How do we follow Jesus’ example of welcoming women in mission today?

Our guest editor Sarah Hoskins reflects on the radical roles women play in Luke’s Gospel, OMF’s history and the Church in East Asia. Their responsiveness to Jesus’ challenging call to costly discipleship remains an encouragement for us today.

Jesus involved and empowered women in his kingdom mission and women continue to be a vital part of his mission today. Jesus invited those from the margins of society to be included at the centre of his ministry: fishermen, the poor, Gentiles as well as women. Although women were considered second-class citizens, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus himself includes women in radical ways in his life and ministry and later in Acts they are involved in the birth of the Church. At the very start of Luke’s Gospel, women play significant roles in the birth narrative – Elizabeth, Mary, and then Anna the prophetess. Compared to the other Gospels, Luke especially highlights women throughout his account. Jesus includes stories of widows and other women in his parables, making domestic connections which spoke into women’s lives. We hear of women healed, of women who act in response to Jesus’ love and of those who were examples of persistence.

Full participation in discipleship

Jesus had women friends, which was seen especially in his close friendship with Martha and Mary. Receiving hospitality in their home might have raised eyebrows in first-century society, yet Jesus taught these two women privately in the style of a rabbi. We see Mary as a disciple at Jesus’ feet, listening and learning, being treated as equally worthy of his attention and teaching. At the same time, Mary is also taking on the pattern of being trained to be a rabbi herself. Martha, busy in women’s usual social role of caring for the needs of her important guest, was encouraged to put kingdom priorities first, to be with Jesus and hear his teaching.

Jesus’ group of committed disciples included women. At the start of Luke 8 we read of a journey beginning with Jesus preaching and teaching in Galilee – with women among the group of disciples who travelled with him from that time. It is significant that three of the women are named – Mary from Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna.

This group of women responded to the call to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Jesus (9:23). Perhaps some were able to follow Jesus on the road because they were single, widowed or divorced but others, like Joanna the wife of Chuza, apparently left behind a safe and established life at great personal cost. Such full participation in the community of disciples by joining Jesus and the twelve would certainly have been a surprising and countercultural step for any woman. They were true disciples who gave financially, left home, followed Jesus, travelled with him, learnt from him, listened, ministered to one another, rejoiced, grieved and witnessed.

It is startling to realise that this faithful group of women must therefore have been present throughout Jesus’ ministry. They were probably included in the sending of the seventy-two and these same three women were faithfully with Jesus at the cross. There they showed incredible courage and commitment as they witnessed Jesus’ brutal crucifixion – then prepared his battered corpse for burial, all while the male disciples were notably absent. When angels said Jesus was alive, the same three women – Mary from Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna – had the faith to believe. Although their testimony was not initially believed by the apostles, a woman’s words being considered less reliable, all four gospels confirm that women were indeed the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen. Then, after the ascension, Luke records that the women were in Jerusalem with the apostles as the Church was born (Acts 1:14).

Powerful witness

In my experience, however, we women need encouragement to take our equal place as disciples in the kingdom. Sadly, the all too regular experience of not being valued, being overlooked or silenced can make it hard to accept that God’s kingdom life is one of equality and acceptance. And yet, like the women in Luke’s Gospel, women find life in all its fullness as disciples of Jesus.

I saw this for myself when I had the opportunity to work alongside local Christians in East Asia to train women in evangelism. We encouraged them to share Jesus through relationships in their local communities, seeking opportunities to show practical care and love while speaking of our Saviour. This released many women when they realised that what they were already doing, often dismissed as domestic care, was actually a place for powerful witness to the good news. Though it was different to the model they had been told at church was ‘real’ evangelism, it was effective. Many of these women were already showing bold and courageous faith in a country where Christians live under tight control. They began to work together in small teams seeking to show and share Jesus in their communities. Their experiences were redeemed, as they understood they could truly be salt and light.

Like the women in Luke’s Gospel, the life of a disciple can be personally costly. I was once privileged to hear an older lady, a house church pastor, share her story. She had been in and out of prison in the 1990s during a period of severe persecution in her country. She shared how their house church met secretly – but they were often discovered and, as the pastor, she was arrested and imprisoned. She was eventually thrown out of prison when her defiant evangelism resulted in more new Christians than the authorities
could tolerate!

Women as equal disciples of Jesus in OMF

I am really thankful that OMF reflects Jesus’ inclusion of women in mission as equal partners in kingdom ministry. We have a precious heritage of women who have lived and served like the stereotype-breaking women we meet in Luke’s Gospel. I am continually inspired by the faith and risks I see my OMF colleagues taking today, both women and men, who still count the cost of considering their lives worth nothing compared to making disciples of Jesus Christ. In this edition of Billions, we share many stories of women who continue to make Jesus known among East Asia’s peoples. May they encourage and fortify you today.

Books to read:

Derek and Diane Tidball, The Message of Women (2012). From The Bible Speaks Today series.

Valerie Griffiths, Not Less Than Everything (2005)

Written by Sarah Hoskins

OMF International Director for Africa and Europe

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