Including Women in the Telling of Church History

Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History

An excerpt from: Leanne Dzubinski & Anneke Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church. Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group © 2021.  P. 5–6. Used by permission.

Lack of knowledge about women in church history is problematic for many reasons. The old phrase “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” persists. Generations of women preachers in America would have been much encouraged in their own pursuit of God’s call had they known the stories of women who had gone before them. If they had known the stories, they wouldn’t have had to start from scratch. They could have read the autobiographies of other women who had combed the Scriptures for support of women in ministry. But those stories had already been lost, so each generation of women had to repeat the angst-filled nights of crying out to God, feeling so alone.

The concept of women’s work disappearing, or more accurately “get[ting] disappeared,” from public view was named by Joyce Fletcher in 1999.[1] She discovered that organizations claimed to highly value certain behaviors among employees, and yet because those behaviors were not easily measured or re- ported and because they were viewed as feminine or “soft” skills, they tended to vanish from organizational memory, especially when performed by women. A careful look at the existing historical record shows that women’s participation gets disappeared at an alarming rate. This disappearance matters because women matter.[2] What women see and how they reflect the image of God in humanity sometimes differ from what men see and reflect. Both perspectives matter to humanity’s engagement with God’s mandates to care for and build the kingdom. “Like facets of a diamond reflecting the divine image, we need to see and hear from one another in order to appreciate the fullness of the beauty of who God is.”[3]

The marginalization of women also sets an unfortunate precedent. Because people today do not know what women have done in the past, they may assume that what women do in the present is also unimportant. In effect, women are starting from a deficit position in relation to the men around them.[4] Thus, women themselves may struggle to believe that women have anything of significance to contribute to the kingdom. They may undervalue themselves and their work, believing that women have little to offer. Similarly, some men may struggle to see the value or importance of women’s work and may treat women and women’s concerns as irrelevant to the story of Christianity and their contributions as minimal.

Telling church history as a story predominantly about men suggests that women have not done much to extend the impact of the church, to deepen its thinking, or to contribute to its flourishing. Even when a few stories of women are included on the sidelines of the stories about men, the result is that people tend to see women’s work as peripheral to the grand scheme of church history.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Women have been absolutely essential to the mission of the church historically. And they continue to be essential to mission today. As Dana Robert writes in her book Christian Mission, “The ratio of female to male Christians is approximately two to one. Within Catholicism, sisters outnumber brothers and priests by more than 50 percent.”[5] As scholars, pastors, and parishioners tell the story of Christianity, we all need to find ways to include the stories of women so that women are not seen merely as token voices here or there but as coworkers in the kingdom of God.[6] We need to try to give equal weight to the ways in which men and women have shaped Christianity’s history and been shaped by it.

To purchase the book (paperback or e-book), go to Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History.

For the Missio Nexus webinar on Sept 8, 2021 by Dzubinski and Stasson, go to Webinar: Women in the Mission of the Church.

[1] Fletcher, Disappearing Acts, 3.

[2] Bryan Loritts makes a similar argument regarding people of color. He says, “When your name is never called—when you are never addressed by that name—you are being told you don’t matter.” Loritts, Insider Outsider, 41.

[3] Turpin, “Whose Stories We Tell,” 96.

[4] For a visual display of the impact of advantage and disadvantage, watch the video “Privi- lege/Class/Social Inequalities Explained” on YouTube. While privilege consists of many factors in addition to gender, gender is still a major factor cutting across all additional categories such as race, class, and socioeconomic status.

[5] Robert, Christian Mission, 118.

[6] The language of “coworker” is how Paul talks about several women in Rom. 16.

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