Has the Sky Changed Shape? Reflections of a Grey-haired Missionary

by Rose Dowsett

If we are to understand missions worldwide, we need to look at the role of women in God’s economy.

Every Photo Tells a Story
Beside my desk is a photograph that intrigues me greatly. It was taken at the June 1910 World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh, Scotland, the centenary of which in 2010 has inspired many events around the world.

It is a good time to reflect upon all that God has done in the past one hundred years, a century in which the Church has become global against a backdrop of turbulent world affairs. God has truly done amazing things!

Back to the photo. If you knew nothing about Edinburgh 1910, what would you see? To start with, row upon row of men, in solemn dark suits, and mostly with bald heads and/or impressive beards. You’d be hard-pressed to spot a non-northern face, although there were a tiny number of delegates who were neither European nor North American. You’d have to look very hard indeed to spot either a younger person or a woman.  

It’s the hats that give the game away. In a generation when no respectable Western woman would be seen in public, let alone in church, without a hat, a magnifying glass reveals some spectacular creations of the milliner’s art. In fact, alongside just over one thousand male official delegates there were about two hundred female official delegates. But almost no women had been invited to contribute to the extensive research and consultation process preceding the conference, and they were not expected to speak at it either. Not very subtly, most were consigned to the gallery rather than the main body of the hall.  

In many parts of the mission field at that time, women already outnumbered men by at least two to one. In some places, the ratio was higher. Like the men, they pioneered, planted churches, taught, preached, discipled, cared for the sick and the poor, prayed, sent letters back home, and wrote inspiring missionary books that influenced generations. If they were married, they often did all that and also cared for husband and children, frequently burying precious little ones and educating others. Yet, for the most part, when it came to decision-making, policy-making, leadership, or public consultations such as Edinburgh 1910, women, like children, were to “be seen and not heard.”

Another Photograph

From another photograph, taken just three years later, a slender young woman gazes out with quiet concentration and a slightly dreamy expression. Along with five other women and a chaperone, Jessie McDonald sailed from England in September 1913 for what would prove to be thirty-nine years of service in China with the China Inland Mission. Four single men, also new workers for China, sailed on a separate ship.

Jessie was Canadian, and from early childhood had believed the Lord was calling her to China. By the age of 26, as she set out on her long sea journey, she had already graduated in medicine in Toronto, pursued training in tropical medicine and surgery in Vienna and London, and done a full course of studies at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, Scotland. She may well have been the first qualified missionary woman surgeon to go to inland China. Shortly after arriving, she established a women’s hospital alongside the men’s hospital already in place in Kaifeng, including designing and overseeing the building of it and the training of national nurses.  

At the time, China was seething with revolution and the violent clashes of warlords, and awash with epidemics of typhoid, cholera, and diphtheria. It was a context to shake the nerve of the staunchest heart, but Jessie led her team with dignity and courage in the face of almost constant danger, eliciting respect and admiration from even the most powerful military and political national men in the region.

By the late 1930s Jessie was responsible for oversight of both the men’s and the women’s hospitals. Following the Japanese invasion, and the withdrawal of all westerners from Honan (now Henan), she relocated to Tali (now Dali) in Yunnan in 1940 and started all over again, once more establishing a thriving medical and surgical provision for women and children. That hospital remains to the present day, and became the first center in China to serve AIDs patients. There are still people in Dali who remember Jessie with much affection and gratitude. By 1948, she had started yet another clinic, this time in Paoshan.  

In every place where she worked, Jessie was also a Bible teacher, insisting that the best medical care she could offer needed to be integrated with fearless witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Wherever she was, she urged friends to pray urgently for the Lord to open blind eyes and soften hard hearts.  

In 1952, in the face of the Maoist revolution and when it was no longer possible for her to remain in China, Jessie reluctantly left. She had served for thirty-nine turbulent years. At an age when many people would consider retirement, Jessie joined the faculty of Biola School of Missionary Medicine, with a desire to inspire and equip another generation of young Christian men and women for medical missionary service. After an extraordinarily eventful and fruitful life, Jessie died in 1980 at the age of 92. The young woman gazing from a photograph in 1913 could have had no idea of the story that would unfold over the next sixty-seven years. She was simply setting out in obedience.  

Fast Forward to 2010
As I write, the centenary event in Edinburgh and the Third Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization Congress to be held in Cape Town haven’t yet happened, so I cannot look at photographs. Certainly, the proportion of women invited to either event is higher than the one-to-five ratio of 1910, and there will be no banishing to the gallery. Women as well as men have been invited to speak and participate in planning and preparation. Numerically, they still won’t remotely reflect the gender or ethnic demographics of the world Church in general, or of the global missionary force in particular, but they will be neither invisible nor expected to be silent.  

At one level, it really does not matter that women should be under-represented. It is the Lord who has done great things, and the honor belongs to him, not to people. Gender power struggles are ugly and sinful, and have no place among God’s people. We should repent deeply that such wars have scarred so much of the twentieth century, including the mission of the Church. Yet, if we are to understand what God has done in the last century since 1910, and what he is doing today, perhaps we need to look again at the role of women in God’s economy: not what we think he ought to have done, but what he has chosen to do. Why and how have women been so instrumental in the growth of the Church?

“Women Hold Up Half the Sky”
Jessie McDonald would probably have heard this old Chinese saying, and she certainly exemplified it. God created women as well as men in his image, and entrusted to both responsibility to look after his world. Ironically, the Chinese culture Jessie saw rarely lived up to the proverb—women were often dreadfully treated, and their work looked down upon. But Jessie was passionate that women should have access to healthcare and education, and be treated with respect and dignity, all within the framework of the love of God demonstrated and explained. Women should learn scripture, and be taught to pray and sing God’s praise.

As a result, many of those she treated and trained blossomed, some becoming competent nurses or Bible teachers, others raising healthier children or quietly testifying to the grace of the true and living God to their communities. Others modeled the power of God as they were delivered from addiction and became trustworthy mothers and diligent workers. These are the seeds from which not just individuals, but entire families, neighbors, and communities can be transformed. Changed lives, observed up close and personal, are a powerful gospel sign.  

Jessie was not unique in ministering to women. Down through the centuries there have been countless numbers of devoted women who have shared the gospel faithfully and effectively. Equally, there are many examples of men who have been respectful and supportive of women, encouraging them to use every gift God has given them. Nonetheless, at the time Jessie qualified as a doctor, very few women had (she was one of only five women students in a class of about 350), and even fewer became surgeons. Fewer still would have been allowed to run a men’s hospital or take charge of building a new one. Not only was the expectation that the women’s sphere should be domestic (or if you were a woman missionary, your work would be exclusively among women and children), but the presumption was that women were actually incapable of anything more taxing.

That presumption still casts its shadows. It is exasperating, for instance, that church and mission histories are still much more likely to feature men than women. Sometimes that is because organizational and structural leadership is still far more likely to be male than female. Indeed, some evangelicals continue to believe that this is non-negotiable in the right ordering of God’s people; others simply reflect a male-dominated culture. Where it is a matter of genuine conviction, it is still no excuse for treating able and gifted women as if they were incompetent. Godliness, wisdom, and spiritual gifting are not male preserves.  

Where Are We Now?
In some mission circles, women are still excluded from policy-making and decision-making, even when those policies and decisions profoundly affect them. This may be especially difficult for single women who have no husband through whom to channel their responses or contributions. Even in cultures with strong male domination, the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God demand that we model something counter-cultural. We are co-heirs of God’s grace, not contestants for superiority. Where women are marginalized in church or mission, God is not honored and the cause of the gospel suffers.

Sometimes, women have been strident in demanding power and authority in ways which are also contrary to God’s kingdom patterns. For both men and women, the Lord calls us to joyful and humble service of one another. To be domineering, or to grasp at power, is to live out our fallenness rather than our new life in Christ. Neither church nor mission agency should be modeled on business or secular models of leadership. In recent decades, many Christians have been seduced down that route. It is not the way of authentic Christian leadership, and women as well as men need to beware.  

Recovering Missionary Vocation for All Believers
It is difficult to read church and mission history without sensing how vital mission agencies have been through the centuries in enabling Christian women and men to take the gospel far and wide. It is fashionable to focus on the flaws and the cultural baggage, but let us never lose sight of the fact that many of the vibrant churches of the global South would not have come into being otherwise. God, in his grace, is in the business of using flawed human beings. In turn, many of these churches are now themselves the source of new mission movements. Truly, the whole Church is called to take the whole gospel to the whole world, and in this generation that is happening in ways that our forebearers in 1910 could scarcely have imagined.  

Some of these new mission movements are birthed out of poverty and weakness, or as God’s people are displaced through famine, war, or persecution. We are seeing women involved in mission in new ways. They are in the true sense of the word “missionaries,” even though they do not carry that formal label. For instance, Filipino women have for decades been going to the Middle East as maids. Their primary motivation is economic; it may be the only viable way for them to provide for their families. One woman sang Christian songs as she went about her work. That led her employer to ask her about them—and led to an opportunity for the woman to explain the gospel. In time, not only that employer, but some of her friends came quietly to faith. This story is replicated many times over, and may be one of the most effective ways of reaching into a part of the world strongly resistant to the gospel.

In the same way, Asian and African Christian nurses are bearing a vibrant witness to Christ in hospitals across Europe, a continent urgently in need of re-evangelization. A diminutive, on-fire-for-Jesus, Thai research student discipled international students from all over the world in a Scottish city, and brought new life into a local congregation. Not far away, a group of older ladies, with no previous cross-cultural experience, were so moved at the plight of asylum-seeking families that their hearts reached out to them in kindness, and became the catalyst for many Muslims—both men and women—coming to faith in Christ. In a Cape Town shanty town, amidst terrible poverty and widespread despair, a group of Christian women organized schooling for the children of the community, care for the sick, and schemes to grow vegetables. What began as a little prayer group led to action, and soon a church was born as their love made Jesus Christ visible. There are thousands of such stories that may never hit the headlines, but show how God delights to use women in effective mission.

The Love of God Takes Human Form
Mission is not just about words, important though they are, but about three-dimensional living and being, in every part of life. The Incarnation shows how fundamental it was that the Word should take on human flesh, and live as a fully recognizable human being. In many cultures, women may have many friendships where informal chat and sharing the daily rhythms of life go hand-in-hand. The gospel is profoundly relational. Maybe that’s why the Lord has used so many women in unobtrusive ways, as well as the Jessie McDonalds in a more public way, to bring others to faith in Jesus.  

And perhaps because women often notice the issues that affect women, which may be ignored or overlooked by men, they may quietly find ways of addressing them. That, in turn, can influence many other women—and transform communities. In much of the world, it is women who are key to reducing maternal and child deaths, establishing micro-enterprises to support families, and carrying the main tasks of home-making, even if they also work outside the home. It is women who socialize children and lay the foundations of the values which will shape their adulthood. Mission among women and by women is critical to the future of our world. Women really do hold up half the sky.  


Rose Dowsett is a retired OMF International missionary, having served in the Philippines, in the U.K., and in other parts of the world. She is a missiologist, speaker, and author, and wife, mother, and grandmother.

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 458-463. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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