Missionary Pioneers: A Legacy of Women and Men Advancing the Gospel Together

The gospel partnerships of men and women on mission fields today may seem unprecedented to some. Yet history is filled with examples of men and women using their gifts together, advancing the kingdom throughout the world.

In fact, many of today’s evangelical leaders stand as part of a glorious legacy of Christian men and women whose God-given talents advanced the gospel with passion, purpose and power. Even a short survey of mission history offers astonishing examples of men and women who worked together in advancing the gospel. Consider Paula and Jerome who translated the Bible from the original languages into Latin in the fourth century. Or consider Theodora and Justinian—emperor and empress of the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century who brokered peace between Christian factions and developed laws that aided female prostitutes. Or consider Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and his wife Katharine Von Bora. Or consider the missionaries of the nineteenth century such as Catherine and William Booth, Pandita Ramabai and Frances Willard. The gospel partnerships of missionaries throughout history are examples for us to celebrate and model today.

While men and women have advanced the gospel together throughout history, it was during the modern missionary movement of the 1800s when Christians began to develop a cohesive biblical basis for women’s service as gospel partners with men. Let us explore several leaders within the modern missionary movement and the biblical foundations they laid for men and women’s gospel service.

The Modern Era
According to historians, the modern mission movement began at the end of the eighteenth century as Christians in “Great Britain, Europe and North America, newly awakened to their missionary ‘obligations,’ founded an impressive array of mission societies.”1 Motivated by a concern for the imminent return of Christ, this movement had far-reaching results.

During the modern missionary movement of the 1800s Christians began to develop a cohesive biblical basis for women’s service as gospel partners with men.

By the final years of the twentieth century, more than half of all Christians in the world were to be found outside the region that had been the historical heartland of Christianity for nearly 1,500 years. New centers of Christian strength and vitality were now found in widely scattered places in the Americas, Africa and Asia.2

Beginning with the modern missionary movement, for the first time in history, Christians began to affirm a cohesive biblical basis for the shared public ministry of women as well as people of color. Between 1808 and 1930, more than forty-six biblical treatises were printed in support of women’s gift-based ministry.3 Their affirmation of women’s gospel service grew out of their commitment to evangelical priorities of biblical authority, evangelism and social action.4

As voracious students of the Bible, these nineteenth century Christians were dedicated to a high view of scripture. In fact, it was their respect for the authority of scripture that propelled them to new arenas of Christian service not only on the mission field, but also to areas of social action including abolition and universal suffrage. Holding scripture in high regard, they resisted any method of interpretation that undermined the authority of the Bible. They also opposed the proof text method of scripture that gave support to slavery and women’s exclusion from using their gifts on the mission fields. Rather, they sought to harmonize those passages that appeared in conflict with the whole of scripture regarding the equal value and dignity of every human being. Thus, they developed a whole-Bible hermeneutic that addressed gender and ministry from a gospel perspective. Here are a few examples:

1. Fredrik Franson (1852–1908) founded the Evangelical Alliance Mission and was a prominent leader of the Free Church Movement (now the Evangelical Free Church). He engaged women as part of his evangelistic outreach, and published his support of women’s leadership in an article entitled, “Prophesying Daughters: A Few Words Concerning Women’s Position in Regard to Evangelism.” Insisting that the whole of scripture affirms women’s public ministry, Franson held a Genesis to Revelation approach to understanding the ministry of women rather than concentrating on only two passages (1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34). He was troubled that anyone would establish a doctrine “on one or two passages in the Bible, without reading the references in their context.”5

2. A. J. Gordon (1836–1895), after whom Gordon College is named, was a prominent advocate of mission, abolition and women in ministry. Like others, Gordon put forward a whole-Bible approach to assess God’s intention for women in public ministry. His biblical study of women’s public ministry resulted in an 1894 publication entitled “The Ministry of Women.”6 For Gordon, Pentecost was the “Magna Charta of the Christian Church” as it demonstrated that women and all ethnic groups share equally in Christ’s new covenant community.7 Embracing a dispensational view of history, Gordon’s commitment to using the gifts of all people had a sense of urgency. In the new dispensation, those who had once been viewed as inferior by natural birth attain a new spiritual status through the power of the Holy Spirit. Women, along with all ethnic and social classes, have an “equal warrant with man’s for telling out the gospel of the grace of God.”8 God’s gifts no longer rested on a “favored few, but upon the many, without regard to race, or age or sex.”9

Gordon believed that Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2:8–11 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 should be understood in light of biblical examples of women’s leadership, preaching and prophesying. He also questioned why Paul would prohibit all women’s public ministry after describing the propriety in which their public service should be conducted. According to Gordon, “All texts that prohibit a practice in one place, while allowing it in another, must be considered in the light of the entire New Testament teaching—the teaching of prophecy, the teaching of practice and the teaching of contemporary history—if we would find the true meaning.”10

According to Gordon, there is “no scripture which prohibits women from praying or prophesying in the public assemblies of the Church.”

Gordon understood that interpreting scripture correctly works best when every Christian contributes to the discussion. To make important decisions as God’s people requires more that an understanding of Greek or Hebrew words. It requires prayer and dialogue so that the Spirit can work throughout the whole church as a “body of regenerate and sanctified believers.” He wrote that “To follow the voice of the Church apart from that of the written Word has never proved safe; but, on the other hand, it may be that we need to be admonished not to ignore the teaching of the deepest spiritual life of the Church in forming our conclusions concerning the meaning of scripture. It cannot be denied that in every great spiritual awakening in the history of Protestantism the impulse for Christian women to pray and witness for Christ in the public assembly has been found irrepressible.

3. Katharine Bushnell (1856–1946) worked as a medical doctor, scholar, missionary and activist. Her book, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Church and Home, was written in 1919 and remains in print today. Bushnell’s commitment to the authority of scripture was clear. She asserted that “the Bible is all that it claims for itself. It is (1) Inspired, 2 Timothy 3:16; (2) Infallible, Isaiah 40:8, and (3) Inviolable, John 10:35. Indeed, no other basis of procedure is available for us.”11

Like that of A. J. Gordon, Bushnell’s reading of scripture was also informed by her observations of women’s leadership on the mission field. This led her to affirm a gift-based rather than a gender-based approach to ministry. She also insisted upon a whole Bible approach as an interpretative method with a particular focus on Genesis. According to Bushnell, in Genesis we learn that Adam and Eve were both created in the image of God, that Adam and Eve were both equally called to be fruitful and to exercise dominion in Eden, that Eve was not the source of sin and that God does not curse women because of Eve. Rather, it was Satan, not God, who inspired the domination of men over women. God bestows leadership on those who do what is right in God’s sight, regardless of their gender, birth order, nationality or class.

Bushnell affirmed a gift-based rather than a gender-based approach to ministry.

Bushnell determined that Paul affirmed the shared leadership of men and women, provided that leadership is neither domineering nor abusive (1 Timothy 2:12), that those who teach must understand and advance the truth concerning the gospel (1 Timothy 2:11–12; Acts 18:26; Romans 16:1–5, 7, 12–13, 15) and that when women pray and prophesy in public they are not disruptive, either by their clothing or through their chatter (1 Corinthians 11:5 and 14:34). Ultimately, Bushnell grounds her understanding of women’s status not in the Fall, but in Christ’s completed work on Calvary.

Bushnell insists that a correct interpretation of scripture as it relates to women’s social, ecclesiastical and spiritual status should be determined in the same manner as man’s social, ecclesiastical and spiritual status, based on the atonement of Jesus Christ. According to her, “[We] cannot, for women, put the ‘new wine’ of the gospel into the old wine-skins of ‘condemnation.’”12

She condemns the prejudice and interpretative bias noted throughout Church history so that women’s status was viewed through Eve’s sin, rather than through their full redemption and inheritance in Christ. By challenging misinterpretation and error in Bible translation, Bushnell established a theological foundation for women’s ontological equality, a foundation that today’s Christians continue to build upon.

4. Catherine Booth (1829–1890), cofounder of the Salvation Army along with her husband William, was a noted preacher and a tenacious inner-city missionary. Catherine and William committed their lives to Christian service among the poverty-stricken neighborhoods of East London. When evangelist Phoebe Palmer was criticized for addressing audiences of both women and men in her lecture series, Catherine wrote a defense of women’s preaching. Her pamphlet entitled “Female Ministry or Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel,” is a concise and thorough survey of the biblical support for women’s public ministry.

Booth used a whole-Bible approach in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34, stating that “If commentators had dealt with the Bible on other subjects as they have dealt with it on this, taking isolated passages, separated from their explanatory connections, and insisting on the literal interpretation of the words of our version, what errors and contractions would have been forced upon the acceptance of the Church, and what terrible results would have accrued to the world.”13

According to Booth, if women bring people to Christ, then they are gifted by God and should be supported by their church or denomination. She also warned that those who hinder women from ministry on the basis of their gender will be judged for keeping the gospel from reaching those whom Christ died to save. Booth recognized a clear link between affirming the biblical basis for gift-based ministry and furthering the work of evangelism.

In preparation for missionary service, nineteenth century women pioneers began enrolling in Bible institutes in record numbers. As a result, these women became skilled exegetes, a discipline that strengthened their missionary leadership and also provided the interpretive tools to assess the gender restrictions placed on them by the very churches and denominations that spent thousands of dollars supporting their ministries overseas. Their biblical studies gave rise to a method of interpretation that asserted gift-based ministry as an overarching biblical principle.

Christians today can celebrate the legacy of our nineteenth century evangelical mothers and fathers.

On this basis, nineteenth century Christians offered a serious blow to any biblical support for ascriptivism—ascribing value, dignity and worth to individuals based on their heritage, skin color or gender—thus challenging the long-held prejudice to women’s leadership. Their efforts not only fueled a massive expansion of the gospel on the mission fields, but also an activism in the areas of voting rights and the abolition of slavery.

Women’s able leadership on the mission fields fueled a whole Bible approach to topics such as gender, service and social action. Scholars such as Katharine Bushnell and A.J. Gordon insisted that gospel values must triumph over cultural prejudice, especially in regard to women and slaves. Thus, the leadership of women led not only to new centers of Christian faith, but to important social reform such as abolition and suffrage. Christians today can celebrate the legacy of our nineteenth century evangelical mothers and fathers whose devotion to scripture, evangelism and social action is one we are proud to follow.



1. Robert, Dana L. 2005. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Macon, Georgia, USA: Mercer University Press, ix.

2. Ibid.

3. Knowles, Charles O. 2002. Let Her Be: Right Relationships and the Southern Baptist Conundrum Over Women’s Role. Columbia, Missouri, USA: KnoWell Publishing, 85.

4. Bebbington, David W. 1979. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from 1730s to the 1980s. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Baker, 3.

5. Hassey, Janette. 1986. No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: Christians for Biblical Equality, 108.

6. Knowles, 85.

7. Ibid, 910–11.

8. Ibid, 911.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 913.

11. Katharine Bushnell. 2003. God’s Word to Women. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: Christians for Biblical Equality, 1.

12. Ibid, 169.

13. Catherine Booth, 1859. “Female Ministry; or, Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel,” in Terms of Empowerment: Salvation Army Women in Ministry. London; reprint. 1975. New York: The Salvation Army Supplies Printing and Publishing Department, 19–20.

Dr. Mimi Haddad (left) is president of Christians for Biblical Equality and a founding member of the Evangelicals and Gender Study Group at the Evangelical Theological Society. She also serves on the board of directors for Global Women and is an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, USA. She served as the convener of Issue Group 24 for the 2004 Lausanne Forum in Pattaya. Mary Ann Nguyen (middle) is pursuing her Masters of Divinity at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, California, USA. She and her husband are preparing to serve overseas. Chelsea Dearmond (right) is editor of Mutuality Magazine, a publication of Christians for Biblical Equality.