by Stan Guthrie
Women have always been the backbone of the missionary effort.
It was February, 1991. Jeanine Brabon, an OMS International missionary and a professor of Old Testament at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia, Medellin, had heard of a revival among the assassins and terrorists in Medellin’s notorious Bellavista National Jail. This was the facility where inmates had played soccer with a human skull. A former inmate, Oscar Osorio, had been changed by Jesus Christ, and he invited Brabon to come see the revival there firsthand. Intrigued, but not sure what lay ahead, Brabon accepted.
Osorio, now the prison chaplain, met her downtown the next day and drove her to Bellavista (which means "beautiful view"). On the way, he asked her to preach to the inmates. "Who, uh, is my audience?" she asked. "Sicarios and terrorists," he replied. (In Colombia’s drug-warped society, a sicario is a hired gun.)
"Okay," Brabon said, "I’ll do it."
When the two arrived, Brabon, the object of curiosity from the guards, had to undergo the customary body search and fingerprinting. Soon it was over, though, and they entered the locked area where the inmates lived. Immediately the smell of human waste, body odor, and rotten food assaulted them.
Fighting her fear, Brabon preached on God’s mercy and then sat down. As she watched, 23 of the inmates, their formerly hardened faces drenched with tears, came forward to pray for salvation.
Continuing in her prison ministry, Brabon has been instrumental in applying her academic expertise in the founding of the Bellavista Bible Institute, a seminary behind prison walls from which scores have graduated.
Role Expectations. Women have always been the backbone of the missionary effort. Mary Slessor in Nigeria, Rosalind Goforth in India, Gladys Aylward in China, Helen Roseveare in the Congo, Rachel Saint in Ecuador, Betty Stam in China, Lilias Trotter with Muslims, and Joy Ridderhof with Gospel Recordings are just some of the better-known women who have served in God’s world outreach. Countless others have served just as faithfully, but less conspicuously. Women will continue providing their incalculable contributions in the third millennium, just as they did in the first two. However, the expectations of their roles are changing, thanks in no small part to the feminist movement that began in the U.S. in the 1960s.
The evangelical church, consciously or not, has never been immune to cultural influences. Missions does not occur in a vacuum. Attitudes toward wealth, poverty, religious pluralism, even homosexuality, have all been affected by the thinking of the larger society. Christians have been forced to reexamine their beliefs, and what Scripture really teaches, in light of these powerful cultural influences. Women’s roles are no different.
Like just about everything else, there is good and bad news here. In the secular arena, the feminist movement has brought women remarkable gains that evangelicals would be hard-pressed to deny, including better pay, less discrimination, and more opportunities. The revolution brought on by the Betty Friedans, Gloria Steinems, and Bella Abzugs of this world has also brought us more sexual promiscuity, more divorce, and more day care. Talk of a "glass ceiling" for women has filtered down from the business world to the missions world. While little is heard about a "glass ceiling" per se in missions, there is much talk about exercising one’s spiritual gifts or being allowed to respond to God’s call. In years past, most women in the United States aspired to the traditional roles of wife, mother, and homemaker. Now many women, if they still seek these roles, want them in addition to professional goals, which in years past have been the province of men.
And make no mistake-despite the historical examples of the women listed above and the biblical record of women like Priscilla, Lydia, Euodia, and Syntyche-missions has been mostly a male province, at least when it comes to decision making. And, with a few exceptions, it still is. Of the member agencies of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, for example, not one has a female CEO, even though 53.5 percent of the IFMA missionaries from the U.S. (and 55.7 percent from Canada) are women. The IFMA, however, does have a female president-Susan Perlman, an executive with the San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus.
At a missions conference several years ago, Jim Reapsome and eight other leaders in missions fielded "the toughest questions you can imagine" from churchgoers. On the last day, someone got up and asked, "Why are there no women on the panel? Women do make up two-thirds of the missionary force."
Reapsome said later, "We felt as if we had been caught with our hands in the cookie jar."
Such questions are being asked more and more frequently, and with some effect. Gary Corwin, the editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly, was at a study group examining the history of women in missions in which some of these issues were aired.
"… for the first time I was part of a meeting in which several talented and capable women spoke poignantly to the issues of women in missions without feminist stridency on the one hand, or passive, if sometimes unenthusiastic, acceptance of the status quo on the other," he writes. "This group made itself vulnerable through transparency, frequently revealing pain without bitterness."
Perlman speaks as a decision-making leader in her organization, with significant experience designing national ad campaigns and working with other professionals in major media outlets.
Women, she said, "sometimes have to meet a higher standard than their male counterparts to be considered for such positions. Or, they tend to have to prove themselves over a longer trial period. It’s not all that different than what it takes for women in any profession that has traditionally been male-dominated to find acceptance."
Karen Carr is a nurse who founded a ministry to help missionaries facing crisis situations. "My experience as a woman leading workshops within the evangelical missions community has been that there is a small minority of men who are not open to the leadership of women," she said. "I’ve had several who have said that in the beginning of the workshop they were skeptical that they could learn anything from a woman, but by the end . . . they had changed their minds."
Laurel Cocks, who has coordinated workshops for women missionaries with Greater Europe Mission, has stated, "Interest in issues of women in missions has waxed and waned over the years. Now I am observing another wave of interest in women’s issues-even a groundswell, as one woman described it to me a few weeks ago."
There are several reasons for the skepticism, of course. Perlman, as one who out of conviction holds to no gender barriers to leadership, puts them in a nutshell: "The barriers that are there are, sadly, ones of either holding to convention, of insecurity of those who hold power in existing structures, or of those who, while sincere, have a faulty understanding of Scripture."
Oh yes, Scripture-the elephant in the living room of the debate.
Grappling with the Bible. While God’s Word has not changed, interpretations of its meaning sometimes do. This includes the touchy subject of women’s roles. But evangelicals, who are heirs of the Protestant Reformation, are not allowed to simply disregard what the Bible says when it goes out of fashion in the larger culture. As Clark Pinnock noted in his classic book, Biblical Revelation, "Scripture is a gift of God for the good of His church and gospel, a gift well suited to the needs of sinful man."
To some extent, however, new understandings of the text are inevitable, even healthy. William Carey, for example, battled hard against the entrenched hyper-Calvinism of his day that saw the Great Commission as given only to the apostles. Yet time-honored interpretations of the Bible have been around for a reason and deserve at least the benefit of the doubt. This includes the traditional view of women’s roles.
While this is not the place for an extended discussion on what the Bible says on the subject, a summary of the two basic positions will help to put the missions angle in sharper focus, allowing readers to look at other sources and make up their own minds (if they haven’t already).
The traditional view, sometimes called complementarianism, holds that men and women, both made in the image of God, are equal in dignity and worth (Gen. 1:27). Yet they have different, interdependent, and complementary roles (1 Cor. 11:11-12). The man is, generally, the head of the woman (1 Cor. 11:7-9), called to lead, while the woman is to be his helper (Gen. 2:20). In Christian marriage, wives are to submit to their husbands, as the church does to Christ (Eph. 5:22-24, 1 Pet. 3:1-2), while husbands are to love their wives, giving up their lives for their wives to help in their sanctification (Eph. 5:25-31). In the church, women and men each receive spiritual gifts for the edification and empowering of the church (1 Cor. 12, Acts 2). Yet women are not permitted to be elders in the church or "to teach or have authority over a man" because of Adam’s priority (1 Tim. 2:11-14).
The newer view, which is sometimes called Christian feminism, agrees that men and women are of equal dignity, but it goes a step farther. Leaning heavily on a rather literal interpretation of Galatians 3:28- "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"-it argues that gender roles have been obliterated at the cross and supplanted by the freedom that Christ brings. Proponents sometimes say that male headship was instituted at the Fall of mankind (Gen. 3:16), and that it no longer applies to a redeemed community. Christians, they say, must be free to exercise their God-given spiritual gifts without restriction; those whom God calls to lead, both male and female, must be permitted to do so for the church to fulfill its task (1 Cor. 12:7). They point to Christian women such as Priscilla (Acts 18, Rom. 16:3) as evidence that women held leadership positions in the early church. They also point to the successful ministries of women leaders and pointedly ask whether it is God’s will that these be halted.
Problematic passages on the roles of women by Paul and Peter are sometimes said to speak only to specific cultural conditions at the time of writing, conditions that no longer exist. Paul’s prohibition against women teaching men, for example, is said to involve only certain domineering women in the church of Ephesus. Paul’s commands for women to be silent in church and cover their heads are seen as reflective of cultural practice but not binding on believers today (1 Cor. 11:1-16).
Field Reports. The debate is far from academic, as many Christians have been forced to choose sides. The subject goes beyond whether Bible translations ought to have "gender neutral" language. Indeed, the question is critical as the missions movement enters the new millennium. Questions on the roles of women in church and in the home go to the heart of what kind of churches are being planted and what kind of theology is being exported, especially in areas where feminism is not yet so pervasive.
Upholding the traditional view is the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Advocating the newer view is an organization called Christians for Biblical Equality. What impact have such groups had on the missions enterprise?
"Little, I think," Perlman said. "Mostly I think they’re preaching to their respective choirs. Significant change comes from the grass roots up. It’s far more important to see what is happening on the mission field itself."
The view is a bit cloudy at the moment, with opportunities for women increasing; however, there is evidence, at least in some areas, of something of a traditionalist backlash. The IFMA’s Orme says increasing numbers of women are on field committees that determine mission policy in their areas of ministry, and that "a few" have been serious candidates to be field leaders. In addition, he says, a few have been named chief financial officers and personnel directors of agencies.
Women are getting increasingly prominent roles in missions. Phyllis Kilbourn and Marjorie McDermid have launched a ministry, called Rainbows of Hope, to children in crisis. In February, the Christian Information Network hosted the second "Women’s Summit on the Window," with speakers and delegates from around the world to strategize about the "10/40 Window." Besa Shapllo of Albania has started a ministry offering backyard kids clubs and summer camps. Barbara Gouldsbury, an SIM missionary from New Zealand, has organized a school for runaways in Khartoum.
Even complementarians sometimes agree with expanded roles for women. Janey DeMeo, a missionary who teaches at a theological institute in France and directs an orphanage in India, holds a complementarian position that says a woman may teach or even run an agency as long as she is submitted to a local church (and husband, if married) and is not exercising spiritual authority over men.
"Women nowadays are far freer to develop diverse roles in missions and are given more liberty to explore their gifts and potential without being so stoically limited within the framework of a concept," she said. "Women are venturing into new avenues in missions."
Yet even as opportunities for women are beginning to open up, other women "on the field" are embracing the more traditional roles. The influence of organizations such as Focus on the Family, which extol the contributions of wives and mothers and warn of the potentially bad consequences of neglecting children, evidently is having an effect.
Cheryl Barton, a Church of God (Anderson, Ind.) missionary to Japan who holds to an egalitarian position on women’s roles, has seen a shift. "… there seems to be a return to an earlier era when women were expected to remain in the home to care for husband and children, and ministry was to be done by men," Barton said. "This ‘return’ is being experienced in the Southern Baptist mission in Japan. .. And, even within our own mission, we are finding that new missionaries have this ‘old’ perspective on women’s roles. It has completely caught me off guard, especially since I come from a group that, from its earliest days, had ministers of both sexes, ordained both, and recognized God’s call to ministry upon the full body, irrespective of gender."
Such disputes, inevitably, have an effect on the churches and agencies that missionaries work and interact with overseas. In many areas of the world outside the West, however, women face more immediate issues than whether they can lead in churches and missions agencies. They are more worried about supporting their families on meager wages, responding to physical abuse from their husbands, or being heard in society. While to some the women-in-leader-ship debate can appear to be a godsend, to others it seems beside the point, or even an intrusion.
Burkina Faso media leader. Of course, women overseas continue to take leading roles in building up the church, too. Joanna Ilboudo was a third-year Burkina Faso university student in 1983. During a Christian women’s conference, some women from Nigeria were scheduled to come and teach their Burkinabe counterparts from the Word of God. But as sometimes happens in West Africa, unexpected problems prevented the Nigerian ladies from coming. The conference leaders asked the disappointed local women to pray for an area pastor to come and teach instead.
As Ilboudo was praying, she wondered why none of the women there were qualified to take over. The question arose in her heart: "Why do we always have to go to other countries to find women to come and teach us?"
Right then Ilboudo knew she wanted to be trained to serve the Lord in Burkina Faso, where the average annual income per person is around $310 and the literacy rate is an estimated 21 percent.
There may not be even 20 books written by national Christians. Ilboudo, who started her career as a high school French teacher with a flair for writing, estimates that 99 of every 100 titles in Christian book shops are written from outside the country. Again the question: Why can’t people in Burkina Faso do it?
In December, 1990, Ilboudo talked to the leaders of her church, the Assemblies of God, about her dream. "The church is growing, so we need a Christian magazine for the people, the church, and even for those who are not Christians," she said. "We shouldn’t leave the place empty for all these secular magazines." The leaders demurred, saying, "Literature is costly, and it’s not our priority."
With the support of her husband Florent, Ilboudo, ever soft-spoken and polite, pressed ahead, using part of her teaching salary to subsidize the launch of an eight-page magazine called Contact. She started small. The first print run, in 1992, was a mere 500 copies, minuscule for Ouagadougou, the capital city and home to 634,000 people.
Today, Contact, published 10 times a year, has 2,000 readers through church distribution and sales in supermarkets. That might not sound like much, but Ilboudo points out that Contact is the seventh most widely read magazine in the capital.
"We have to come up with topics which sometimes are not dealt with even in churches," she said. "People don’t want to speak about issues such as sex and occultism. It’s a dangerous thing. When we give a Christian point of view of political situations, it’s not an easy thing to do."
Knowing her interest in communications, the founders of a Christian radio station in the capital asked Ilboudo to produce a women’s program. It has since evolved into a family program, and Ilboudo not only is the producer, but the general director for the station. She also runs three other stations-in Bobo-Dioulasso, Ouahigouya, and Leo-and is attempting to link them into a network receiving satellite feeds from Trans World Radio. The hope is to be able to broadcast the gospel into other areas of West Africa via shortwave. The station in Ouagadougou, incidentally, is the third most popular FM broadcaster in the city.
"I can teach many women on the radio, and it is more than in a church," she said. "My programs are taken into the other cities, so my vision of teaching women is accomplished, I think."
Cultural considerations. For other women without such opportunities, the vision, if there is one, can simply be survival. Many women around the world face deadly discrimination. Unborn girls are aborted almost routinely in China and India just because of their sex. Even in areas where violence against women is illegal, societies can keep culturally sanctioned homicide firmly in place. "Honor killings," dowry deaths, acid attacks, and female infanticide are among the horrors. In India, 10,000 cases of female infanticide are reported annually, while 6,000 dowry deaths were reported in 1997.
The United Nations says Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh are particularly egregious offenders when it comes to tolerating violence against women. "There’s violence everywhere; there’s gender discrimination everywhere," stated Carol Bellamy, who directs UNICEF. "But South Asia, when we assign people there, they come back raving feminists in six months."
Tokunboh Adeyemo, a native of Nigeria and resident of Kenya, is general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals in Africa. He says that although women do most of the evangelism and missions work on the continent, they are "at the bottom of the pile" when it comes to training.
"We want to reverse that," Adeyemo said. "The question in Africa is not the ordination of men or the ordination of women, as the case is in the West. Women are not asking for ordination. They are asking for recognition of their gifts from God. They want opportunities to minister and use their gifts."
Barton agrees. "We must be careful not to force our culture upon other cultures," she said. "If we do, we run the risk of losing the privilege to be heard. . . . we must consistently share our ‘light,’ but allow the people with whom we’re working time to accept. Sometimes they will reject. In such a case,… I then may have to look elsewhere for a group that will accept me and my giftedness in ministry, missions, (and) leadership."
The search for middle ground. At an April, 1996, World Evangelical Fellowship Theological Commission consultation in London on issues facing the church in the 21st century, a mixed working group came up with a statement meant to guide the worldwide church on the subject. Among its recommendations: "We recommend further theological and biblical reflection on gender issues by evangelical men and women. The lack of adequate theological resources has limited those working against abuses and exploitation of females."
Is finding middle ground on such a contentious issue still possible? Corwin, a missionary with SIM, says No-without a change of heart from both sides. "Yes, there are important biblical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical issues that must be addressed and resolved if any kind of permanent peace is ever to exist over these matters," Corwin said. "But. . . there must first be repentance and forgiveness between the sexes before we can fruitfully address the underlying issues."
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