On today’s “Ask Pastor John” episode, posted here, John Piper* is asked why so many single missionaries are women (80-85% of all single missionaries), and Piper responds that he doesn’t really know, but has a couple opinions, that are in short:
Single missionaries by and large would prefer to be married. Proposing marriage falls on men, so the type of man that is single because he lacks the courage to propose marriage also lacks the courage to become a missionary, which takes grit, courage and strength.
One thing I agree with, is that missions work takes grit, courage and strength. However, I have different opinions than Piper on this phenomenon of single women going into missions. Mine are,
- Conservative evangelical women who are gifted in leadership and teaching may only be permitted to use those gifts on the mission field.
- Conservative evangelical men who are gifted in leadership and teaching may use those gifts anywhere, and are often funneled into local ministry as young men and so do not need to look so hard for opportunities to lead.
My opinions come from personal experience as a young woman who aspired to be a missionary, and as an approaching-middle-aged woman who has been thinking and reading about gender issues in the Church for several years now.
I grew up in a pastor’s family, and my father loved missionary work so he was always planning missions trips and inviting missionaries to come to our church, where we would personally host them in our home. I remember as an 8 year old hearing about Amy Carmichael‘s missionary work in India in a Sunday School lesson. I am not someone who remembers every detail of my life, so a snapshot like this is usually significant, an a-ha! moment in my identity formation. Amy Carmichael is my earliest hero.
My family also spent three years living in Bolivia and Paraguay, South America, working in a boarding school for missionaries and filling in for missionaries on furlough in jungle and city locations. We met many single missionaries, all female except for four males (two of which were dismissed for molesting children).
Having been raised in the Conservative Baptist denomination, I never saw women in pastoral leadership. No one ever told me that with my leadership in the youth group and award winning speech contest record, that I could be a pastor one day. If a young man had demonstrated these qualities, he would have been invited to preach and been encouraged to pursue pastoral ministry in his schooling. When it was time for me to go to college, I only thought about two options – music ministry or missionary work. These were the only leadership roles that I had ever seen women in, and it was the entire scope of my imagination for my own life.
I had great love for God’s Kingdom and wanted to participate in bringing God’s redeeming work to the world. I studied music in college because I felt that was my spiritual gifting. And then I went to seminary and started out with a missions degree, but let my aunt and uncle talk me into a more ‘practical’ degree that could be used anywhere, Educational Ministries. I fell in love with my husband, a former missionary to Romania, and imagined us working overseas together. I was devastated when this didn’t come to pass, as it was my entire identity. I was going to be a missionary. I couldn’t imagine how I could use my gifts for God here in the USA.
One day, God had to out-right spell it out to me in an audible voice: “Ruth, I want you to co-pastor with your husband.” Logan had been talking about church planting, and I was saying, “OK, whatever,” but feeling zero passion personally about being involved in a church plant. I knew I would be relegated to babysitting and cooking and would be left out of the dreaming, teaching, leading part of ministry. Now I understand that dreaming, teaching and leading are aspects of my God-given design for co-dominion with my husband (Genesis 1:28).
I began reading voraciously about women in ministry. God began introducing us to couples who co-pastor. It was an exciting and enlightening time. It was also hurtful to realize that I had catching up to do in preparation for pastoral ministry, because I had never been guided as a young person towards leadership.
For the first time, I began to see how women in the Bible were leading all along. I began to learn about women pastors in the USA. At one time, there were more female Baptist pastors than male. However, they were serving in rural, impoverished churches while men had more desirable positions in cities and east coast towns. As rural towns became more prosperous, denominations began tightening their belts on women in ministry so that men could take their churches. Our own church in Maine had a history of female pastors generations ago. There has been a steady move away from allowing women in ministry in recent decades. It was not that long ago, 1987, that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was founded, and it was in 2000 that the Southern Baptist denomination stopped endorsing women’s ordination.
Of course, another avenue for women in ministry was mission work. On the field, women could teach and lead even the [non-white] men. There are aspects of classism, sexism and racism intersecting with the issue of women’s ordination. While women may not teach men in wealthy, white, Western churches, their work in Africa, Latin America or Asia is admired. Women may not preach in many of our churches, but a visiting missionary woman may “share” her experiences on the field with her sending church, sometimes even from behind the pulpit.
I would be remiss to not point out that Jesus never married before beginning his ministry, and Paul taught us to remain single for the sake of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 7:7-38). Too often, marriage is placed on a pedestal and given too much importance in the Evangelical tradition. Certainly, married couples can work together as a “Blessed Alliance” for the sake of the Gospel. But young people do not need to be married to serve the Lord. And I would guess that 80-85% of single people serving the Lord right here in the USA are male.
Let me share some more resources for further reading on women in ministry on the mission field and in local congregations.
Missiologist Jenny Rae Armstrong wrote a powerful piece about our privileged Western cultural perspective on womanhood and gender roles in this piece, “On Being a Woman After God’s Own Heart.”
Founder of Youth With a Mission, Loren Cunningham, believes women should serve in ministry alongside men. Here is a short video from the YWAM website:
God has gifted all of us for Kingdom work, and churches should be empowering the Priesthood of all Believers rather than setting a few up in a hierarchy of power in the Church. We should be guiding all of our church family to uncover their giftings and callings and make room for them in our congregations. It is a waste not to use each person to their full potential.
*John Piper is a pastor, theologian and co-founder of the complementarian organizations, The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. He is an influential force in conservative, reformed, fundamentalist evangelicalism, with a large following. On Facebook, he has 438,000 followers, 879,000 on Twitter, and his writings and sermons reach millions around the world.
Here are some rebuttals from Egalitarians to Tweets and sermons Piper has produced recently:
In 2012, John Piper said that Christianity had a “masculine feel” and Ben Witherington responded to his address with this excellent article: “John Piper on Men in Ministry and the Masculinity of Christianity.”
Sojourners Magazine includes John Piper in their great article on Kissing Sexist, Racist Christianity Goodbye.
John Piper is not at the fore-front of this post by Tim Fall, but he is in the background and Fall’s piece is great, so you should check it out. Silencing Women – the guaranteed way for men to stay in control.
Jory Micah responded to another Ask John episode about egalitarians and complementarians dating in this post.
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