by Gary Corwin
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!” That pretty well summarizes the audacity required for a male to address the topic of women in mission.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!” That pretty well summarizes the audacity required for a male to address the topic of women in mission. What inspired me to do so, in spite of the obvious pitfalls and dangers, was a “eureka” experience. As part of a scholarly study group on the history of women in mission I saw and heard some things recently that I had not seen or heard in quite the same way before.
The history was not new to me. I was well acquainted with the huge and often unheralded contributions of women to global mission over the last couple of centuries. They are the “Two-Thirds Force” in ministry to the “Two-Thirds World.” I had seen them up close in Africa, Asia, and South America.
What was new to my experience was that 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 mission without feminist stridency on the one hand, or passive, if sometimes unenthusiastic, acceptance of the status quo on the other. This group made itself vulnerable through transparency, frequently revealing pain without bitterness.
As I listened and participated, a realization hit me with great force: Yes, there are important biblical, hermeneutical, cultural, and historical issues that will not go away, and which must be addressed and resolved if any kind of permanent peace is ever to exist over these matters. But, and this is an important BUT, there must first be repentance and forgiveness between the sexes before we can fruitfully address the underlying issues. So much hurt and moral disquiet festers just below the surface that dispassionate and honest theological reflection is nearly impossible right now.
What might some preliminary steps toward healing and clarity look like? I believe they would include at least the following elements:
1. A repentant spirit would permeate the overwhelmingly male institutional leadership of the missions enterprise, and we men would confess both to God and to our female colleagues the abuses of power that have characterized too much of our interaction together.
At the same time, repentance would characterize both men and women for all our subtle and blatant manifestations of selfishness.
2. People would recognize that the real issue is the fulfillment of each one’s calling as God in his mercy and grace has established it. They would not mischaracterize the debate as a fight between those who support second?class status for women and those who don’t, or between those who support obedience to the authority of Scripture and those who don’t.
3. Given both the biblical and historical record of women’s ministry, people would forthrightly acknowledge that women have been effective and fruitful in spiritual endeavors traditionally reserved for men. At the same time they would honestly acknowledge that this has been more the exception than the rule.
4. We would better understand the importance and parameters of lay ministry in juxtaposition to ordained office. While most would agree that certain functions in the Bible are reserved for those set apart for ordained office, too broad an understanding of those functions may, in addition to other problems, be a root cause of gender tension.
5. Commitment to the integrity of the biblical text as given must be maintained as both starting and ending point. Rewriting (or mis-translating) it to fit a particular view is no option.
Resolution is likely to come in one of two ways. It may come in the usual American way— increased division and hardening of positions. Signs are strong today that this is the likely outcome, as genuine dialogue laced with intellectual honesty and winsomeness of spirit are increasingly hard to find. The alternative, the establishment of a new consensus, requires more grace and generosity than has been evident heretofore.
If, however, a new consensus is found, it will somehow be characterized by the following: (1) It will be faithful to the plain teaching of Scripture (as communicated through the original languages)without recourse to translation tampering or “escape hatch” cultural hermeneutics; (2) It will recognize and celebrate the essential and varied ministry gifts of women, as seen both in the Scriptures and in history; and (3) It will include a renewed sense of the dignity, uniqueness, and irreplaceability of all God- ordained roles, whether they are complementary or interchangeable.
May God grant us the grace to follow this latter less traveled road.
Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and missologist-at-large for Arab World Ministries, on loan from SIM.
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.