Female Missionaries

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fm1thumbIn our recent World Outreach Celebration the question was raised with reference to whether women should legitimately be sent as missionaries. This question is not one that is quickly and easily answered. But it is one with which I have wrestled over the years and is one which the elders have come to some conclusions.

The following is in essence a policy document that is to guide us in our decision-making process when it comes to the question as to whether or not to send a female member as a “missionary” from BBC. It is rather lengthy, but this is because we have sought to think through this matter carefully in the light of Scripture.

When it comes to the Great Commission the Scriptural mandate is that all of God’s people make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Obviously, therefore, this means that women are to do so as well as men.

But when it comes to doing so in another culture—when it comes to doing so under the umbrella of “missions” (particularly as foreign “missionaries”)—are women to be exempt from this? If a woman feels compelled to be a “missionary,” is she to be encouraged towards this? Discouraged from this? In other words, is a female missionary a biblical category? Or at the least, is it biblically permissible? The purpose of this article is to address such questions as a means to help us a as to local church to formulate a more comprehensive missions policy.

What is a missionary?

We must begin with the question, what is a missionary?

The word “missionary” is not found in the Scriptures, but it is important that we have a working definition, even if it is less than ideal. This working definition at the least gives to us a framework from which to work.

Historically, BBC’s working definition of a missionary is: “a proven church member who is sent by their local church to another culture to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ with a view to the planting of a local church.” Note some of the elements involved in this:

  • “proven”—that is, in character, competence and in communion (“connection” to the Body);
  • “sent”—the church identifies with their call; the church participates in their call in the sense of seeing them as a “substitute” for it as they are sent to represent it in Christ’s stead. The church participates in prayer and ongoing material support for those whom it sends. This is deduced from, among other considerations, the example of Acts 13:3 as the leadership laid hands on those they sent.
  • “another culture”—this does not necessarily mean another country, but rather to a people that for good reason cannot be meaningfully engaged by the local church. Therefore the church “sends” a member to go there to do so. See Acts 13:4ff.
  • “make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ”—to evangelise and to then teach and lead to Christian maturity those who have been born again (Acts 11:22-26ff).
  • “with a view to the planting of a local church”—since the local church is the loci of disciples of Christ, it is to be expected that where disciples are being made a local church will be planted. This, of course, was Paul’s pattern throughout the book of Acts. It is to be ours as well. Therefore the assumption is that those sent as missionaries will be focused on the planting of a local church.

Having noted these issues much more needs to be said.

There are three aspects to the planting of a local church as seen in the planting of the church in Syrian Antioch:

  • The founding of the church (11:19-21);
  • The grounding of the church (11:22-26); and
  • The testing of the church (11:27-30).

These differing stages in the planting of the church are all necessary, and a church probably has not been fully planted until these are in place. Hence, I think it is fair to refer to someone as a “missionary” who is helping to further ground a local church. In other words, one does not need to be a “church planter” in order to be meaningfully engaged in “missions.”

If this is accepted then it would be a legitimate “missionary ministry” if one goes to another culture to strengthen that church further by disciple-making.

Now, having made these observations, it seems quite logical that a woman could be sent from BBC under the category of “missionary” to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in another culture. But of course this all hinges on her being connected to the local church (in that culture) to which disciples are being connected. But before fleshing this conclusion out we need to step back and consider the next very important question.

Is there biblical justification?

What I have argued above is from inference of Scripture. So the vital question is, do we have Scriptural justification for women as missionaries?

It may surprise you that the evidence in Scripture of a woman being sent out as a missionary is nonexistent. We read of Paul, Barnabas, Timothy, Epaphroditus, Titus and perhaps a few others who were sent as “messengers” (apostellos) of the churches, but there is no evidence of a woman being sent.

Perhaps the silence reflects the reality that the church did not see this work as that which should be given to females. And that motivation may indeed be due to their high estimation of them and the desire to protect them. Missions is tough work and should be seen as masculine work (at least with reference to pioneering work and the starting of a local church).

However there is evidence of women serving the Lord in the forming and even the strengthening of the local church. One thinks of Priscilla (Acts 18:2-26; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19) and Lydia (Acts 16:14-40). In the former case, she worked alongside of her husband in different locales to great benefit of the church. In the latter case, it would appear that Lydia was a single woman who laboured faithfully in Philippi as a founding member of the church in that locale. One also thinks of Phoebe, who was a faithful servant of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1-2).

Putting these together we can conclude that women have valuable contributions to the strengthening of the local church (and, in Lydia’s case, to the founding of a church). And since we have established that such strengthening of a local church is vital in the missionary endeavour, therefore as a church we should give consideration to a woman’s desire to serve on the “foreign field.”

Perhaps 1 Timothy 5 helps us in our thinking. There was definitely a list of women who received financial support from the church in return for their ministry to other women in the church. Thus, there is precedent for the local church funding women ministers. Of course these women were widows, and Paul does encourage the younger women to marry, but there is a principle here not to be ignored.

But before rashly opening wide the door for female missionaries, we need to tread cautiously for several biblical reasons.

First, it is quite clear in Scripture that God’s intention for women is that they marry and raise a godly seed (1 Timothy 5, etc.). Therefore, young women should not be encouraged to go into missions as a first option.

Second, since women cannot be pastors, they are limited in the work of missions; in fact, they are limited from the main objective of missions, which is the establishing/planting of a local church, which by nature almost always involves teaching men in public worship.

Third, since women are to be under the headship of a man (a father, husband, a father-figure, eldership), BBC must not send a woman into the sphere of missions unless it is certain that she will be accountable to and protected by godly male headship on the field. This is nonnegotiable. The eldership of BBC takes very seriously our mandate to care for the flock, and this includes giving protective leadership of church members who are single women without “present” fathers as well as widows. It is for this reason that we would never send a single woman to the “mission field” unless we were confident that she would be under the safe headship of another.

Other considerations

Having considered this, we need to think through some other issues related to the above.

Stewardship of resources and gravity of need

Since there is only so much money and resources available at any given time for missions, the local church must prioritise who it sends to do what. There are many legitimate needs, and a particular local church cannot meet them all. Therefore, it would seem that the planting of the local church (particularly the founding of the local church) should be our priority.

I would suggest that, when it comes to financial support, there should be various tiers of support. Those going to a culture to start a local church should have financial priority, and those going to strengthen an existing church would receive less of the financial pie.

As we have seen, female missionaries can indeed be used of God to help to strengthen a local church (both at home and abroad) and therefore could be sent by BBC—with financial support.

BBC should be both prepared and willing to financially support women who are engaged in making disciples elsewhere, but without the expectation that BBC will be a major financial “backer” in the light of the observations above.

This however in no way should be seen as communicating that what she is doing is of little importance. Most surely, if the leadership can in clear conscience lay its hands on her as a “sent one,” she will have the full prayer, emotional, relational and spiritual support of the congregation. Further, I see no reason to quibble over referring to her as a “missionary.”

BBC’s female missionary policy

In the light of all of the above it would seem that BBC’s missions policy with reference to women as missionaries should reflect the following.

Women may be sent by BBC, and thus supported by BBC, as a “missionary” providing that:

  • Her ministry is focused on making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ defined as: the ministry of evangelism and then teaching new converts all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). She can carry this out with both women and children. Though there is no biblical restriction with reference to evangelising men, the discipleship of men who are converted should be left to the men in the local church plant.
  • Her ministry will be legitimately aligned with the intentional and practical purpose of the establishing of a local church.
  • She is under godly male headship in her place of ministry.
  • She respects the biblical parameters as revealed in 1 Timothy 2:11-15, etc.
  • Her singleness has been taken into consideration by the eldership and they are convinced that her bypassing of marriage (for the time-being) is wisely justifiable.
  • Her giftedness can be better used in missions rather than locally at home.

In most of these cases the female missionary will be sent “vocationally,” meaning that she would go to the place in a tent-making capacity.

The missionary wife

It is perhaps necessary at this point to say a word regarding how BBC should view the missionary’s wife.

Of course, even this statement may be open to debate, as some would argue that the wife of a missionary is as much a missionary as her husband. Upon reflection, however, this probably should not be our outlook.

First, we have no Scriptural evidence of this. The closest that we come to anything like this is Aquila and Priscilla. This couple clearly served the Lord together but we have no evidence that they were sent out as missionaries. They were a married couple who served the Lord as they should: as a team. This is to be the norm for all believing couples. Perhaps some would argue from 1 Corinthians 9:5 that the wives of the apostles travelled with them and thus were considered “missionaries.” That would be a huge exegetical leap.

Second, a wife of a missionary is biblically expected to do what the wife of a labourer or the wife of a professional or the wife of any husband is to do: to be a homemaker. Her highest calling is to be the helpmeet of her husband and the godly mother of children providentially given to her. Just as we should not expect the wife of a pastor to be a female version of what he does, neither should we expect that the wife of a missionary to be a female missionary.

Cleary she will be involved in the ministry in a significant way, but the church has no biblical authority to expect her to do the work which we have sent her husband to do.

In the light of the above BBC should continue to practice the outlook of sending the man as the missionary while acknowledging his wife as an integral partner in the task as his helpmeet. Therefore, if BBC sends two couples to the field then we will say that we have two missionaries, not four.

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