“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). The Great Commission is for all believers. Really! All Christians. Men and women are called to make disciples and teach disciples to obey everything that Jesus commanded. But wait…is this inconsistent with complementarianism? Are women somehow allowed to do in a missionary context what would be unacceptable in their home church?
How do we think through the issue of women and the messionary task? John Piper and Wayne Grudem address this issue in Fifty Crucial Questions.
Question 33: How is it consistent to forbid the eldership to women in our churches and then send them out as missionaries to do things forbidden at home?
We stand in awe of the faith, love, courage, and dedication that have moved thousands of single and married women into missions. The story told by Ruth Tucker in Guardians of the Great Commission: The Story of Women in Modern Missions is great. Our prayer is that it will inspire thousands more women – and men! – to give themselves to the great work of world evangelization.
Is this inconsistent of us? Is it true that we are sending women as missionaries to do “things forbidden” at home? If so, it is a remarkable fact that the vast majority of the women who over the centuries have become missionaries also endorsed the responsibility of men in leadership the way we do (Tucker, 38). And the men who have most vigorously recruited and defended women for missions have done so, not because they disagreed with our vision of manhood and womanhood, but because they saw boundless work available in evangelism-some that women could do better than men.
For example, Hudson Taylor saw that when a Chinese catechist worked with a “missionary-sister” instead of a European male missionary, “the whole work of teaching and preaching and representing the mission to outsiders devolves upon him; he counts as the head of the mission, and must act independently.” The paradoxical missionary strength of being “weak” was recognized again and again. Mary Slessor, in an incredible display of strength, argued that she should be allowed to go alone to unexplored territory in Africa because “as a woman she would be less of a threat to native tribesmen than a male missionary would be, and therefore safer.”
Another example is A. J. Gordon, the Boston pastor, missionary, statesman, and founder (in 1889) of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He strongly promoted women in missions, appealing especially to the prophesying daughters of Acts 2:17. But for all his exuberance for the widest ministry of women in mission he took a view of 1 Timothy 2:12 similar to ours:
Admit, however, that the prohibition is against public teaching; what may it mean? To teach and to govern are the special functions of the presbyter. The teacher and the pastor, named in the gifts to the Church (Eph. 4:11), Alford considers to be the same; and the pastor is generally regarded as identical with the bishop. Now there is no instance in the New Testament of a woman being set over a church as bishop and teacher. The lack of such example would lead us to refrain from ordaining a woman as pastor of a Christian congregation. But if the Lord has fixed this limitation, we believe it to be grounded, not on her less favored position in the privileges of grace, but in the impediments to such service existing in nature itself.
We admit that there are ambiguities in applying Paul’s instructions about an established church to an emerging church. We admit that there are ambiguities in separating the Priscilla-type counsel from the official teaching role of 1 Timothy 2:12. We could imagine ourselves struggling for Biblical and cultural faithfulness the way Hudson Taylor did in a letter to Miss Faulding in 1868:
I do not know when I may be able to return, and it will not do for Church affairs to wait for me. You cannot take a Pastor’s place in name, but you must help (Wang) Lae-djun to act in matters of receiving and excluding as far as you can. You can speak privately to candidates, and can be present at Church meetings, and might even, through others, suggest questions to be asked of those desiring baptism. Then after the meeting you can talk privately with Lae-djun about them, and suggest who you think he might receive next time they meet. Thus he may have the help he needs, and there will be nothing that any one could regard as unseemly.
We do not wish to impede the great cause of world evangelization by quibbling over which of the hundreds of roles might correspond so closely to pastor/elder as to be inappropriate for a woman to fill. It is manifest to us that women are fellow workers in the gospel and should strive side by side with men (Philippians 4:3; Romans 16:3,12). For the sake of finishing the Great Commission in our day, we are willing to risk some less-than-ideal role assignments.
We hope that we are not sending men or women to do things that are forbidden at home. We are not sending women to become the pastors or elders of churches. Neither has the vast majority of women evangelists and church planters sought this for themselves. We do not think it is forbidden for women to tell the gospel story and win men and women to Christ. We do not think God forbids women to work among the millions of lost women in the world, which according to Ruth Tucker “was the major justification of the Women’s Missionary Movement.” Even if a woman held a more restrictive view than ours, the fact that over two-thirds of the world’s precious lost people are women and children means that there are more opportunities in evangelism and teaching than could ever be exhausted.
Our passion is not to become the watchdogs of where women serve. Our passion is to join hands with all God’s people, in God’s way, to “declare his glory among the nations” (Psalm 96:3).
Other posts from Fifty Crucial Questions include:
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