by Fran Love
I am a third-generation missionary. My grandmother rode yaks in Tibet. And my mother rode jeeps in Indonesia. Missions is in my blood, a heritage I wish to pass on to my three daughters. Women did as much, went as far, and died on the fields as often as their male missionary peers.
I am a third-generation missionary. My grandmother rode yaks in Tibet. And my mother rode jeeps in Indonesia. Missions is in my blood, a heritage I wish to pass on to my three daughters. Women did as much, went as far, and died on the fields as often as their male missionary peers. They challenged harmful and ungodly customs, they starved to death along with nationals, they were raped, they buried children and husbands, they established female mission societies and traveled in evangelistic bands. Their names were legendary, and inspired thousands of young women to follow in their footsteps.
Sadly, that era seems to have faded. I seldom read about modern missionary women’s exploits. Instead, I read article after article about women’s roles in missions. It’s as though the core has eluded us, and we are groping on the periphery. Many times I ask myself, What are we missing? My conclusion: New Testament models.
When I went to the mission field no one challenged me to look into the New Testament to find models of women on church-planting teams. Instead, I was barraged with popular missionary jargon encouraging me to find ministries which would be meaningful and significant, while making sure I balanced my roles so that I would not damage my family. Some of the literature I read on the roles of missionary women intimidated me.
For example, the author of an article entitled “Wives: homemakers or mission employees?” (Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October, 1986) stated that “children are a valid hindrance to ministry” (p. 403). She warns us, however, “that mission boards that insist on moms working full-time in ministry foster family tensions which often result in damaged kids” (p. 404). The author seems to be implying that it is not the mother role which damages children, but the ministry role. I object to the implications of the author’s statement, that when a woman ministers her children are damaged, for several reasons.
First, my experience has shown this not to be true. My mother worked full time, she received her own salary, and she sent us to boarding school. (She had no choice due to mission board policies.) While this was hard on the whole family, I was not damaged. My mother’s hard work was an inspiration to us and we applauded her integrity in laying down her life for the gospel—the very thing she wanted new converts to do.
Second, the author never defined ministry. What ministry is she referring to, and in what ways are children a hindrance to that ministry? In my experience, children have been bridges and not hindrances to ministry.
And third, if we enrich our present church-planting efforts by modeling ourselves after New Testament women—and expect the same of women converts—we will struggle less with our roles. And that is healthy. When the issue for missionary women revolves around our roles, it puts the focus on us: what is most comfortable for us and our family. When we look at New Testament models, however, the focus is on the church and the things that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12).
But looking at New Testament women brings its own challenges. The suffering of Muslim women who accepted the Lord plunged me into a painful reality: When I bring them Jesus, I bring them suffering. At first I was unwilling to accept this. Until I read Acts 8:3, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” Acts 8:3 barred my escape to a more pleasant church-planting experience, one in which neither I nor Muslim women would suffer.
Realities intruded into my wishful thinking. The Muslim women we saw give their lives to the Lord suffered terribly. One was rejected by her family A police husband of one of our believers shot at her with his gun. Even though he missed, it frightened her into running to my home for shelter when she felt threatened by him. One brave woman refused to leave her home in spite of threats and insults from her neighbors. These women were living out Acts 8:3; no, not imprisoned, but certainlypersecuted.
Their children as well felt the community’s rejection. It was disheartening to see the children who had so enthusiastically responded to Jesus slip back into Islam. How could I ask these women to give all for Jesus while all the time guarding my role as mother so that no one in my family suffered? How could I offer them the gospel of the cross, but somehow because we were the missionary family, we got only the gospel while they got the cross? I had responsibilities to my family, yes, but what about my responsibilities to the Muslim women to whom I was preaching the gospel?
A recent headline for a lead article in a popular Christian magazine challenges us. In bold letters it states, “Ministering Women: Enough already on what we think. What does God want?” Yes, indeed, what does God want from missionary women?
This question made me seek answers in the New Testament, specifically in the areas of early church life and ministry responsibilities of church-planting teams. I was guided by three principles: (1) The authority of Scripture demands honesty in retrieving the overlooked or distorted ministries of women. (2) Church planting in pioneer settings requires a multiplicity of ministries for women. (3) The missionary woman’s ministries are shaped by various factors—her cultural contexts, her mission, her team, her gifts, and her season of life.
When I went to the field, I was highly motivated to plant a church. But for five years I was also sick and fatigued from two pregnancies and from the constant vigilance of caring for two beautiful but active toddlers. One day my youngest daughter opened her mouth to show me the chicken droppings she was eating (found in great quantities on our front porch), and I remember thinking with horror, What kind of a mother am I?
The see-saw motion of conflicts of interest between being a good mother and good church planter left me either anxious when I was doing church-planting work for fear I was neglecting the children, or anxious when I was being a mother and neglecting church planting. One morning I was reading 1 Timothy 5, and as usual, was skimming it because it dealt with widows, both older and younger ones. My attention though riveted on the phrase “for this is pleasing to God” (verse 4). Alert now, I read back to find what it was that pleased God. After all, didn’t I want to please him? Imagine my surprise and delight when I read that what pleased God were believers who put their religion into practice by caring for their own family (verse 4, NIV).
At that moment, a stake of truth was cemented in my heart. To this day I have never struggled with the issue of balancing my roles of missionary and mother. To be sure, there are days when I feel restricted by family responsibilities and so I return to 1 Timothy 5:4 (I do this literally) and apply the truth of family members taking care of one another to mean that God is pleased with me as I care for my family. And not only that, but that this care of the family is an act of religion, or to put it into modern terms, a spiritual act. Because it is a religious or spiritual act, it is a ministry.
But what happens in those moments when I believe strongly that God is calling me to ministry outside the home? That he has gifted me and entrusted me with a ministry obligation to which I must say yes? As a mother am I allowed to have the same conviction that Paul did when he said I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, in order that I may finish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus (Acts 20:24)?
Paul finished his letter to the church in Rome by commending the women for their participation in church ministries. Phoebe was a diakonos (minister) in the Cenchrean church and prostatis (patron, supporter) of Paul (16:1, 2). Paul used the term diakonos of numerous men, including Christ and himself. Priscilla was Paul’s sunergos, a person who exercised leadership and authority in the church, presumably through preaching and teaching the gospel. She risked her lifefor Paul (verses 3, 4) and had a church which met in her home (verse 5). Junias was Paul’s relative, imprisoned and outstanding among the apostles (verse 7). Rufus’ mother had been like a mother to Paul (verse 13).
Equally significant were the four women whom Paul said had “worked very hard” for the church (verse 6) and in the Lord (verse 12). The verb kopiao (labor, work hard) is the same verb Paul used in 1 Corinthians 16:15,16 to describe people to whom the church should submit: “I urge you, brothers, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work, and labors (kopiao) at it.” While some would take issue with the idea of submitting to women, it is clear that Paul commended and publicly acknowledged the role of hard-working women in church-planting efforts. Such were Euodia and Syntyche, noted by Paul as women who contended (sunathleo) at my side (or shared my struggle, NASB) for the cause of the gospel (Phil 4:3).
What role models. And I am so grateful that my grandmother and mother decided these women were worthy to emulate by working just as hard, if not harder, because they had to do it in a cross-cultural setting. My grandmother buried her 36-year-old husband in China. My mother walked miles to preach the gospel, suffered through illnesses and miscarriages, endured ridicule, lived through riots and antimis-sionary unrest, continued her education, served on committees, planted churches, established a children’s center for disadvantaged children of the rural poor, taught in seminaries, raised thousands of dollars for the church from Western foundations and rich national Christians, and cried when she said goodbye to us as we left for boarding school. I have a rich inheritance, one which I am proud to pass on to my daughters. Don’t call me damaged. Call me blessed.
And I am also grateful to the national women with whom I worked side-by-side to establish the church. They were wives and mothers, some with jobs outside the home, who ministered despite the grinding poverty which left them, as it does so many Asian women, fatigued and malnourished. They started a ministry to children, and from that began to reach the parents. They met weekly for prayer and fellowship. They fasted.
They rode hot and crowded buses to evangelize villages outside the city. They cooked meals for church get togethers. And I encouraged them in all these ministries, knowing that Romans 16 was just as important in their lives as 1 Timothy 5:4.
These two passages then—1 Timothy 5 and Romans 16—represent for me the two ends of a ministry continuum upon which I add all other ministry obligations. 1 Timothy 5:4 teaches me that I am a minister in my home and that this is valuable to God. Romans 16 teaches me that I am a minister in the church, and that this is valuable to the church. Perhaps many missionary mothers struggle with roles because they are unsure of God’s pleasure in them as mothers, and because they don’t receive enough recognition and encouragement as missionaries.
But these two truths alone are insufficient. A missionary woman can feel fatigued if she believes she has to work harder at the ministry. So again I go to Scripture to see if I can find an example of women who were hard-working ministers, both in the home and in the church.
And I find it in 1 Timothy 5:9,10. This seemingly irrelevant passage, which talks about widows in the church, has become significant for me as a mother and a missionary. Paul told Timothy what to do with the older widows in his church who have no family members to support them. He told Timothy that because they have so faithfully served their families and the church, it is now the church’s responsibility to financially support them.
But notice the age of these older widows. They have developed a reputation for good works, brought up children, shown hospitality to strangers, washed the saints’ feet, assisted those in distress, and devoted themselves to every good work (verse 10) over a lifetime of 60 years (verse 9). So over this continuum of mother tominister, I place an arc labeled “A woman’s ministries over a lifetime.” The number of years is not as important as the idea that these things happen over a long period of time. This should relieve us and can help us gain the marathon instead of the 100-yard-dash mentality.
On this lifetime continuum from young mother to older missionary are there certain functional activities that missionary women should be doing, regardless of spiritual gifts, personality types, age, and mission or team responsibilities? I believe there are three basic tasks so crucial that if they are ignored the well-being of the missionary woman and the effectiveness of the missionary can be impaired.
First is the important yet overlooked ministry of hospitality. Even though the Bible commands us to practice hospitality (1 Peter 4:9), there are men and women missionaries who find this part of their job irritating and burdensome. Hospitality is done so that they can get on with the real task of evangelism, but they forget that hospitality is the basis of evangelism. Hospitality forces us to be serious about loving people. While entertainment may impress, hospitality is to bless.
Among the Sundanese of Indonesia, where we worked, hospitality was so valued that not having enough food for guests at a celebration or feast was equal in sin to having a daughter get pregnant out of wedlock. When they saw missionaries’ selfishness with time, money, and food, I am sure they became bewildered over the contrast between the message of love and the actions of selfishness.
Second, every woman missionary must be encouraged and helped to learn the language, and in some cases, the languages—both national and local. A preliminary survey done among the women in our mission showed us that most of the women found language learning the No. 1 barrier to their church-planting responsibilities. It was either because they felt the time they had to commit to learn the language competed with time they had to spend with their children, or in other team responsibilities, or because they had a difficult time learning it or being motivated enough to learn it. Because of this, women need consistent encouragement in their language-learning efforts. The ability to communicate builds relationships between the missionary and the national women, and these relationships can help keep her on the field. Furthermore, relationships are essential to church planting, and so we can confidently assert that language learning creates friendships that build the church. As the Brewsters have said, “Language learning is ministry.”
And third is the task of building relationships, what our team in Indonesia called “face-to-face” time. This is the time that our missionary women spent talking with and being with nationals. We learned from Scripture that when God wanted to communicate intimately with a human being, he would do it face-to-face (Gen. 32:30; Exodus 33:11; Judges 6:22). His ultimate act of communication was to show us his glory in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). We wanted to model this incarnational communication. But knowing our flesh, we had to hold one another accountable, and so we developed weekly reports where we had to approximate how many hours we had spent face-to-face.
I appeal to missionary women to find their models of ministry in Scripture. The three most helpful passages for me have shown me that God values my ministry to my family; that the church benefits from my hard work in the ministry; and that I can enjoy many fruitful years of these kinds of ministries. And that on this continuum of young mother to older missionary, I have found three foundational tasks to be crucial for any missionary woman: hospitality, language learning, and face-to-face time.
Fran Love is coordinator of women’s ministries at Frontiers, Mesa, Arizona. She was born and raised in Indonesia. After college and church work, she returned to Indonesia with her husband Rick to do church planting.
Women’s Roles: A Response
By Carol Pleuddeman
I too become impatient with articles about women’s roles in missions and much prefer to read about women who obediently use their gifts to serve God. It seems to me that there are many such stories in various mission journals and Christian magazines. As I’ve traveled in 32 countries during the last two years, I have seen firsthand that women at all stages of life are continuing to do significant things for the kingdom. In Nigeria, a young mother is spearheading a ministry to street children. In Pakistan, mothers of small children are learning Urdu and faithfully building relationships. In the challenging countries of Sudan and India, women serve capably as mission administrators. In Colombia, a young grandmother teaches at a seminary.
The issue, I believe, is not really one of gender but of commitment. Am I willing to give myself completely to God at every stage of my life? Of course there are energy and health limitations, but the idea that there are certain stages of life when I can concentrate exclusively on my family doesn’t make sense either at home or overseas. We don’t live for ourselves. Couples that concentrate solely on feathering their own nest become ingrown and are seldom satisfied. It’s not a question of family or ministry, but families in ministry together.
Many of my happiest childhood memories are of participating in my parents’ ministry—visiting in Ecuadorian homes, bouncing along in the bus while my dad collected children for Sunday school, helping in fledgling church plants, and participating in radio programs. I can’t imagine how much I would have missed if my mother had insisted on being only a homemaker. Like the author, I was blessed, not damaged, by my mother’s involvement in ministry.
Certainly young mothers’ responsibilities will be primarily home-centered. But even then, they can participate in language learning, relationship building, hospitality, home Bible studies, writing projects, translation, etc.
The author’s most powerful question for me is: When Muslim converts (or converts from other religions) have to suffer for their faith, is it right that we protect ourselves and our families from all stretching and pain?
Family concerns dominate the thinking of many of today’s potential missionaries. What medical facilities are available? How will our children be educated? What kinds of food can we buy? Can my wife give herself completely to family needs? It’s natural to want to protect one’s family, but the great challenge of reaching our world will certainly involve a measure of risk.
I like the author’s perspective that a missionary woman’s life span is a continuum, each section with its different opportunities and limitations. Blessed is the woman who lives fully in the present, whatever it is. The Scriptures cited as models for ministry in the home and in the church are excellent. Let’s also remember that many other Scriptures deal with issues of discipleship, family relationships, and ministry responsibilities. These are not addressed inparticular to men or to women, but to the people of God. Women must insist on finding these equally applicable to their questions and issues.
Carol Plueddemann, a missionary mother of three children, is assistant to the general director, SIM International, Charlotte, N.C.
BE SURE TO READ THE SIDBARS TO THIS ARTICE: BY KAREN WROBBEL AND RHODA LONGENECKER.
EMQ, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 22-31. Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.