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Published Date: May 16, 2024

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Are Things Changing for Women in the Majority World Church?

I recently spoke with a leader in international missions who believed that the divide between egalitarians and complementarians would die out because the younger generations understand the equality of women. Like him, I am encouraged by the younger generation of Americans. Their everyday reality and expectations include women leading with and sometimes in authority over men. Their experience of shared leadership in the broader world also tracks with changes happening in the American church. Though women only comprise 13% of the pastorate in the United States, that number is three times higher than it was 35 years ago when CBE was founded.[1] Likewise, the #churchtoo movement has caused receptive churches to examine their structures, making healthy changes that protect women and children from abuse.

I have experienced this shift in my own world over the past five years. In 2022 my church in a small, rural town hired its first woman preaching pastor! She works in beautiful mutuality with our male preaching pastors, and the congregation leans into her biblical understanding that has been largely missing from the pulpit. Likewise, a wise and educated woman leads another local congregation. An hour away, in our state capital, a large multi-racial church has recently added a woman preaching pastor to their team. And five hours south, in the rural cattle town where I grew up, my childhood church is now pastored by a dynamic woman.

What’s Happening with Women in the Majority World Church?

But due to my work, studies, and experience overseas, my heart and mind endlessly turn to the majority church that exists outside of the United States. In Philip Jenkins’ study of global Christianity, he states, “Over the last century . . . the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably . . . southward, to Africa and Latin America, and eastward toward Asia. Today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in those regions. If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela. In parts of Asia too, churches are growing rapidly.”[2] So my heart and mind ask, “Are things changing for women in the majority world?”

In 2021, the United Nations reflected a sobering reality, summarized by Vineeta Sharma, that “religion has been called ‘the hardest barrier that women must overcome in the path to gender equality.’”[3] They go on to state that “faith actors” can and do significantly influence “attitudes and behaviors that are harmful to women and girls.” Yet they also see evidence that faith communities can catalyze women’s equality.[4]

The Mutuality Matters podcast interviews that Mimi and I have conducted echo through my mind as I consider this pronouncement. While each interviewee from across the globe provides ample evidence of the UN’s observations that faith communities can be catalysts for great change, I will focus here on Christian women in Africa.

Women Pastors and Mutuality in Relationships

Let’s first turn to our podcast’s celebration two years ago of Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango’s ordination as the first woman Anglican bishop in Kenya. Shortly afterward, Bishop Rose was also ordained, which parallels the United States’ own increase in women clergy. Bishop Onyango focuses her time on countering the cultural message that girls are “less than men” and therefore deserving of abuse. Just as the UN noted, her tools come from her faith and from Scripture’s teaching that men and women are God’s image bearers (Gen. 1:26–27) and therefore deserving of equal worth, respect, and opportunities.

Likewise on the topic of abuse and women’s ordination, we spoke with Pastor Herbert Mazonde of Zimbabwe. Witnessing his father’s abuse against his mother soured his view of marriage, and only when he understood God’s heart for mutual partnership in marriage did his view transform. He now leads the Courtship and Marriage Foundation, which teaches pastors, law enforcement, and the armed services in Zimbabwe, using a curriculum that focuses on mutuality in relationships between men and women. And as he said, he realized that he had to walk the talk, so his wife has joined him as a pastor. Each Sunday they go off to preach, and each afternoon they come together to share their experiences.

Transforming Masculinities

We also interviewed Prabhu Deepan and Frankie Quirke of Tearfund about Tearfund’s global initiative, Transforming Masculinities. (See follow-up interviews here and here.) Transforming Masculinities works with communities to develop relationships between men and women that better reflect Jesus’s relationship with women. As Quirke of Tearfund explained, whole families and communities learn how to change together. She reported a West African girl’s rebuke to her mother: “Why aren’t you following through with what we learned and having my brother help me do the chores, so that I can complete my homework? My homework is just as important as his.” To which her mother responded, “You are right; this change is hard, and I will make mistakes. But we must keep working on it.” The outcome of Transforming Masculinities has been a decrease in gender-based violence among couples, with husbands assisting their spouses with household work and men and women honoring each other. The model continues to be adapted to cultures and languages around the world.

From Defiled to Leaders to Safer Churches and Communities

I’d also like to highlight Stephanie Midthun of Courage Worldwide, which establishes healing homes in the USA and Tanzania for girls rescued from sex trafficking. Tanzanian girls who undergo sex trafficking are generally victims of poverty who have been sold so that their families can eat. Through no fault of their own, they are considered dirty by their villages, churches, and society. While child trafficking victims in the USA usually come from the foster care system, Child Protective Services says that these girls are also discarded by society and often referred to as “throw-away girls.” At Courage Worldwide, girls on both continents are graduating from secondary school while receiving therapy and life skills. Some are becoming nurses, social workers, and lawyers who fight the injustices they faced as children.

I asked Stephanie if the larger East African church culture was changing in response to their work. Her response was sobering and reflected the UN’s contention that faith communities are often women’s hardest barriers to overcome. She reported that, rather than safety in churches, many of their residents had been abused and/or rejected by their pastors. Frankie Quirke of Tearfund said virtually the same thing about victims of gender-based violence. I couldn’t help but think of the frequent USA headlines reporting on another huge case of pastoral abuse against women and girls. However, as these biblically based organizations work in their communities, providing education and transformational change, many of the pastors recognize their errors. They then embrace and endorse this new learning, which ripples into safer churches and communities.

Building on Each Other’s Strengths

Outside of podcast interviews, I recently spoke with a Christian program director in Tanzania that provides small loan and business opportunities to women. Prior to their program, husbands dominated their wives. But now these financially empowered wives may dominate their husbands. Though understandable, neither situation reflects God’s heart.

When the program director saw CBE’s resources, especially Mutual by Design, which biblically explains God’s design for thriving marriages, he was delighted. He came to me pointing at its scriptural explanation of God’s purposeful design of women and men in the garden, exclaiming that this was exactly what he needed. As I also told him about Tearfund’s Transforming Masculinities, he nodded his head. “We will do well to partner with one another in our strengths rather than each of us recreating the same programs.”

His final thought made me consider the changes happening in the United States. These changes began generations ago with Bible-believing Christians like Katharine Bushnell and Frances Willard, who worked together in their different giftings.[5] They challenged Bible translations that were biased against women, and they used the tools within their faith to protect women from abuse and sex-trafficking. Their efforts, aided by their many allies and successors—women and men—are finally bearing fruit.

In the majority world church, the degree of inequality between women and men and culturally approved practices of abuse may appear daunting. But Katharine Bushnell and Frances Willard would have likely said the same thing. The Holy Spirit moved in these women and their allies, and today we are seeing the fruit. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is moving in the African church as believers bring their biblical tools and spiritual gifts to the task. The examples above are just a few. The UN is on to something: faith communities do have the necessary tools to “catalyze women’s equality.” May the Western church come alongside the growing global church in this great work.

Photo by Annie Spratt.


[1] “Pastor Demographics and Statistics in the US,” Zippia, accessed April 10, 2024, https://www.zippia.com/pastor-jobs/demographics/.

[2] Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, (Oxford University Press, 2011), 1–2.

[3] United Nations Concept Note: 2021 Room 5, 1. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/2021-Room-documents_Room5.pdf, referencing Vineeta Sharma (2018), ”How can Feminist Theology Reduce Gender Inequality in Religion?” accessed October 21, 2021, https://www.epw.in/engage/article/how-canfeminist-theology-reduce-gender-inequality.

[4] United Nations Concept Note: 2021 Room 5, 1–2.

[5] Missionary, biblical languages scholar, and doctor, Dr. Katharine Bushnell investigated and uncovered government-sponsored sex trafficking rings in both Wisconsin and India. She also wrote God’s Word to Women, investigating translation bias against women in the English Bible. Frances Willard was the president of the USA Women’s Christian Temperance Union, where she involved Bushnell in addressing sex-trafficking.

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