Adeney writes on the positions of women doing missions that during most of the history of Christianity, theology has been the domain of man. While women were leaders in the early church, as the church, women were relegated to positions of learner and follower. Men became the educated Christian teacher, as the ones that studied the word and interpreted the Bible to others (277). In the early stage of the gospel, women traveled with Jesus, formed churches in their households instructed Christian leaders, and even became apostles. Those missionary activities developed out of and supported a women’s mission theology of action, leadership, and dedication to the gospel. Woman participated in church leadership even after the middle of the second century. Tertullian decaled that woman dared “to teach, to debate, to exorcise, to promise cures probably even to baptize” (Fiorenza 1979:51). More recently, during the missionary movement beginning in the first great awakening in America, and moving on to the present, many women were called to be missionaries (Robert 1997).
Although they worked diligently alongside of man and often found themselves leading or instructing men, generally they did not hold positions of power, nor were they welcomed to study in higher institutions to prepare them for theology. Nonetheless, women have been doing mission theology during these centuries making their mark on Christian mission. Many records of women’s mission work and what they thought about it have been lost, but much is being regained through historical work like that of Dana Robert, Dianna Reistroffer, and Bonnie Sue Lewis. The experience of encounter and calling as missionary woman creates, for many woman, a huge tension in their personal lives. Many woman called to mission have neither theological understanding of leadership nor a supportive community (Frances 278-9).
Dries notes historically that in the 19th and much of 20th centuries, the Roman Catholic appropriation of “woman’s work for women” found expression in philosophical, biblical, and theological language which attempted to support the human dignity of woman but which also kept the gender domains separate (127-142). However, commonly identified missionary virtues of zeal, self-sacrifice, prayer, generosity, improvisation, initiative, and frontier spirit knew no gender, even though standard mission theory identified woman missionary as “auxiliary” to the task of mission. Over the decades, woman’s attention to the health, education and spiritual needs of people built up the social service and educational institutions, wherever they served (Dries 301).
However, the role of women in evangelizing the pagan Roman world displays the energetic position of women in missions. As any veteran pastor can testify, women on the whole put men to shame when it comes to attending church and serving their Lord in various organizations in a local congregation. One gets a hint of a similar situation existing in the early Church. It was women, not men, who cared enough to finish embalming the dead body of Jesus, only to be rewarded with the privilege of being the first people to see the risen Christ (Pless 1985).
Throughout the book of Acts, women play a prominent role. Dorcas, Lydia, Priscilla, the four prophesying daughters of Philip, the upper-class women of Berea and Thessalonica as to name a few. While little is extant in early Christian literature about women publicly preaching the Word, Green and Harnack especially point out that the dedication of Christian women in the face of martyrdom could not but help make a deep and lasting impression on both their persecutors and the unbelieving world in general. The two most notable examples of Christian women martyrs are Perpetua (d. 203 A.D.) and Blandina (d. 177 A.D.) Green: “If women like this were at all typical throughout the varied social strata of the Church, it is hardly surprising that the gospel overcame the enormous obstacles in its way, and began to capture the Roman Empire” (Green 175).
Adeney, Frances. Women Doing Mission Theology. Missiology, An International Review Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No 3, July 2005.
Dries, Angelyn, OSF. American Catholic ‘Woman’s Work for Woman’ in the Twentieth Century. Dana Robert, ed. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2002.
Dries, Angelyn, OSF. U.S. Catholic Woman and Mission: Integral or Auxiliary? Missiology, An International Review Journal, Vol. XXXIII, No 3, July 2005.
Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970.
Harnack, Adolf. The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. vol. II. Translated and edited by James Moffatt. New York: William and Norgate, 1908.
Pless, Joel L. Evangelism in the Early Church. Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, November 14, 1985.
Robert, Dana. America Women in Mission: A Social History of their Thought and Practices. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997.