I have always liked to ask questions; questions that are often considered impertinent by those who don’t believe in asking questions. For example, as a young Christian I wondered why women could become missionaries if they couldn’t teach in the church. The answer—if a man is not available, God doesn’t mind sending women.
I didn’t like the answer then, and I don’t like it now. But the American church of the 19th century didn’t have a choice.
Ron Boehme, from Youth With a Mission (YWAM), visited our church recently and told our congregation that women, single and married, became missionaries* in the late nineteenth century because most of the men of their era were gone. The Civil War had wiped out nearly an entire generation of men; there was no one to send.
The nineteenth century brought a freedom and release to women in missions that greatly impacted the history of the world evangelism. By 2001 nearly 60 percent of the world’s missionaries were women. That trend began during the second wave of modern missions – and was catapulted into being through the American Civil War, when six hundred thousand men lost their lives.
With such significant loss of male leadership, earning ability, and traditional roles in some families, women stepped up to rebuild both the American nation and also the American church.[i]
Facing the possibility of a halted work, the church agreed to send women to every corner of the world to proclaim the Gospel. But why is it that more than a hundred years later, the church hasn’t ceased sending women, although the pool of available men has been replenished?
Maybe God likes the idea of sending men and women.
Maybe God has always sent men and women.
The word “missionary” isn’t found in the Bible; we get the English word from the Latin missio, “sent.” Instead, the Bible talks about apostles, who were entrusted with the preaching of the Gospel to specific people groups (Gal 2:7-9). Paul, for example, spent his life traveling around the Roman Empire preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles, while Peter went to his own people living in the Diaspora. Neither stayed in an area for very long; instead they appointed elders and overseers before continuing their journey and planting new churches elsewhere (Acts 14:23-25).
Paul and Peter weren’t the only apostles. The Bible mentions nearly twenty apostles by name, and one of them is a woman (Rom 16:7).
For centuries, the apostle Junia has either been transformed into a man by translators, or ignored. But we cannot ignore her anymore. We have hundreds of thousands of women apostles preaching the Gospel around the world. If these women exist, why wouldn’t Junia? If our church sends women as apostles, why wouldn’t the early church?
Another uncomfortable question raised by the existence of women apostles is the woman’s “role.” Many of the women who joined missions in the 19th century remained single by necessity. The absence of six hundred thousand men left a vacuum in all of society, not just the church. More than one woman found herself without a suitor—and a purpose for her life. Necessity should never be a guide for morals, for truth must be obeyed regardless of circumstances. Yet, sometimes necessity forces us to give up beliefs and practices that are against God’s will.
If a woman can choose missions and remain single for life, is a woman’s created role, her purpose, solely that of a wife and a mother? How can it be?
Singleness is a gift from God. It allows people to follow God wholeheartedly without distractions (1 Cor 7:32-25). But when marriage is presented as the only success story for Christian women, it is almost impossible for those not married not to view themselves as failures. Of course family is an important part of life, but it isn’t the only thing, nor was it meant to be. The church needs women willing to shoulder responsibilities where married women with young children cannot; there are more opportunities available than there are hours in a day. If marriage was the answer to all of life’s problems, God would have told us so. But he didn’t, so why insist he did?[ii]
Let’s not waste any more time. There is so much to do, so little time.
Dear sisters, if you have heard the voice of God, embrace your calling, your place in the Kingdom. The church needs you, the world needs you, and God is more than willing to send you. Why shouldn’t you go?
[i] Boehme Ron, The Fourth Wave, Taking Your Place in the Era of Missions [Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2011], p 90.
[ii] Krizo, Susanna, Intelligent Submission & Other Ways of Feminine Wisdom [CreateSpace, 2011], p 5-6.
*Editor’s Note: One such missionary was Lottie Moon. In 1873, at age 33, she followed her younger sister to become a missionary in China. She served in China through the the turmoil that ended the Qing dynasty, the Sino-Japanese war, the Boxer Rebellion and the Nationalist Rebellion. It is said that sharing her supplies with the Chinese caused her to starve herself. She died on a ship in Kobe Harbor in 1912. An annual Christmas offering celebrated in Southern Baptist Churches is named for her and she has a feast day (December 22) on the Episcopal Liturgical calendar.
Graphic Credit: “Girl at Train Station” by Alex Wijnen.