Women in Missions

After the last road ended, there was still a 2-day hike to where the Balangao people lived. Two single women missionaries were making that hike. The Balangao, a tribe of former headhunters in the Philippines, continued to sacrifice to powerful and demanding spirits who caused sickness, death and constant turmoil. These women, trained in Bible translation, had volunteered to work among them.

When they arrived, they were greeted by men wearing G-strings and women wrapped in cloth from home-made 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 the people and completing the New Testament translation. Because of this dedication, thousands now know Jesus as Lord of the Balangao.

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, the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary suggests that “the wife was more prominent and helpful to the Church.” It is perhaps more 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 being considered either controversial or extraordinary.

In the Early Missionary Movement

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.

These women rarely received recognition for the heavy load they carried, managing 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. 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 crossculturally. In 1888, Taylor wrote, “We are manning our stations with ladies.” 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. That type of moving report also infected women in the churches at home with a dynamic world vision. Mobilizers 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.

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 had 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.”

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. They built women’s colleges, specifically to train women for missionary service. Besides rousing women to go overseas, more than 100,000 local churches developed their own active women’s missionary societies, an unmatched base for prayer and funding.

By 1910 there were forty-four women’s missionary boards in the United States, many of them within mainline denominations. They had nearly 2,000 women in the field. Their funds were raised above and beyond the regular denominational mission giving, indicating the phenomenal job of missions awareness these women’s boards were achieving on the home front. Sadly, as they were persuaded to combine with the denominational boards in the 1920’s and 30’s, women gradually lost their opportunity to direct the work.

And Still Today

Overall, probably two-thirds of the total force for mission 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 arduous, 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 would get discouraged.”

Some fear that with 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 nonthreatening, “just a woman.” Building upon a foundation of interpersonal relationship and Bible knowledge, she does not give them answers herself. She simply shows the Imams how to find them in 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 3 of our most important coworkers (who are really doing the most cutting-edge ministry) are women. Interns of Americans, we only have one single man who made the sacrifice to come here but 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.

Opportunities in Special Areas

In recent years, women have proven themselves excellent in adapting to new 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.

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 tiny chambermaid determined to get to China to Mother Eliza Davis George, a 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!

That roll, however, remains incomplete, awaiting the contribution of current and future generations. God’s women now enjoy freedoms and opportunities their forebearers never envisioned. Most small businesses started in the U.S. are owned by women. Women now hold highly responsible positions in government, business, 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!

By Marguerite Draft and Meg Crossmen