Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History
In the past few years, the symphony of women’s voices and the stories emanating from their own, often tragic, experiences in both the sacred and secular world have only grown louder, demanding that the church and society pay attention to women’s grievances and to their cries for equality and justice. By noting both the contributions of women to the mission of the church as well as the serious impediments they faced along the way, Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson join the chorus by adding to the growing collection of invaluable historical resources on women in the Christian tradition. Stasson, who serves as an Associate Professor of Humanities and History at Indiana Wesleyan University, offers her penchant for historical research on women and her desire to make forgotten stories about women in ministry more widely available. Dzubinski, Associate Professor of Intercultural Education and Studies at Biola University, brings a vast expanse of cross-cultural experience to the text as well as her extensive familiarity with presenting on women in church history. Dzubinski’s and Stasson’s joint hope is that the “book will encourage, inspire, and perhaps also arouse some righteous indignation in [their] readers” (xii), a goal which is fulfilled on most every page.
As its title indicates, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History speaks to the integral role of women in furthering the mission of the church. Defining mission as “anything that leads to the extension of the church or to the deepening of Christian commitment, such as teaching, preaching, evangelizing, prophesying…founding churches…social justice work on behalf of disadvantaged members of society” (6), Dzubinski and Stasson draw attention to the myriad of opportunities women have seized—pastoral leadership, theological influence, missiological advancement, teaching, preaching, etc.—in order to advance the work of the kingdom, many times turning their “constraints into assets” (xi). As noted in the introduction, the authors approached the topic from the perspective of “breadth rather than depth” (9), substantiating their claims by introducing short vignettes of a number of influential women in every age in order to “dispute the narrative that there are only a handful of important women in church history” (9).
While on the one hand discussing opportunities for women, on the other they recount sobering stories detailing the demanding challenges and “gender-based obstacles” (xi) blocking the path of women who answered God’s call on their lives. Christian women have faced towering and horrific obstacles, from Greco-Roman philosophical perspectives that devalued the personhood of women, to physical harm and martyrdom of all varieties, to their suppression and erasure, quite literally, from the pages of history. Though touched upon briefly but adding to the power of the book, Dzubinski and Stasson accurately call attention to the fact that it is not just Christian women, but women of most every culture, ethnicity, and profession who have faced and continue to face persecution, suffering, and oppression.
Methodologically, Dzubinski and Stasson wisely follow a chronological approach to the history of women in the mission of the church, moving from “Women’s Leadership in the Early Church” (Part 1) to “Women’s Leadership in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages” (Part 2), and, finally, to “Women’s Leadership Since the Reformation” (Part 3). Covering the early church to the fifth century, Part 1 is separated into two chapters, the first of which notes the abundant presence of female patrons, apostles, widows, missionaries, and martyrs in the early church. The second chapter surveys the role of virgins, scholars, desert mothers, and deacons. Part 2 is a compilation of three chapters. Refreshingly, chapter three includes a listing of women who are rarely discussed and often forgotten in Christian histories of women. Mothers, sisters, empresses, and queens are given center-stage for their role in furthering the geographical boundaries of Christianity, developing fundamental Christian practices, and fostering vast theological output. The fourth chapter establishes the substantial impact made by medieval nuns, while the fifth chapter attends to the Beguine movement, the forced claustration of all religious women, the subsequent flowering of mysticism, and the mixed impact of the Protestant Reformation on women in the church.
The third section, in turning to the years following the Reformation, commits an entire chapter to the task of preaching, an enterprise directed toward conservative biblical interpretations and undertaken by the authors for the purpose of stressing the actuality that preaching was a practice and an issue of contention arising long before the feminist movement of the mid-twentieth century. Stories of women’s work in social justice are outlined in Chapter 7, while Chapter 8 concentrates on the diverse involvement of women in the missionary movement of the nineteenth century. Chapter 9 concludes with the evolving opportunities and challenges for women in the faith mission movement, as evangelists, and as founders of churches across the globe.
Time and again throughout their work Dzubinski and Stasson posit that women were not tangential and incidental participants in advancing the Great Commission as some historical perspectives are wont to indicate. More importantly, women were indispensable to the church and its mission, persistently shaping all facets of its theology and practice from the very beginning. In a thought-provoking twist, the authors move away from a male-influenced concept of leadership in which leadership connotes primarily the formal possession of a public position of power, such as a teaching office or an ordained ministerial role. Instead, leadership is broadened to include both formal positions of authority and informal roles in which one has “influence in society” (7). Subsequently, I was delighted by the authors’ decision to give voice and consideration to women of all vocations. Whether “married, celibate, active, [or contemplative]” the accepted premise is that “all vocations…are important to the work of God in the world.” The authors faithfully demonstrate that women were instrumental in handing on “the baton of leadership” (143) both formally and informally, in public and private settings, by way of story, teaching, faithfulness, martyrdom, and preaching.
The strengths of Dzubinski’s and Stasson’s work lie in the authors’ critical work of bringing to light novel texts, shedding light on a diverse array of women, and speaking truth to pertinent societal issues. Not only is the book written by women, but the firsthand narratives utilized in the text are also written by women, a point which places the locus of interpretation squarely on the shoulders of women rather than on the men who write about women. Though not exhaustive, Dzubinski and Stasson further expand on the work of previous writers of women’s history in the church by broadening their story base beyond European and North American borders and incorporating narratives that describe the influence of indigenous, Black, Asian, and African women on the mission of the church. Furthermore, Dzubinski’s and Stasson’s fearless quest to name the hard truths from which many white North American authors shrink—the dark side of colonialism, the ‘white savior complex,’ critiques of White women, challenges faced by Black women, and racism—was deeply appreciated as part of the discourse.
Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History is a concise, accessible, and well-researched volume suitable for a spectrum of audiences, from pastors and laity alike to students in a college or seminary course offering a survey of church history, women in church history and theology, world mission, or global Christianity. Its succinctness, courageous discussion of hard topics, inclusion of powerful new stories heretofore unexplored, and value of the contributions of women from a diverse assortment of backgrounds make this an important resource. If desiring a weightier text incorporating primary source readings or detailing a more comprehensive, in-depth examination of the life, theology, and writings of women in the history of the church, one would need to look elsewhere.
As Dzubinski and Stasson remind their readers, “women in ministry was not a new idea of the twentieth century…but was instead God’s [italics mine] plan from the beginning” (xi). It is this plan, of God rather than mortal beings, which is a life-giving, secondary theme running the length of the book. After reading the appalling and heinous acts committed against women in church history, I am convinced anew that only a true calling from God is able to impart the courage and tenacity required by women, not only to remain in the Christian tradition, but to actively further the mission of the church. Dzubinski’s and Stasson’s monograph prophetically points toward the altar of repentance at which the oppressors of women must fall. Furthermore, it conclusively disabuses any and all notions of women as incapable, ignorant, cowardly, inferior, tangential, or insignificant to the work of the kingdom.