This is an article from the January-March 1999 issue: Women and Missions

Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment

It is truly embarrassing (for men) to review the extraordinary impact of women in Christian mission.

Are women superior beings? Have you ever heard of a woman serial killer? Why are our prisons (a thousand new ones in just the last few years) jammed with practically all men?

And why in America was there such a unique burst of female energy (between 1860 and 1930) unparalleled in any other country?

Dear People,

As the husband of 48 years of a woman who is the glory of my life, and the father of four neat girls (no boys) all of whom are now marvelous missionary wives, I guess I have become a champion of the female sex in the world of missions (and many other worlds).

When I think of women in missions I think of the enormously exciting role of women in the church in China. Surprise: in 40,000 out of 50,000 house churches the Biblical Òanchor man" is a woman!

One reason for this curious, and rarely mentioned fact is that there were twice as many women missionaries in China as men.

A reason even more important is the simple fact that women missionaries were not considered appropriate to teach men in the theological classroom but were utterly unfettered in teaching women at the river where they washed clothing, at home, wherever--no classroom needed. The huge Bible Study Fellowship in this country is simply what happened when one of those missionary women in China came home to show how it could be done.

This is the "secret source" of the legendary Chinese "Bible women," who are to this day far more numerous than Biblically knowledgeable men (who were limited to classrooms!), and this is why women are so prominent in the movement to faith in China today.

In Korea, too, women are an incredible force. The largest church in Seoul has 700 pastors, most of whom are women, plus 52,000 neighborhood cells which are almost entirely led by women. The world's largest women's university is in Korea, the president of which, Dr. Helen Kim, was Korea's first UN Ambassador.

None of this would have happened had there not been both single and married women missionaries (who together were two thirds of all missionaries).

The story gets even more unbelievable. Page Smith's Daughters of the Promised Land explains how after the Civil War (when most men of marriageable age were dead) women were forced to take over the farms, the banks, and the businesses--at a time when many women were not even supposed to learn to read. All of the now-famous women's colleges like Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, Wellesley, Smith College, etc. were formed for the main purpose of preparing women for missionary service. (You won't find this fact in the college catalogs.), the web-based book seller, informs me that Dana Lee Robert's American Women in Mission is temporarily out of print.

Available--although Amazon does not even list it--is a pioneering study of this incredible phenomenon of American women in missions (little parallel in any other country). This is a book with an inscrutable title: All Loves Excelling, by R. Pierce Beaver. This tells how after the Civil War, for the first time, women-only sending mission agencies were founded. By 1905 there were 150,000 Womens Missionary Societies in American churche. A fabulous story.

It is available from William Carey Library by calling 1-800-MISSION or sending in the order form on page 54. Ask for item number EER681-8. The price is just $4.50 or $3.75 when purchasing three or more.

(Eerdmans pulled it off the market when the opaque title discouraged anyone from buying it. We purchased all remaining copies. That is why the price is so low. Get it while you can. It is an astounding story.)

Re: India

I need to apologize for my editorial last time in which I failed to understand the governmental processes of India. It may be providential that a Christian woman did not become the Prime Minister of India. Being named Sonia Gandhi, she might well have become another assassinated Gandhi.

I want also to apologize for the unintended impression so vividly described in the letter from Chacko Jacob starting on this page.

Frankly for all of us it is a shaking thought that either the Gospel we preach or the Gospel we have believed could be faulty.

"Syncretism" is the word for a faulty form which does not faithfully communicate the Biblical faith. But if we have to choose between the Bible and our version of Christianity, what then?

Jacob's letter was the most perceptive comment we received on our issue last time on India. I present his letter here. My reply follows.

Ralph D. Winter

An Insightful Letter

From: Chacko Jacob,
Sakyo-ku City, Kyoto State, Japan.

While I have been spending quite some time thinking about and reading about contextualization, it was particularly disturbing to read parts of the latest Mission Frontiers on the Web. "Oh, India" features a good bit in it with write ups on the persecution, Graham Staines murder as well as an article by Vishal Mangalwadi. But what was disturbing were the two articles: "Christ-followers in India Flourishing Outside the Church" by H.L. Richard, and Follow-up Reflections on "Churchless Christianity" by Herbert Hoefer

I basically agree with a lot of what the writers say as those have been directions I have been drifting in, particularly with respect to worship styles, corporate structures, etc. But then I came to the last few paragraphs of the second article and Herbert Hoefer says:

    All involved need to do some bold and controversial envisioning, as suggested in my second opening question: "If you could envision an India won for Christ, what would its religious life be like?

    My vision? I see pilgrimage sites and ashrams scattered throughout the land. I see church year festivals and saints days that are now "minor" developing into major social events, and many new Christian family rituals. I see roadside shrines everywhere: "Father" shrines for protection, "Son" shrines for forgiveness, "Holy Spirit" shrines to pray for help and guidance and strength. (We already see such shrines along the roads in Kerala, placed by Roman Catholic churches.) I see pictures of Jesus, incense to Him in puja rooms, Indian Christian art, music, poetry, bhajans and a flourishing architecture.

As an Indian, I am deeply disturbed by the above. While there is much to commend in the articles, the above paragraph reveals an attempt at syncretism rather than contextualization. Is there not anything left in the Christian faith that is true and unique of God's revelation to us in the Scriptures? In seeking to win some by any means, are we left with nothing at all? While Paul sought to accommodate the differences in each culture in his approach, idolatry was still idolatry in the Jewish or Gentile culture and he said so. He may have used the "altar to the unknown god" as a bridge to the Gospel, but I don't think that those who believed his message continued to go to the same altar and worship, except to now call it "the altar to the known God"!

The church as community, a living organism, whatever form the structure may take, is completely lost in this picture painted by Hoefer above. We are left with a "religion" of convenient individuality

    That is, the church building is used like a temple for occasional visits when the need is felt;

and clear idolatry.

    a picture of Christ is central to their devotion;

Additionally, it is then a religion of personal preference,

    and they follow an ishta devata theology of Jesus as a personal, chosen deity among many gods, if not in abstract theology, at least in practice in their highly pressurized situations.

This would be similar to the "pick and choose" theology of the West. (I have heard some Christians in America say, "I like this passage in the Bible but I cannot believe the other passage because I don't like it")!

If this is the road that contextualization must take, God forbid that we should contextualize the Gospel. We do injustice to it, taming it, even domesticating it (or should I say "nationalizing" it?). I will say with Paul, "but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." 1 Cor. 1:23, 24. We are seeking to abolish "the offense of the cross" so that India may be won. May I ask "won" to what?

My Response

Dear brother Chacko,

I could not agree with you more. Certainly at first glance what Hoefer predicts is awful to the Western eye. I have two observations:

1) Hoefer unwittingly chose the wrong word when he spoke of his "vision" for India. He said,

    "My vision? I see pilgrimage sites..."

What Hoefer actually is asking himself and others is what they might envision will happen. But I don't think he should have used the word "vision." What one predicts or envisions is quite a different concept from what would be ideal, or what would constitute a preferable "vision." Hoefer is talking about potential results without regard to what could be our hopes or intentions.

For example, Mormonism resulted in an America where our Christianity had no explanation for the existence of the Western hemisphere, much less its indigenous populations. It was, you might say, a situation in which we might have "envisioned" or predicted that some brainy person would "invent" a whole lot of additional scripture to harmonize the past with the present.

The result is not something we're very happy about. Mormon syncretism is not anyone's hoped for vision. Many "straight" Evangelicals consign the Mormons to outer darkness without giving them a second thought. But the question arises how much nonsense and additional falsity can one imbibe without losing his basic Biblical faith. Missionaries in general are not mentally prepared to deal sympathetically with seeking people whose attempt to follow the Bible incorporate foreign elements--whether those people are in Madras or Salt Lake City.

But then let's put the shoe on the other foot:

2) We need to recognize that our own much prized "Christianity" emerged in similar circumstances as a cultural tradition which apparently harbors some blatantly pagan syncretistic elements. I have long pondered how a pagan sunrise service got into our Christianity, along with "Eostre" a spring goddess of fertility. Or how about the Roman pagan festival of the Saturnalia (long pre-dating Christ), with its giving of gifts on December 25th that was made over into our Christmas?

Easter and Christmas are obvious but lately I have pondered the presence in our theological inheritance of an unbiblical passivity toward evil--an apparently neo-Platonist view which is very similar to the Hindu prohibition against killing anything that has a face--except that we are less logical. We kill wild animals if they threaten our children, but we have no theology that supports any concerted Christian effort to kill off strains of viruses and bacteria which threaten our children far more than wild animals. I am especially concerned about this because I feel that if Christians had been willing to pour their efforts into fighting disease-causing forms of life, my wife would not be dying of cancer.

The urgent answer in both cases is, I think, the Bible. We haven't been willing adequately to rethink our theology in the light of the Bible. For example, we have no idea what the Biblical verse means when it says: "The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil."

Our Christianity is apparently so syncretized in this area that the average pastor could not give you a list of "the works of the devil" which Christians are supposed to work to destroy. In case a pastor were to come up with a list it would not likely include RSV (Rous-sarcoma-virus). This betrays the fact that our theology at this point is one of passivity toward evil, and is not Biblical but in this respect is apparently derived from a neo- Platonist strain in Augustine's writings.

For example, Hindus--I have been told--feel that it is truly spiritual to "consent" if a child is felled by a cobra in the back yard and do not try to rush out and eliminate cobras in the entire neighborhood. People tell me that the truly spiritual attitude toward my wife's cancer is to consent to the smaller forms of life that have had the equivalent of the sting of the cobra upon her physical body. Now, with scales off my eyes, I think such a perspective is a treacherous and pagan strand in our theological tradition.

[Note to the reader of Mission Frontiers: My reply to Chacko printed above is 95% the same as the letter I sent him. Here I have tried in several places to improve the wording. There is no change in the meaning.]


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