The Importance of Women in Missionary Work

How do Paul’s remarks about women (e.g., 1 Cor 11, 14; 1 Tim 2; Titus 1) apply to the mission field? Women are more than “missionary wives”; they are missionaries! However, a gender divide among missionaries (part 1) exists in part because of subtle assumptions that marginalize women’s roles in ministry (part 2).

In short, people use the Bible’s silence to silence women.

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In this third and final post, we consider a few possible applications. I take a “minimalist” view such that a middle ground respects the legitimate observations of disagreeing interpreters. In this way, Paul suggests liberty with limits.

The first section addresses a few ways that women missionaries can serve (but that more conservative types might disapprove). Second, I’ll comment on doing ministry among women in East Asia.

(For context, see my first post where I note recent examples of problems concerning women on the mission field.)

Can women write? Yes!

Women can, should, and need to write books, articles, and curriculum.

This contribution is not possible using the restrictive views of some. For instance, it was 10 years ago when Sherri Klouda was let go from SWBTS because the school’s president personally didn’t think a woman should teach Hebrew. The logic went something like this, either:

  • Women should not teach men (within the church) and so a Hebrew professor would inevitably teach male students about the Bible.

or

  • people who teach pastors should themselves qualify as pastors

In either case, such reasoning also forbids women from writing books and articles that men would use.

Southern Baptist seminaries are not known for hiring many women faculty, but Lisa Hoff is a noteworthy exception. She wrote an instructive chapter on Chinese Christianity in John Mark Terry’s Missiology; also she has another work forthcoming titled Urban Chinese Women and the Missional Challenge. She has an excellent reputation among people in East Asia.

Christine Dillon’s book Telling the Gospel through Story and blog are also helpful for missionaries who work among oral peoples. She has previously guest written on this blog.

Can Women Lead Teams?

When denominations or organization think women should not pastor churches, a natural question follows, “Can they lead a city or ministry team?” Under a minimalist reading of 1 Tim 3 and elsewhere, there is no reason to restrict it. Yet, an organization’s more conservative views subtly limit the roles assigned to women, not granting them significant leadership positions. After all, missionary teams themselves are not churches.

In Acts, Priscilla is an exemplar for this type of female influencer. Acts 18:26 gives her place of prominence in training Apollos. Luke writes,

“[Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

The reversal of name order gives Priscilla unusual status for a woman in that culture.

Attend Seminary? Form Partnerships?

If missionaries do not think women ought to be pastors, should they train female pastors? For anyone serving in China, the question might at first sound laughable. Most churches have female leadership. If you don’t train them, you won’t train many people at all.

However, related issues persist even among strong conservatives. I’ve recounted in my first post that the fierce debate broke about whether our school should allow women to take “preaching” rather than “teaching” classes. Another way such thinking can manifest is in recruiting teachers or in forming partnerships with churches that have female leaders.

First things first––seminaries are not churches. They do not “ordain” pastors. Also, partnership does not mean we approve of everything someone else does.

Since I take a take a minimalist view of the text, I have no problems teaching women in the seminary even though I don’t think the text endorses women pastors. One of the major misspeaks around occurs when people ask whether you affirm “women in ministry.” Of course, we should! However, “women in ministry” is far broader than saying “women in the pastorate.”

With respect of female pastors, our seminary is complementarian but welcomes female church leaders for two reasons. First, we would rather train them than they not have sound teaching. We at least want their churches to flourish, even if we disagree about this one issue. Second, you can’t persuade those with whom you don’t teach or have a relationship.

Stop Speaking from Both Sides of Your Mouth

I conclude with a message to my conservative friends: If you affirm that women are important to the mission effort, then give them strategic roles! Give them the same training opportunities you give men. Each is a missionary.

At the same time, if a mom wants and needs to focus more on your children than nationals, then bless that effort and don’t add undue pressure to “produce numbers” as though she were giving her full attention to local ministry tasks.

In reality, many women who for a season focus on their children’s’ needs will gain the practical wisdom to help any missions ministry to flourish.

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