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

Women in Mission

A stirring tale of their pioneering spirit from the pages of Scripture to the present day

Women in Mission

After the last road ended, it was a two-day hike to where the Balangao people lived. The Balangao, a tribe of former headhunters, still sacrificed to powerful and demanding spirits who caused sickness, death and constant turmoil. Two single women missionaries, trained in Bible translation, were on their way to work among them.When they arrived, they were greeted by men wearing Gstrings and women wrapped in cloth from homemade looms. It is hard to say who was more amazed. The Balangao had asked for Americans to come live with them and write their language, but they never dreamed the Americans would be women!

An old man offered to be their father and was faithful in looking after them. Besides the work of translation, these women began giving medical assistance, learning about the spirit world, and answering questions about life and death. One of them, Jo Shetler, stayed for 20 years, winning her way into the hearts and lives of these people and completing the New Testament translation. Because of this dedication, thousands now know Jesus as Lord of the Balangao.1

Jo Shetler, a shy farm girl with a dream, has stirred many with her story. However, stories remain unwritten of multitudes of women who likewise obeyed the call of God to serve Him on the far horizons. Many women do not realize how greatly God can use their giftedness and commitment in situations such as this.

From the Earliest Days

The Book of Acts records the account of Priscilla, a woman specifically used of God to touch people in at least three different nations: Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor. Apparently a native of the eastern area of Asia Minor, this woman of Jewish faith lived with her husband, Aquila, in Rome until the Jews were expelled. When they met Paul in Corinth, they may already have become believers. They hosted Paul, led a house church, and were assigned by Paul to disciple the eloquent and committed Egyptian Jew, Apollos, "instructing him in the way of God more perfectly" (Acts 18:26).

Paul recognized and honored their gifts and they moved with him to the work in Ephesus. Since Priscilla's name is almost always listed first, some scholars suggest that "the wife was more prominent and helpful to the Church."2 It is perhaps most interesting to note that her role in cross-cultural service, leadership, and teaching were perceived as so normal they did not require special comment or explanation by the writer of Acts. Her role seems to have been accepted and expected rather than extraordinary.

Many women were martyred for their love for Jesus in the first three centuries of Christianity. Lucia of Sicily, who lived about A.D. 300, was involved in Christian charitable work there. After marrying a wealthy nobleman, she was ordered to stop giving to the poor; she refused and was sent to jail. There she was persecuted and condemned to death. Melania, coming from a wealthy family in Rome with estates all around the Mediterranean, used her resources to give to the poor and to build monasteries and churches for both men and women in Africa and Jerusalem. Her missionary journeys started as she fled from Rome during the invasion by the Goths in A.D. 410. As a refugee, she and many other women played an important role in the great missionary movement. Some women were taken as hostages to Northern Europe where they later married their captors and evangelized them.3 Clare, who lived and worked in the early thirteenth century, was a reformer where Christianity had forgotten the poor. She founded the Franciscan order of barefoot nuns in Italy.4 Women who chose to remain single, serve God, and live the cloistered life were given the opportunity through the accepted ecclesiastical framework to proclaim the Gospel. In the Catholic tradition, priests, bishops and nuns built churches and hospitals, and founded schools and orphanages in order to establish the faith.

In the Early Missionary Movement

The Protestant Reformation in the Sixteenth Century brought about changes in the role of women in Christianity. The reformers reemphasized that the role of women was in the home, to be supportive of men. Arthur Glasser writes, "the reformers also subjected women to the confining perspective that their only recognized vocation was marriage. With the dissolution of the convents, women lost their last chance of churchly service outside the narrow circle of husband, home and children."5 Within Protestantism, the problem then arose as to whether women had the right to respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Word of God.

In the early days of the Protestant mission advance, most women who went to the field were wives of missionaries. Discerning men recognized that contact with women in most non-Western societies was impossible for them, so women had to undertake this responsibility. They received little recognition for the heavy load they carried, managing the home and children as well as developing programs to reach local women and girls.

Initially, single women could only go to the field to care for missionaries' children or serve alongside the missionary family. However, little by little, new opportunities arose. R. Pierce Beaver describes the work of Cynthia Farrar in India, Elizabeth Agnew in Ceylon, and other single women who began to supervise women's schools.6 Quietly, they helped in zenanas and harems. Doors opened through medical service. Yet their effective work was seldom publicized.

However, leaders like D.L. Moody, A.B. Simpson, and A.J. Gordon believed in encouraging women's gifts for public ministry. Both J. Hudson Taylor, founder of China Inland Mission, and Fredrik Franson, founder of TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission), saw the need to recruit and send women to evangelize cross-culturally. In 1888, Taylor wrote, "We are manning our stations with ladies."7 Throughout its initial history, his mission expected women, both single and married, to carry out all the missionary duties, including preaching and teaching.

In Jane Hunter's study of correspondence and published articles from women on the field, she discovered the "vast majority of women missionaries were motivated by a deep sense of commitment to God, far more than by any desire to attain personal recognition or power."8 From such moving reports, women in the churches at home caught a dynamic world vision, volunteering their money, time, energy, organizational ability, and prayer support. Leaders such as Annie Armstrong and Helen Barret Montgomery dedicated themselves to developing missionary prayer groups, raising funds, and mobilizing Christians to support field work of all kinds.9

A New Way of Sending

The Civil War in the United States became a catalyst for change in the way women were sent. After the Civil War, so many men died that women were either widowed or unlikely to marry. This forced women into an unusual range of responsibilities. They ran businesses, banks, farms, formed colleges, and for the next 50 years inherited a larger role than men as the major muscle of the mission movement.10

Since missionary boards still refused to send women directly to the work, women simply organized their own boards. First was the Women's Union Missionary Society. In the years to follow, many others were created. Their funds were raised above and beyond the regular denominational mission giving, indicating the phenomenal job of missions awareness these boards were achieving on the home front. They built women's colleges, specifically to train women for missionary service. Besides rousing women to go overseas, more than 100,000 women's missionary societies became active in local churches, an unmatched base for prayer and funding.

By 1900, over 40 denominational women's societies existed, with over three million active women raising funds to build hospitals and schools around the world, paying the salaries of indigenous female evangelists, and sending single women as missionary doctors, teachers, and evangelists.11 By the early decades of the 20th Century, the women's missionary movement had become the largest women's movement in the United States, and women outnumbered men on the mission field by a ratio of more than two to one.12 Sadly, as these boards were persuaded to combine with the denominational boards in the 1920s and 30s, women gradually lost their opportunity to direct the work.

And Still Today

Overall, probably two-thirds of the missions force has been, and currently is, female. Many mission executives agree that the more difficult and dangerous the work, the more likely women are to volunteer to do it! David Yonggi Cho concludes from his experience that women are the best choice for difficult, pioneering work. "We have found that in these situations, women will never give up. Men are good for building up the work, but women are best for persevering when men get discouraged."13

Some fear that because of the unique obstacles of reaching the Muslim world, Western women can play no part. Yet in a nomadic Muslim group in Sub-Saharan Africa, a single woman is effectively training Imams (Islamic teachers) in the Gospel. They perceive her to be non-threatening, "just a woman." Building upon a foundation of interpersonal relationship and Bible knowledge, she does not give them answers herself, but directs them to the Word. The Lord has confirmed her teaching, giving dreams and visions to these leaders. As they have been converted, they are now training many others. She is accepted as a loving, caring elder sister, who gives high priority to their welfare.

Jim Reapsome's editorial in World Pulse (Oct. 9, 1992), advocating more training and more support for women, received an almost immediate letter of thanks from a missionary to a Muslim group in Southeast Asia. He wrote:

Interestingly enough, despite the common emphasis on training and using men, here in--, some of the best evangelists are all women! In fact, three of our most important co-workers (who are really doing the most cutting-edge ministry) are women. In terms of Americans, we only have one single man who made the sacrifice to come here but there are four single women, with three more on the way. In the face of chauvinistic Islam, it is good to be reminded that true Christianity is not chauvinistic, but an equally exciting call to new, fulfilling life for women and men.14

Opportunities in Special Areas

Women in mission have demonstrated a holistic approach with emphasis on both evangelism and meeting human needs. They have shown a deep commitment to and concern for women and children. Education, medical work, and struggles against foot binding, child marriage, female infanticide, and oppressive social, religious, and economic structures were commonly the focus of their work. With their holistic approach to missions, women were committed to healing. Thus, medical missions were dominated by women for many years. Since women were less involved in denominational activities and more focused on human need, it was easier for them to be ecumenically-minded and risk cooperation for common purposes. Women led in founding ecumenical mission organizations.

In recent years, women have played important roles in mission specialization. Wycliffe Bible Translators found over the years that teams of single women did well on the field---a far greater number of such teams successfully finish translations than teams of single men. Elizabeth Greene, a woman pilot who served in the Air Force in WWII, was one of the founders of Mission Aviation Fellowship. Gospel Recordings, providing Christian tapes and records in many languages (using native speakers to give the Word rather than waiting for a printed translation) was founded through Joy Ridderhof's vision and effort. Ruth Siemens' creative idea resulted in Global Opportunities, assisting lay persons to find tentmaker positions overseas. Women have been permitted great latitude in Christian ministry, their work ranging from evangelism and church planting to translating Scripture and teaching in seminaries.

Christian women today need to know and celebrate their heritage. We can study women of greatness who served in Christ's cause and claim them as our role models. From Mary Slessor, single woman pioneer in Africa, to Ann Judson of Burma and Rosalind Goforth of China, wives who fully served; from Amy Carmichael of India to Mildred Cable in the Gobi Desert; from Gladys Aylward, the little chambermaid determined to get to China, to Eliza Davis George, black woman missionary to Liberia; from translator Rachel Saint to medical doctor Helen Roseveare; from Isobel Kuhn and Elisabeth Elliot, mobilizing missionary authors, to Lottie Moon, pacesetting mission educator; from simple Filipino housemaids in the Middle East to women executives in denominational offices to unsung Bible women in China, the roll is lengthy and glorious!

The roll is, however, incomplete, expectantly awaiting the contribution of current and future generations. God's women now enjoy freedoms and opportunities their forebearers never anticipated. Most small businesses started in the United States are owned by women. Women now hold highly responsible positions in government, business, law, and medicine. "To whom much is given, much is required." How will women of God today harvest such opportunities for their Father's purposes?

Women, stirred by the task that lies ahead, can mobilize, devoting their skills, their accessibility, their knowledge, their tenderness, their intuitiveness, their own distinctive fervor to the work. The pioneer spirit, full of dedication and faithfulness, which women throughout history have shown will set the standard. The task is too vast to be completed without all God's people!

This article originally appeared in Worldwide Perspectives, edited by Meg Crossman, 1996. Used by permission of William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA. It appears in this form in the recently completed Third Edtion of the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement Reader. Both volumes are available from William Carey Library at 1-800-MISSION.

  1. Shetler, Joanne, The Word Came With Power (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1992).

  2. Jameson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), p. 1,117, on Acts 18:18.

  3. Malcolm, Kari Torjesen, Women at the Crossroads: A Path Beyond Feminism and Traditionalism (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 99-100.

  4. Ibid., p. 104

  5. Glasser, Arthur, "One-half the Church--and Mission," Women and the Ministries of Christ, eds., Roberta Hestenes and Lois Curly (Pasadena: Fuller Theological Seminary, 1978) pp. 88-92.

  6. Beaver, R. Pierce, American Protestant Women in World Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 59-86.

  7. Beaver, R. Pierce, All Loves Excelling (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 116.

  8. Tucker, Ruth, Guardians of the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1988), p. 38.

  9. Ibid., pp. 102-110

  10. Winter, Ralph, personal interview, September 1991

  11. Rober, Dana L. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 1996), p. 129

  12. Tucker, Ruth, Guardians of the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1988) p. 10

  13. Paul Yonggi Cho at El Shaddai Pastor's Fellowship luncheon in Phoenix, AZ, March 1988

  14. Personal letter to Jim Reapsome, October 25, 1992. Used with permission.


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