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Words from Cathy Ross on women in missions and missiology

Cathy Ross’ lecture on women’s perspectives on contextual missiology offers a fascinating discussion of the role of women in missions and how we are to view this from both a Christian and feminist perspective.

First, the situation.

Historically we know that women have been deeply engaged in the work of mission, but because women were seen as adjuncts to men, they were systematically written out of historical and anthropological records… In fact, missionary was a male noun… The early CMS records sometimes did not even note the name of the wife – merely according her a little ‘m’ to denote that the male missionary was married.

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In the latter part of the lecture, she goes on to suggestion what a missiology that has been influenced by women might look like. However, here I want to focus on her discussion of the worth of ‘women’s work’ in missions and the reasons for acknowledging it. She argues that the invisibility of women’s work may be either a way of being like Christ or a vehicle for nurturing societal sin. It depends on the context.

The following questions are mine and the answers taken from her lecture.

So what were women actually doing?
The kind of work often performed by women – hospitality, visiting, counselling, ministries of compassion and children’s work has tended to be seen as secondary to the primary tasks performed by men.

Do women need recognition? Isn’t there something noble in working behind-the-scenes?
Women are familiar with approaches that are hidden, less recognised and rarely celebrated. We need to recover these perspectives in our missiology. After all, this was the approach of Jesus in his ministry where he emptied himself for the sake of others, where he sometimes even asked people to keep his healing miracles secret, where he declared that the first would be last, and told his disciples that we all need to take up our cross to follow him.

So is it OK for the contributions of women to be overlooked?
Feminists would claim that a missiology of emptiness and a missiology of hiddenness are not healthy approaches for women. They say that women are already socialised into self-sacrifice and servanthood and that these approaches can only reinforce this unhelpfully. This can be dangerous for women where Christian attitudes of service and self-sacrifice can be taken too far and therefore result in unhealthy oppression of women… Oppression works like a blinder preventing us from seeing that we are caught in sin.

So how do we advocate for women’s histories in missiology?
And so while I would continue to make a plea for a missiology of emptiness and a missiology of hiddenness to be practised by both women and men, I realise that context is vital and will mean important nuancing. If one is already invisible, excluded or oppressed then a missiology of emptiness and hiddenness may not be appropriate. If one is reading this from a position of relative power, then it is a very different story.

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. How fascinating to read this. I saw the picture of Cathy in my reader before I opened the blog and thought how do I know that face? I was in a Women’s discussion group called Broadly Orthodox Women with Cathy in Auckland about 15 years ago when I had v young children. It was important for me in realising that being a Bible believing feminist woman was not oxymoronic!

  2. Apart from the issues of exclusion/oppression and justice for women, mission history which leaves out women is of little use for the church in our mission today (and indigenous people too. Historically most missionaries have been women and most evangelism done by indigenous people – though you wouldn’t know it from a lot of mission history). It gives rise to all sorts of distorted expectations about what is possible or how things should be done.

    1. Great point Laura! Too often our expectations of mission and world evangelisation are of ‘professionals’, who often are male leaders. Recovering women’s history challenges that expectation. I remember reading of Ethiopian Christian women who emigrate to the Middle East to work as domestic servants and nannies – they are something of an invisible movement for evangelising that part of the world.

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