Preachers Debate Role of Single Women in Global Missions

The role of single women in the mission field was debated this past weekend as Pastor John Piper sought to provide a biblical response to the somewhat contentious issue.

Piper, one of the most influential theologians in the country, acknowledged that the number of women in the mission field is huge and that they fill all kinds of missionary roles. All of those roles would be appropriate, he said, as long as they do not involve her in the role of an elder.

"What the Bible calls for is men to lead the church and lead the home. Men should be the elders (authoritative teachers) in the church and men should be the heads in their home," he started out saying at the Desiring God national conference in Minneapolis on Saturday.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for a woman to be an elder on a mission field," he contended.

"I don't think it's inappropriate for her to fill all kinds of missionary roles that don't involve her in the role of an elder. I don't think that would exclude evangelism, sharing her faith and hundreds of other kinds of support roles."

Piper, pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church, was on stage with four other speakers who were described as complementarians – those who see men and women as equal in dignity and worth but believe men and women have differing yet complementary roles.

Most of the speakers chose not to address the question "Would you describe for us the place of single women in global missions?" which left Piper to outline his thoughts on the appropriate role for women.

"Historically, the women who have, as singles especially, entered the mission force have been complementarians. They would have happily affirmed that when a church is formed here a man in this culture should take over, not a woman," the Minneapolis pastor said.

"I'm sure if a woman goes as a witness to her Lord, say as a nurse or teacher of English or just as an itinerant evangelist type, she's going to have these borderline, ambiguous experiences where 'I wonder if what I'm doing right now is an elder-like experience sharing the Gospel in this village with men and women,'" he continued.

"I think at those moments, we should cut that a lot of slack and seek to say demeanor and disposition and theological orientation at that moment will make a big difference in whether she crosses the line into doing something that the Bible would find disobedient."

Michael Oh, president and founder of Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya, Japan, responded with somewhat of a pushback.

He noted that the best and most effective missionary he knows in Nagoya, is a female who is single. He also pointed out that the largest church in that same city was until recently led by a 94-year-old female pastor.

"We can complain about what you may see as something that's biblically wrong in terms of the role of women in missions but if you believe so strongly in that, you go ... you fill that pulpit, you stand up, you act on that conviction and you go," Oh said passionately.

"I think there are men and pastors and seminary-trained guys who need to step it up before you complain about a woman doing something else."

The Desiring God conference, held Sept. 23-25, focused on world evangelization under the theme "Finish the Mission: For the Joy of All Peoples; Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged."

Piper, who led the event, said the conference was a long time in coming as he felt a burden for the more than 6,000 people groups that remain without access to the Gospel.

Encouraging those who feel called to cross-cultural missions, Piper reminded them to focus on magnifying the greatness of God and on the saving power of Jesus Christ.

"Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. This is what the world needs to hear," he said in a follow-up video message Monday. "We have the best news in all the world."

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