An often-overlooked epic story sits nestled in Genesis among the well-known stories of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of Israel.
This is the story of Sarah’s slave, Hagar, an Egyptian woman who was ordered by her mistress to bear a child to Abraham, then thrown out of the household because her son, Ishmael, threatened Isaac’s inheritance (Genesis 16:1–15, 21:9–21). Not once but twice, when Hagar is at the end of her possibilities in the desert, God calls to her and provides what she needs.
Hagar, so easy to miss in the biblical story, represents ordinary women who have often been ignored, and sometimes scorned and rejected. Yet she is a shining witness to God’s true nature: The God of Hagar reaches out to include outsiders, foreigners and the “no-accounts” of the world.
As with the stories of many other biblical women and churchwomen throughout the centuries, in Hagar we can glimpse some of the gifts that women offer to the church and to the world.
1. The gift of an understanding of suffering.
A first gift women offer the church is their understanding that God suffers with them yet does not will their suffering. Throughout history, women have borne the greater burden of the suffering human beings have inflicted upon each other. In patriarchal societies around the globe, women have been physically abused, deprived of property and other means of economic survival, and sometimes deprived of their children. Women have been raped, tortured and killed for protesting injustices and standing firm in faithfulness to God. Women have sacrificed their own sleep, food and even their lives to preserve life for their families.
At times women have seemed to bear silently this suffering, meekly accepting it as their lot. But women have also testified to their experience that God is with them, and that, especially through the death of Jesus, God suffers when they suffer. Because the powers of evil still lay claim to the world, their pain cannot often be escaped. Yet women have over and over witnessed that God sees them, hears their cries, bears them up and shares their pain.
2. The gift of love and care.
Women also offer gifts as providers of love and care in all human societies. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum points out that these two capabilities, defined by both ancient and modern philosophers as central to humanity’s common good, have always been expressions of women’s lives. Women give birth and nurse infants; provide the bulk of the care for children; and cultivate, harvest and prepare most of the food for their extended families. Women care for sick and elderly parents, husbands and siblings.
These capabilities of love and care have always been part of the community of believers, extending gifts beyond the family to sisters and brothers in Christ. Acts offers us a snapshot of the disciple Dorcas, who made tunics for poor widows and their children (Acts 9:36–42). In the third century after Christ, a terrible plague afflicted the city of Alexandria in Egypt. While other citizens were fleeing for their lives, Christians went out to care for the sick and dying. According to a report from the bishop, alongside priests and deacons who courageously cared for plague victims were “some laypersons of great worth,” without doubt women sharing their capabilities of love and care. In India in the past century, Christian women have provided a far greater proportion of the country’s nurses than the tiny percentage Christians represent within the Indian population.
3. The gift of a rich witness to Jesus Christ.
Christian women use their gifts of love and care to reach out actively beyond the Christian community with a rich witness to Jesus Christ. From the beginning of the church, when faithful women were the first witnesses to Jesus’ empty tomb, women have been proclaiming Christ’s love. Because women have often not been formally empowered to preach and evangelize, they have taken advantage of daily contacts with friends and neighbors, as well as strangers, to share the good news.
Elizabeth, a Dutch Anabaptist arrested in 1549, was accused by her captors of being a “teacheress.” In Tanzania, Miriamu Kisigoro, a Mennonite woman suffering from a bone disease, said, “I am an evangelist for God. I like to spread the gospel and show others Jesus’ goodness, even though I can’t walk much to visit people.”
4. The gift of claiming God’s liberation.
Women offer yet another gift to the church in their claim that liberation is God’s will for them and for all people. Jesus himself was confronted by two women who took the initiative to ask him for what they needed. The woman with the hemorrhage stepped over the boundaries of her culture’s purity regulations to receive the benefit of Jesus’ healing power (Mark 5:24–34). The Syrophoenician woman challenged Jesus to include her daughter in his healing community, pushing him to stretch the boundaries of his ministry beyond his own people (Mark 7:24–30).
Women throughout the centuries have recognized that the gospel is for them, and this good news means they should be free to use all the gifts God has given them. Indeed, the acknowledgment of freedom in Christ may be the most miraculous of all the gifts women have to offer the church, for they have persisted in their claims of full personhood despite continuing barriers of biblical interpretation and church order thrown up to limit them.
Women in Japan and the Congo, in Canada and Colombia, have knocked on the door to church leadership and have bravely walked through, despite opposition that has come when the door has been opened.
5. The gift of filling in the gaps.
At times women have exercised leadership in a way that reflects still another gift, filling in the gaps. Women are quick to see what needs to be done, and they quietly take up the task when others do not step forward.
Juana Garcia, a woman in Cuba, led the church in that country through the hardest years of the Cuban Communist regime and kept it alive while young leaders were being chosen and trained. In India, one community leaned on its young women theological students for preaching because no men expressed an interest in the job.
But women do not only fill gaps in leadership. They fill the gaps in many aspects of church life. Many women go completely unrecognized while, standing over their kitchen sinks or hoeing their fields or sitting in their wheelchairs, they hold up before God the needs of the church and the world. Women are often the ones who bring flowers to decorate meeting places, teach children’s Sunday school, and attend services regularly. Women often contribute most faithfully to church offerings.
6. The gift of demonstrating community.
Women offer the church and the world a gift by demonstrating the community’s power to carry out the work of the church. According to the Gospels, Jesus called a group of men to be his disciples. But Luke records that several women came together, apparently on their own, to travel with Jesus and to provide for him from their resources (Luke 8:1–3). This understanding was made visible in the church’s early years as monastic women banded together to live a life of poverty and obedience, some as part of their local congregations and some withdrawn from society.
Working together continues to be women’s way, from the mothers of the “disappeared” in Argentina who gathered in the plaza every week in silent protest against a repressive regime; to the women’s groups from Dhaka to Denver whose Ten Thousand Villages products enhance the incomes of their families; to two women students at Eastern Mennonite University, where I teach, who organized a drive to collect 1,000 blankets for refugees from the war in Afghanistan. This gift of community can offer the church a model for working together and getting things done that is not based on power and command but on cooperation and mutual respect.
Of course these gifts are not exclusive to women. They can and indeed should be learned and practiced by all members of the believing community. Likewise, women can also offer gifts that are often thought of as belonging to men, such as doing theology and leading church institutions.
As we learn from one another and share with each other, we must always give thanks for the ways that women’s less acknowledged gifts have built up the church and kept it true to its calling to follow Christ faithfully.
This article was first published in Courier, the magazine of Mennonite World Conference.