Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History

By Leanne M. Dzubinski and Anneke H. Stasson
Baker Academic, 2021
241 pages

Reviewed by Reta Halteman Finger

Women in the Mission of the Church Book Cover
Women in the Mission of the Church Book Cover

Did you know that women were involved in third-century monasticism from the beginning? Have you ever heard of Marcella, Paula, or Melania? Neither had I.

Did you know that three medieval queens—Clotilda, Bertha, and Ethelberga—married pagan kings, then brought their husbands and their entire kingdoms to Christianity? Neither did I.

Did you know that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, nuns couldn’t join monks and priests in processions through towns on holy days, or attend the growing universities throughout Europe? Neither did I.

Did you know that Jarena Lee (1783–1864) was the first woman authorized to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church? Neither did I. And what a preacher she was!

If your answers are the same as mine, that’s why you need to read this book! Yes, I know its title suggests a weighty academic tome stuffed with footnotes and obscure language that would take weeks to plow through. But what I found, instead, was a well-organized (though somewhat selective) history with a very accessible writing style and so much new and insightful information I could hardly lay it down! 

I was impressed with the breadth of material covered—the different forms “church” took through the ages, as well as the various ways women adapted to their circumstances to carry on the mission of the church. There are many footnotes and an 18-page bibliography, but the footnotes are short and unobtrusive, and I recognized various names of my fellow feminists!

The title does sound a bit stuffy, but it’s accurate. The “mission” of the church was to keep pushing the gospel of Jesus ever further beyond its origins and into a great variety of contexts and cultures. The subtitle also reflects the organization of each chapter. As women in each era broke new ground, opportunities for leadership grew, but so also did the obstacles. Leanne Dzubinski and Anneke Stasson carefully include both aspects of mission. And those male-flavored obstacles were those we encounter in various forms today: institutionalism, sexism, colonialism, and racism. 

After an introductory chapter on women in ministry, the book is divided into three historical eras. The book’s outline is included below because it demonstrates the wide range of roles women have played in the mission of the church. Though the chapters are generally chronological, there is some overlap, since they also are organized by women’s roles. Each chapter begins with a vertical timeline of major events in church history and where the named women, or groups of women, fit in.

Part One: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church

Chapter 1: Patrons, Missionaries, Apostles, Widows, and Martyrs

Chapter 2: Virgins, Scholars, Desert Mothers, and Deacons

Part Two: Women’s Leadership in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Chapter 3: Mothers, Sisters, Empresses, and Queens

Chapter 4: Medieval Nuns

Chapter 5: Beguines and Mystics

Part Three: Women’s Leadership since the Reformation

Chapter 6: Women Preachers in America

Chapter 7: Social Justice Activists

Chapter 8: Denominational Missionaries and Bible Women

Chapter 9: Faith Missionaries, Evangelists, and Church Founders

Readers can see a broad scope of women’s leadership through the past twenty centuries. It reminds us how little we know of our foremothers and role models from the past. When Stasson once asked her students, “What difference does it make to you to know this history?” one of them replied, “I feel like I’m uncovering a lie” (p. 212).

There are, of course, certain limitations in this book. “For every story we did include,” say the authors, “there are many others that we didn’t, and multitudes of stories beyond those that are completely lost to history” (p. x). In addition, their sources have been primarily in English, and “the perspectives we can obtain are primarily those of English-speaking Westerners” (p. x). The authors admit they “have not scratched the surface of the contributions of women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America” but, instead, include some accounts of British or American women missionaries in Africa and China (Chapter 9). And they concede that they have “not done an extensive, critical examination of racism, colonialism, and other ’-isms’ that have plagued the church” (p. x).  

For myself as an Anabaptist Mennonite, I was disappointed that little was said about the early sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation—and nothing at all about the Radical Anabaptists who broke from the state churches of Germany and Switzerland to follow Jesus in simplicity and nonviolence. Relentlessly persecuted by Catholics, Reformed, and Lutherans alike, both women and men courageously endured martyrdom by drowning, by the sword, or by being burned at the stake as their lower-class movement spread across Europe. As an example, of the 27 illustrations in the original Martyr’s Mirror of the Defenseless Christians (translated from Dutch, 1660), only seven are of women. 

Nevertheless, the information Dzubinski and Stasson have included is far beyond what most of us know about women in church history. I am in awe of foremothers who were martyred for their faith, of those who pushed their way into unknown lands to proclaim the gospel, and of those who chose celibacy to better care for the poor and sick in their communities—all the while forced to confront male bastions of power.

And the challenge isn’t over! Apparently from an evangelical tradition, the authors end their ninth chapter on missionary women and church founders on a rather depressing note: “Women in executive leadership in Western evangelical mission agencies today also have to carefully navigate the limited space allotted for them to lead.” Since gender roles are usually prescribed, “women leaders mostly accept and follow the gender scripts while cautiously maneuvering those scripts to be able to fulfill God’s calling” (p. 200).

Nevertheless, by bringing together these accounts of women in the mission of the church over nearly 2000 years, Dzubinski and Stasson can inspire Christian women today from many different church backgrounds to challenge structures that keep them subordinate to men. I highly recommend this book for its readability, its broad historical arc from Christian origins to the present, and its relentless promotion of full equality of women—black, brown, and white—with men in the ongoing mission of the church of Jesus Christ.

 

© 2022 by Christian Feminism Today.
Please request written permission before reprinting any part of this review.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Jean,
    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
    But as you can see by the end of the book, we’re still far from gender equality in various parts of the church.

  2. Goodness, Reta, this is an excellent book review. You have made me want to read this book!

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