Women in the world and God’s mission today: a way to genuine mutuality?

Before thinking about the role of women in global mission, we need to remember the global situation facing women today.

As United Nations (UN) Women Goodwill Ambassador, actress Nicole Kidman said: ‘One in three women may suffer from abuse and violence in their lifetime. This is an appalling human rights violation, yet it remains one of the invisible and under-recognised pandemics of our time.’ 1 Gina Zurlo, an American scholar of World Christianity, notes ‘Women are highly active in service to church and society, but nowhere in the world do they have complete physical safety. Rape, abuse, and domestic violence are wide-spread, even in majority Christian contexts.’ 2

The UN’s 2019 Human Development Report points out that in recent years gender equality in health, education and economics has been slowing: ‘Based on current trends, it would take 202 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity.’ 3 A women’s movement Against this backdrop of misogyny, violence and discrimination, it is important to remember that when it comes to mission, the spreading of the gospel and the growth of World Christianity, women have always been the key players. Zurlo’s research confirms that that ‘World Christianity is a women’s movement’ 3 , with global church membership 52 per cent female .4

As the central role played by women in evangelism and mission is increasingly being recognised, particularly in the Global South, our understanding of the story of mission is being seen differently. Researchers Cordoza-Orlandi and Gonzalez describe this in vivid terms:
‘It is mostly poor non-white women belonging to traditional cultures who are the main transmitting and receiving agents for Christianity in the twenty-first century. When the protagonist of a drama changes, we actually have a different drama. Until very recently, the main protagonist of mission was the white man. There is a new protagonist, and we can therefore be certain that the drama itself will not be the same and that the presence of the Spirit of Christ will show itself in different ways in this new drama’. 5

Although women have always had a significant role in the drama, their place – as told in church and mission history – has been ignored or reported as little more than a supporting role. As Zurlo puts it, ‘The story of Christianity’s development and global spread cannot be told without men, though it has been told without women.’ 6

A radical policy
As Valerie Griffiths points out in her book about women who took the gospel to China, our founder Hudson Taylor took controversial steps to more fully include women in world mission:
‘The CIM was a lay movement in which Taylor was eager to facilitate the spiritual gifts that all members received, be they male or female, and these took precedence not only over gender but also over education and qualifications. In this policy he departed from the concept that missionaries must be ordained men with a calling from God.’ 7

Years later and following significant theological reflection, the OMF International Council issued a statement in 2001 that affirmed: ‘We believe that divine calling and gifting rather than gender should be the more important factor in the selection of members for leadership within the Fellowship.’

It has taken us a long time to embrace this affirmation, however. Our International Leadership Team has remained predominantly male. At present, just 22 per cent of the International Leadership Team is female, despite 59.5 per cent of OMF’s total membership being women. A growing number of female members serve as centre leaders, either in sole or shared positions (unfortunately exact statistics are unavailable). However, we are still an organisation where the vast majority of leaders are male and the contribution of women in executive leadership, policy-making, theological discussion and strategy formulation, remains disproportionally small.

A genuine mutuality
Throughout the past 14 years we have shared the leadership role of National Director for OMF (UK). One of the fascinating New Testament models for shared ministry as wife and husband is that of Priscilla and Aquilla. 8 ‘This, Willie James Jennings says, ‘is by far the best working definition of a Christian couple.’ 9 It is one of the best ways to express what it means to be in the image of God – serving in leadership and in mission together. We would love to encourage co-leadership models in OMF. But if women and men in such roles are to flourish, we must fully embrace our 2001 statement, and do all we can to raise women’s voices, value their contributions, and champion their leadership.

‘The goal is not reverse discrimination, women dominating men but a new heaven and a new earth taking hold, with no one being dominated or subordinated, each participating according to their gifts in genuine mutuality.’ 10

Christine & Peter Rowan OMF (UK) Co-National Directors

References

1 Quoted in Elaine Storkey, Scars Across Humanity: Understanding Violence Against Women (SPCK, 2015), p.4.

2 Gina Zurlo, Women in World Christianity: Building and Sustaining a Global Movement. (2023), p.7.

3 United Nations Human Development Report 2019 – Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century p.147.

4 Zurlo, Women in World Christianity, p.13.

5 Carlos F. Cordoza-Orlandi and Justo L. González, From All Nations To All Nations. (2013), p.447.

6 Zurlo, Women in World Christianity, p.7.

7 Valerie Griffiths, Not Less Than Everything: The courageous women who carried the Christian gospel to China. (2004) p.318.

8 Acts 18:18-28.

9 Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (2017), 182.

10 Emi Frances Oh, quoted in Zurlo, Women in World Christianity, 138.

Written by Christine & Peter Rowan

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