Unnamed Women of the Bible

Questions for the post: Are there unnamed women in your church? Are their ministries made known? Are names made known? Furthermore, is there a silencing of the ministry of women in the history of the church in your pulpit and in your Bible/education classes? Put together, while many today decry the unnamed women of the Bible, is there a vibrant and viable presence of women in your church? Are we continuing the “unnaming” by a “silencing”?

From CBE’s newsletter. There’s an issue here. It is not that there are both unnamed men and unnamed women in the Bible, but that there are too many unnamed women. And this tradition has continued, and JoAnn Shade addresses it with grace and generosity; her piece is called “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie?”

Major JoAnn Shade (DM, Ashland Theological Seminary) has served as a Salvation Army officer in the USA since 1978. She is a trained counselor, mother of three, and author of Heartwork of Hope: A Directed Journal and Seasons: A Woman’s Calling to Ministry.

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The Salvation Army in New York City recently celebrated the 125th anniversary of the opening of the work in that great city. It was quite a party and gave witness to the faithfulness of God in powerful ways. But it raised again an issue that has troubled me for a number of years: Why do we continue to refer to the seven brave women who came with Railton as the “seven hallelujah lassies”? Okay, in a pinch it may be a poetic phrase, but this is 2010, and whatever that word may have implied in 1880, my vivid imagination can only draw on my early childhood experience of Lassie, the adorable collie who kept getting lost.

These “lassies” are seven women who left their homes, their families, and everything that was familiar to cross the ocean in hopes of spreading the gospel. They are seven women who have names. Except that it’s difficult to find them. Sixty minutes on the internet could not locate their names. They are unnamed in Soldier Saint, a biography of George Scott Railton, who accompanied them to New York, nor are they named in Red-Hot and Righteous, Diane Winston’s work on the urban religion of The Salvation Army. Edward McKinley names one in Marching to Glory—Emma Westbrook—and describes the group as “stalwart women with great heart but little ability”(15). It finally took an email to the archives in London to find them. So for the record, in recognition of their personhood, the women who came to US shores in 1880 were Alice Coleman, Rachel Evans, Emma Elizabeth Florence Morris, Elizabeth Pearson, Clara Price, Annie Shaw, and Emma Westbrook.

It could be presumed that the lack of naming of these women has been simply a historical oversight, but if so, there have been too many historical oversights in the course of the history of our faith, beginning with the Scriptures. Jephthah’s daughter (Judg. 11), the woman who was a concubine (Judg. 19), the woman at the well (John 4), the woman taken in adultery (John 8), the woman with an issue of blood (Matt. 9), and the woman in Simon’s house (Mark 14), are only a few of the many unnamed women in the Bible.

Yet unnamed women are not confined to the pages of history. There are unnamed women in our contemporary world as well: the female babies aborted daily in China simply because of their gender, the women being sold into prostitution and sexual slavery, and yes, the prostitutes on the street corners and the women who have been bumped off the welfare rolls in our own communities.

Yet these women do have names. While they may not have been considered noteworthy enough to be recorded in the Scripture, each woman has a name. Even women who are forced to abort their daughters give them a name. And sex slaves, prostitutes, and poor women all have names as well. As such, their names are known to the God of the universe, the shepherd who cares for his sheep. As the chorus writer reminds us:

He cannot forget me, though trials beset me,
Forever his promise shall stand,
He cannot forget me, though trials beset me,
My name’s on the palm of his hand.
(SASB 125)

While I may not be able to change the historical records of The Salvation Army, I can remember that George did not come alone to the shores of the US, but was accompanied by Alice, Rachel, Emma, Elizabeth, Clara, Annie, and Emma. I can honor the memory of the unnamed women in the Scriptures by telling their stories. And I can respect my brothers and sisters enough to speak their names, whether in the pew or the soup-line, as those who are created in the image of God and held close to his heart. For the gift of a name bestows both identity and regard upon another, and I can choose to live in such a way that the names of God’s children are cherished and preserved.

O concubine of Ephraim,
No name is ever wholly forgotten.

Your mother’s lips brushed identity upon being.
A fragile vase, auctioned to the highest bidder,
Stripped naked of dignity.
Yet your name whispers gently.
I know you.
(see Judg. 19)

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  • James Petticrew

    Amen to that!
    I remember reading Stephen Neil’s “A History of Christian Missions” and if I remember right he managed to tell the whole story without mentioning women despite their predominance in contemporary mission activity and huge significance historically.

  • Diane

    Like James, I also say amen.

  • Ben Wheaton

    JoAnn Shade is condemning Scripture? Yikes.

  • Our church has no problem identifying women and their accomplishments, though I like to think we have bigger fish to fry than identifying accomplishments.

    I’m not sure what it means to say that there are too many unnamed women in the bible. There were plenty of unnamed men too, and it does not really impact the meaning for me. I don’t see how we illuminate the gospel, or history, by fretting over pronouns and colloquialisms.

    It is well known that women were instrumental in the creation and perpetuation of the Salvation army. This almost certainly owes to the fact that they are, collectively, identified as women.

  • I would respectfully disagree with Kevin. There is certainly a correct sense in which the woman who had been bleeding and the man who was 1 of 10 lepers healed are both anonymous, and need not be named to be understood. But there is also the problem today as then that women have been undervalued in many, if not most societies. Christian society is no exception, unfortunately.

    The Christian corrective to that is to acknowledge women as equally valuable before God in the Kingdom. That corrective, I think, requires the church to be deliberate about acknowledging the contributions that women make, and affirming often Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female (Gal 3:28). If we aren’t lifting up women by acknowledging how God is using them, I think we inevitably fall into the old cultural habit of overlooking them, and the church begins to look and act like something less revolutionary than Christ intended it to be.

  • @Charlie,

    The author is saying that the bible is incomplete by virtue of failing to name women. If the bible refers to both genders indeterminately, then this is a non-issue.

    Evoking abortion in China is downright strange in this context. If we agree that abortion is an atrocity, the question of gender selection seems trifling by comparison. The CBE has hardly been an advocate for the unborn.

    If women are being ignored, or neglected, or even aggregated, then let’s stop the practice. But I’m not sure that’s the case.

  • Don Johnson

    My take is God inspired Scripture to contain what is needed for one’s faith. So if it is not in there, it is not required to know (yet, we might find out by other means) and yes, I know that some books of the Bible are actually anonymous and it is (only) tradition that assigns them their names.

  • James Petticrew

    If women are being ignored, or neglected, or even aggregated, then let’s stop the practice. But I’m not sure that’s the case. … If a well respected scholar can record the history of the mission of the church and not mention a single woman and the book be published it is the case.

  • I think many are missing the point, which is the devaluing and marginalization of women. Let’s not focus on the whys of Scriptural silence, but the point that is being made. It is the case that women are often relegated to positions of lesser authority.

    Scot, you ask, “Are there unnamed women in your church? Are their ministries made known? Are names made known? Furthermore, is there a silencing of the ministry of women in the history of the church in your pulpit and in your Bible/education classes? Put together, while many today decry the unnamed women of the Bible, is there a vibrant and viable presence of women in your church? Are we continuing the “unnaming” by a “silencing”?”

    I can only speak of my experiences. Let me give you a recent example. A new marriage and family Sunday school class has begun. It’s advertising says it will be led by a Pastor so and so (let’s call him Jim) with his wife (let’s call her Mary). So it said the class will be taught by Pastor Jim Smith with Mary Smith. My initial thought was, why not just say Pastor Jim and Mary Smith? Why does she have to be a “with” as if she is an appendage? Of course, it is because “men are the leaders” and she is “his helper.” Is this a devaluing and marginalization? Yes. Is there a viable and vibrant presence of women in my church? Yes – but only in the children’s and women’s ministries.

  • Sue G

    If babies are being aborted, it is a sin. If more babies are being aborted specifically because they are female, and it is because of their femaleness especially that they are unwanted, then it is a double sin. If people’s contributions are being ignored specifically because of their gender – or because we’re used to ignoring contributions because of gender – then that also is sinful. If you don’t think so, I think you might consider whether you are part of the problem. Imagine if the entire history of your denomination were told only by listing the contributions of its women – that’d be silly, right?

  • Spiritual Director

    Before our congregation became intentional about the inclusion of women in public worship, I (female) can remember two different pleas to the entire congregation. “If you are tired of seeing the same people serving communion, leading prayer, (etc), please let us know if you are willing to help – we need more help”. We women could “pass” the communion sideways but not standing up. An a capella worship community, we would have a small gathering on Sunday nights. Several times, indicating the lack of planning and sensitivity, a man would stand up and say, “Is there a song leader to lead the singing tonight?” One night I’d had my limit and told my husband (an elder) that, if I heard that said again, I would walk to the front and say, “I can lead the singing – and without a pitch pipe!” It’s amazing how, in the last ten years of inclusion, the congregation has grown in devotion and love that transcends “doing”, prayers that exhibit depth and tenderness with the acceptance of women’s gifts and voices.

  • For the record, if women aren’t allowed to lead music ministries and such, that is clearly not mandated by scripture. I haven’t heard of many churches for which that is the case, but if it is so, it is wrong.

  • Kay

    @12, seems you’re unaware of the second largest denomination in the U.S.A. – Southern Baptists.

  • The SBC only forbids women to join the pastorate. If individual churches forbid women to lead other ministries within the church, then they are going on their own.

  • N. P. L.

    Scot asked a very direct question: is the ministry of women being silenced in the church, in the pulpit, in Christian Education Classes? In some places, no, but in the vast majority of the church, the answer is a very clear yes. We are restricted on many levels, being referred to as ‘appendages,’ as Kate clearly expressed above. ‘With’ instead of ‘and’ is a clear indicator that ‘equal at the foot of the cross’ is not yet accepted; exceptions are made everyday. In my first theology class, my professor taught that women should not be involved in passing on the faith, except that the prof’s grandmother introduced him to faith in Jesus Christ. So many inconsistencies. The Lausanne Global Conversation that just convened called for the ‘Whole church to go to the whole world.’ Until women are fully included with no restrictions and not silence, the whole church cannot go. It is one of the major issues holding back the gospel, in my opinion. I have been an unemployed pastor for 17 months now, called to the ministry of the church. It’s been made very clear that if I were a man, I would now have a position. For now, this woman’s ministry has been silenced.

  • I must now add an update… the woman who ran our children’s ministry has this week been replaced by a man. They say she wanted to help her husband get his business of the ground. Who knows. And for the record, although there are 6 volunteer women who are leading the women’s ministry, they are UNDER the direction of a male pastor who is in charge of adult discipleship. BTW, he is the same pastor that is running the marriage and family ministry… with his wife. Sigh…..

    Sorry, N.L.P. I pray that you find a place where your gifts are welcome and valued.

  • Adele Hebert

    What a wonderful article!!! The author is so right in addressing the issue of women not being named in the bible, as well as today’s women; there are only 180 women’s names in the bible, and approx 1200 men’s names. It is still a patriarchal world; women still live in poverty, 99% of the world’s real estate is owned by men, countless baby girls who are aborted, millions kidnapped into prostitution, and they are still silenced and invisible in the churches. I, too, honor the unnamed women of the bible; they are there for a reason.