Does Gender Matter in Advancing the Gospel? | CBE International

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Does Gender Matter in Advancing the Gospel?

As believers in Christ, we all deeply desire to see the message of the gospel proclaimed and accepted around the world.  If we have experienced the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives to make us better and more useful persons, we want to let the whole world share that experience. 

Jesus tells us in Matt 28:18 that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” (Living Translation) 

Who is to do this work? Apparently all believers—men and women—are to share this responsibility.  A quick look at history indicates that God uses whoever is willing to be used—without regard to gender.  However, tradition and culture around the world have often limited the work that women have been permitted or encouraged to do. 

The Bible says clearly in Genesis 1 that men and women alike are made in the “image of God” and are given identical responsibilities: 

  • Be fruitful and multiply. 
  • Fill the earth and subdue it. 
  • Have dominion over every living thing. 

When sin entered the world (Gen 3), this oneness and mutuality was damaged and life became much more difficult.  Violence, suspicion, and prejudice grew and grew.  Power became a consuming desire.  This is apparent throughout the Old Testament. 

In spite of this, God kept using people (men and women) to carry out His work.  We all know about the prophets Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others.  However, many people have never heard of the prophets Miriam, Deborah and Huldah.  We know about King David, but God also used Queen Esther.  Gender distinctions were apparently far more important to people than to God.  Thus we see God releasing women for service for God, whereas culture restricted them. 

This has been true throughout the history of the church and the history of missions. 

Although God clearly created and commissioned Adam and Eve as equal partners in the garden, by the time of Jesus, Jewish and Gentile cultures had made women second class citizens with clear limitations on their activities.  But Jesus (God in human form) often went contrary to these cultural limitations.  He taught women as well as men—not just in crowds, but in more intimate circles as well.  Jesus privately taught his disciples that he would be crucified and rise from the dead, (they did not believe it), but we know from Luke 24:6-9 that he also taught about his coming death and resurrection to some of the women who followed him closely.  The angel at the tomb of Jesus reminded the women of what Jesus had taught them—and they remembered his teaching. 

Two other examples illustrate Jesus’ giving women a place of prominence not granted by the culture at that time. 

It was to the Samaritan woman at the well that Jesus FIRST said that he was the promised Messiah. 

The “bent-over” woman was called to the front of the synagogue (where women were not supposed to go) to be healed by Jesus.  (Luke 13:10 - 17)

We also find that women were active leaders of the early church.  Before Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he was intent on destroying the new followers of “the Way.” Acts 8:3 says that Saul was going everywhere to devastate the church.  He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into jail.  Obviously he would not have bothered with women if they had not been important in the burgeoning church. 

The first convert and apparent leader of a house church in Greece was Lydia, a seller of purple (Acts 16: 13 - 40). 

Women and men prayed and prophesied in the early church (I Cor 11:4, 5).  Paul calls Junia a prominent apostle (Rom 16:7). 

Paul’s favorite co-workers were probably Priscilla and Aquila—a husband and wife team.  Paul mentions them more often in the New Testament than anyone except Timothy.  And usually Priscilla’s name is mentioned first, (contrary to ancient custom), which probably indicates that she was more the leader of the team. 

When intense persecution began against the early church, women where thrown to the lions along with the men. 

Women’s prominence continued throughout the early church.  Women served as missionaries, martyrs, and Bible translators. 

In the medieval church, women were often considered inferior, the cause of men’s sin, and restricted from most church ministries.  During this period convents and monasteries were common place and women were always in charge of convents.  Such women include Hildegard of Bingen (11th century).  Hildegard was Abbess of a double monastery (comprised of women and men).  As time went on, some women became powerful politically in the convents and monasteries.  They usually came from the upper classes and were better educated than the peasants.  Unfortunately, their skills and abilities were not always put to use for the good of the community or the church, as were the abilities of men. 

With the coming of the Reformation in the 16th century, many things changed.  However, the attitude toward women and their contribution to the church changed very slowly.  The perspective of the Reformers toward marriage was very similar to that of the Catholic Church.  The primary calling for women was as wives and mothers who were to be subordinate to men.  In spite of this, some women with leadership gifts, powerful skills and devotion to God made important contributions to the church as it was undergoing reformation. 

Many of them had been Catholic nuns who had been educated in convents—about the only place where women were permitted education in the Middle Ages.  Perhaps the most well known is Teresa of Avila, writer, a mystic and church reformer. 

Some women of noble birth became influential in the Reformation.  Among them were Marguerite of Navarre and her daughter, Jeanne d’Albert, who, after her conversion became a powerful supporter of the French Huguenots.  There were many other courageous women reformers, some of whom were burned at the stake or suffered other horrendous tortures for their faith. 

In the New World, prejudice was strong against women leaders, although they kept appearing despite great efforts to limit their work anywhere except in the home.  For example, Anne Hutchinson was the most well known of the women preachers of colonial times, despite great opposition to her leadership.  Women evangelists become more common during the great revivals.  They often held revival meetings, but were rarely pastors in the 18th and 19th centuries.  They met the same kinds of resistance to their ministries that is found today.  Perhaps the most well-known woman evangelist was Phoebe Palmer, who became known as “the mother of the Holiness Movement.” 

The women’s missionary movement of the 19th century was the result of the failure of most denominational mission boards to appoint single women to the kind of work that used their full gifts and callings.  Because of this, many women’s boards were developed which appointed only single women.  Their work grew rapidly and was enormously successful.  Soon there were thousands of single women missionaries serving around the world.  By 1890, India alone had more than 700 single women missionaries. 

Beginning in the early 20th century, most denominational boards were appointing single women for a variety of ministries.  They appealed for the women’s boards to combine with them.  Eventually, all of the women’s missionary boards were taken over by the general denominational mission boards. 

Today, there are many more women missionaries than men.  Single male missionaries are rare, but there are many single women missionaries serving in much the same kinds of work as men.  They preach, translate the Bible, plant churches, begin and administer schools, hospitals, and Bible schools. 

Where does that leave the church today? We all recognize that many Christians believe that the ministry of women should be largely limited to the home, or to work with children, or to work with other women.  Yet, nearly all churches around the world include many more women than men.  Is evangelism advanced when we place limitations on women carrying the message of Christ? Are the churches advancing the great commission when they limit women’s service? This is where we must consider the theological, cultural and social challenges facing the work of God in the world. 

In this Occasional Paper, we offer the perspective of Christian scholars and lay leaders from many countries, every continent, representing many denominations as they face these crucial questions and their responsibilities in spreading the gospel of Christ. 

In the last few decades, the issue of abuse—sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual—has come into the spotlight in many parts of the world.  Different cultures respond differently.  We see how abuse weakens evangelism and what the church can do to address it. 

Through the writings and experiences of people from many cultures, we observe how the issue of gender confronts the cultures and branches of the church around the world, and how Christian leaders are dealing with gender barriers that weaken the gospel message. 

Although gender issues have been with us since the beginning of the world, only recently have Christians begun to deal honestly with all of their ramifications and their effects on the spread of the gospel. 

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