were key leaders of global mission.
Another important missionary role for women has been the “Bible woman.” Initially they served as evangelists ministering among women and teaching them to read the Bible. Even today we have several Bible women in India and Asian countries who serve as pioneer missionaries in ministry around the world. They are effective because of their commitment and passion for the Kingdom.
Dora Yu, a Chinese believer is an example of one who served as a Bible woman and was a medical doctor. Her ministry involved house visiting, evangelism, ministering to poor children and attending to female patients. Her love for the Lord and passion for the Kingdom resulted in several lives being impacted with the gospel. She along with Mrs. Josephine Campbell served as the first female missionaries from the Southern Methodist Church in Korea in 1897.
Women leaders in the Church in China
By 1870’s there were several single women missionaries from the West who decided to dedicate themselves to reach China. Most of these were women who lost their husbands to the tragic Civil war in America. These missionaries established girls’ schools, evangelised and provided pastoral care for women in their homes, and also empowered them with vocational skills. Most of these missionaries were medically-trained. They were the gateways to the most difficult and anti-Christian areas where they, because of their love and passion for service, led hundreds of Chinese women to the Lord. No wonder that 70% of the Chinese Christian population are women. God used them to advance his kingdom in China.
Dora Yu was one such person who was anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit and was instrumental in leading Watchman Nee and Witness Lee to the Lord.
Lu Xiaomin, who is widely known as Sister Ruth had a great influence on the rapid growth of the Church in China. She was led to the Lord through her aunt. She has written 900 Chinese hymns which has blessed the underground house church movements.
Christiana Tsai was another such leader whom God used to launch the Chinese Home Missionary Society. This society provided the platform for several evangelists, both men and women, to travel to remote parts of China with the gospel.
Several such women were trained and employed as ‘Bible women’. Although most of them were only semi-literate, much of the Bible training was done orally. Amazingly, even today women make up a good number of the harvest force in China.
Back to Jerusalem Movement
In the 1940’s, Christians in China began to get a burden for taking the gospel “back to Jerusalem.” They believe that the ‘Back to Jerusalem Movement’ is a call from God for the Chinese church to preach the gospel and establish fellowships of believers in all countries, cities, towns, and ethnic groups between China and Jerusalem. The first mission team comprised of five young women evangelists who set out to the western border of China. There were several such networks of women who survived persecution. Even though they were prevented from going to regions beyond, they went on to develop large movements of disciples in various parts of their nation.
Mission in Korea
The history of the Korean church informs us about the impact of the “Bible Women of Korea” who travelled as itinerant teachers. Dorcas Kim Kang was one such “Bible woman” who was entrusted with the responsibility of evangelism and pastoral care. Sam Tok was another such Bible woman who won more than 600 people to the Lord. There were several such women who were faithful and diligent in their task and contributed to the Church growth story of the Korea.
David Yonggi Cho, Senior Pastor of the Yoido church is of the opinion that women are the best choice for arduous, pioneering work. According to him women persevere in spite of challenges and discouragements.
Mission in India
Indian women in general are portrayed as inferior and oppressed but the amazing truth is that by depending on God they made an impact in their communities.
In 1854, women in India, particularly the affluent classes were secluded in Zenanas (Urdu word meaning 'inner apartments' or part of the house belonging to a Hindu or Muslim family in South Asia where the women live).
These women had no access to education and hardly interacted with the outside world. While in public they were veiled, within their homes they were segregated. It was for such people Mrs. Elizabeth Sale had a burden when as a missionary she was granted access to a Zenana in Jessore. In spite of the various challenges, she began meeting with the women and teaching them needlework and other crafts. As the work grew the Baptist Zenana Mission (BZM) was formed which was instrumental in education and evangelism of high caste women and girls. The work of BZM spread to the neighbouring countries of China, Congo and Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka)
There are several women who have made significant contribution to advancing God’s work in India. One such story is of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), who founded the Mukti Mission in India. At the age of 12, Pandita had memorized 18,000 verses in Sanskrit and was proficient in several languages and dialects. At her young age her parents died. She and her brother were left to fend for themselves. While wandering without food and shelter, she heard about the love of Christ which transformed her life. Her famous book “The High Caste Hindu Woman,” exposed the challenges of child brides, prostitution and lack of education among women. Soon friends seeing her passion for ministering to such women helped her form the Mukti Mission which is one of the best examples of Christianity in action.
It is sad to see that in the body of Christ, women who are the most undervalued and under-utilized. The Church has a crucial role in empowering the ministry of women by affirming the Biblical truths that women are also gifted for ministry by the Holy Spirit and called to use their gifts to advance God’s Kingdom.
We could briefly mention a few of several women who have made significant contribution to mission. All these serve as a “cloud of witnesses”, and remind us that what the Lord looks for is availability and not ability. Women make up more than half of the body of Christ around the world. God expects women to make use of their God-given gifts to build up the church and their community.
India is a large nation having a population of 1.2 billion people with 4635 People groups, 456 languages, 5100 towns and 630,000 villages. Of the 639 Unreached and Unengaged People Groups (UUPG’s) with more than 100,000 in the whole world, 310 are in the nation of India which is also 71% of the world's UUPG population.
The task of the Great Commission is large and requires the gifts of all of God’s people – both male and female. However, women, with their dependency on God coupled with their skills, knowledge, intuitiveness, have a significant role to play. The pioneer spirit, dedication and faithfulness, which we see in women throughout history, can set the standard for today’s women to emulate.
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Lockyer, Herbert (1967). All the Women of the Bible, Michigan: Zondervan
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Brown, Peter (1995). Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World, Cambridge: University Press
Roy, Bhusan Benoy & Praniti Ray(1998). Zenana Mission, Delhi: ISPCK
Tucker, A. Ruth and Walter Liefield (1987). Daughters of the Church, Michigan: Zondervan
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Lausanne Documents. LOP 53. Empowering Women and Men to Use their Gifts together in Advancing the Gospel. Retrived May 20th, 2014 from http://www.lausanne.org/docs/2004forum/LOP53_IG24.pdf
Women in Mission. World Outlook Magazine. Retrived May 22nd, 2014 from http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/New-World-Outlook-Magazine/2014/March-April/0306womeninmission#sthash.eL61yX9d.dpuf