In 2001, we walked among the pilgrims in Allahabad, India, where on one “holy” day, twenty-four million Hindus dipped in the Ganges River, many chanting, “Behold the Mother Ganga who takes away the sins of the world.” We prayed, “Jesus, what do you think when you see these masses of people?”
Immediately, our minds turned to Matthew 9:36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus then instructed his followers to pray that God would send out more workers, realizing more laborers would provide direction and hope. With the heart of a shepherd, Jesus demonstrated both compassion and commitment to work with humans to complete the Missio Dei—God’s purposes to redeem, restore, and renew creation.
As mission practitioners focused on the least-reached peoples, we consistently find ourselves trying to better understand the heart of God as well as God’s purposes and strategies. How can the Church mobilize effectively all of its people and resources so that the whole world, all ethnic groups, can experience the whole gospel?
“Ironing Out” the Wrinkle in Relationship
We propose that when both males and females partner together and use their God-given gifts, the Lord uses this powerful unity to advance his mission. In John 17, Jesus prayed for unity, stating that the world would recognize the unity of the Church, and this unity would help the world understand the love of God. The first human relationship attacked on the earth was between the male and the female. Could this be a wrinkle in the Body of Christ that Jesus intends to be “ironed out” so that the Church can impact society at its most fundamental level?
Following the Hebrew concept of “book-end” theology, if this was the first human relationship attacked, will it then be the final human relationship reconciled? A more poignant question may be, “Is God waiting to bring in the final harvest when the Church demonstrates a new kingdom ethic related to males and females?” Read these questions we have been posed:
- A young Hindu woman approached me on the Delhi University campus. She stated, “I know you and your husband are Christians, and I know you teach about marriage. In my country, both Hindus and Muslims say men are here and women are here (she indicated inequality with her hands). I have two questions for you: What does your God think about men and women? And what do followers of your religion practice?”
- An Indian government leader sat in our home one evening. With a bit of condescension, he stated confidently, “I know Christianity is not true. Show me your female priests! Show me your female pastors or preachers! At least in Hinduism, we worship and value female energy.”
- In the U.S., a Christian woman in her thirties shared, “I always knew I was smart, talented, and gifted. But I just figured that God didn’t really need me because I was a woman.”
- A 10-year-old girl attending a Christian school asked with a furrowed brow, “Does God love boys more than girls? I felt like it when the teacher told the story. The boys started rubbing it in that they were better than girls and used the Bible to do it.”
As a married couple, we have journeyed together to understand how God desires to use both males and females in his kingdom. Our studies have led us to ask questions such as:
- Does God distribute spiritual gifts based upon one’s gender?
- Are gifts of leadership, visionary thinking, and preaching male-only gifts? If so, what should a woman do when she possesses such gifts?
- How does the redemptive act of Christ affect the male/female relationship and authority structures of the world?
- Do the authority structures in the world mirror exactly God’s ideal authority structures, or does the world skew God’s original intent?
- How does God desire for males and females to participate in his mission to reconcile the world to himself?
- If “mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation,”1 then how does Christ’s crucifixion heal and impact God’s purposes for males and females?
Reconciling the Relationship between Man and Woman on the Cross
Obviously, the work of Jesus on the cross reconciles God and humanity. From our theological studies, we propose that the cross powerfully affects every type of relationship, including the relationship between a man and woman. The cross provides the opportunity for men and women to reflect again the imago Dei from a Trinitarian perspective of co-blessing, co-responsibility, and co-dominion.
We know different beliefs exist within the Church on the topic of males and females. Yet our own theological journey and experience in God’s mission, particularly with some Chinese and Indian brothers and sisters, has led us to a conclusion: when the Church releases believers to use the gifts God gives, regardless of gender, the Great Commission advances.
In 2001, an Indian couple asked us to teach a seminar to about one hundred Indian pastors on male/female relationships in the church and home. One month later, we received this report. “Praise the Lord! X [the husband] went to one unreached village and thirty-five people received Christ! Praise the Lord! Y [the wife] went to one unreached village and 315 people received Christ!” Churches began in both areas and remain to this day.
Empowering the Women
Our organization currently partners with X and Y. In 2007, we began a coordinated effort with Y to empower women as church planters. We documented each equipping seminar, each woman, and each woman's effectiveness on the field. We wanted to discover if women could be equipped, empowered, and used by God in leadership in a society known for its oppression of females. God truly uses the weak vessels of the world to confound the wise! At the end of 2008 we and our partner had equipped 996 women as church planters. These women began 4,185 new house churches (numbers verified) among eleven different least-reached people groups. Each house church consists of at least ten baptized adults. Thus, these women have led at least forty thousand men, women, and children to Christ.
Recently, we attended a church in the West where a leader stated, “At the foot of the cross, we are all equal.” Yet when we looked around, we saw that only men took up the offering, made announcements, prayed, and baptized others. Only men taught adult Sunday school classes. Men on staff were called “ministers” or “pastors” while women on staff were “directors.” Posters of the men’s ministry indicated that the success of a family, church, or nation depends solely upon men. Of course, women could teach children, sing, attend women’s ministry, or work in the nursery.
We contrasted this Sunday experience with the remark of a Chinese sister: “I am amazed that women in some nations find great privilege in taking up the offering. In our context, women and men start churches and both serve as co-workers. Both men and women lead millions. If God gives both the power to start churches, God will certainly give both the gifts needed to lead and pastor the churches.”
Accepting the Gifting Is Accepting the Holy Spirit
Essentially, accepting the gifting of another brother or sister is accepting the Holy Spirit in that person. This acceptance includes all God’s people in God’s mission. In 2005, I (Leslie) attended a mission conference in Indonesia called Ethne. Chad did not go. Upon leaving the conference, I rode to the airport in a bus with a man from Colorado. He asked about our ministry. When I described our work he responded, “So what are your husband’s spiritual gifts that enable him to do this?” Another time, I sat at a table with a leading Christian apologist from the United States. Again, Chad was not there. I shared about our ministry, and the apoligist remarked, “So I need to meet your husband. What are his spiritual gifts?”
We encourage the Church to reflect upon the redemptive story of scripture and recognize the gifting that God implants within believers—both males and females. With millions who still need to hear and see the story of Jesus, let us discover how we can multiply the laborers. Let us discover how we can display a unity that draws the world to understand God’s love (John 17). Let us do anything and everything to live as effective ministers, ambassadors, and messengers of reconciliation.
By our willingness to partner with one another, Christians display God’s ability to heal and restore creation. May men and women partner together with unity, synergy, and power for the Great Commission.
1. Guder, Darrell L., Lois Barrett, Inagrace T. Dietterich, George R. Hunsberger, Alan J. Roxburgh, and Craig Van Gelder. 1998. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: William B. Eerdmans.