Women on the Cutting Edge: Yesterday and Today

When you hear “the cutting edge of missions,” what comes to mind? Perhaps a method for evangelism, missional strategies, church-planting movements, or social justice?

If you think farther back, it was friendship evangelism, theological education by extension, or church planting.

Other ideas may be related to location: unreached people groups, unengaged peoples, the Islamic world, or the 10/40 window.

A century ago, it would have been China, Hawaii, or Burma.

Regardless of whether you think in terms of strategies or locations, most likely you're remembering men who've pioneered these mission trends. Hudson Taylor was famous for developing efforts in China and emphasizing acculturation. Alan Hirsch is well known today for missional church planting, as is David Garrison for church-planting movements. This list goes on. This leads to the question few are asking: where are the women?

It is widely recognized that until recently history has been largely silent when it comes to recording women’s contributions.1 For a variety of reasons, accounts have typically focused on men. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the history of missions is quite similar.2

Only a handful of women appear on the pages of mission history and theory books. Yet that does not mean they are not integrally engaged in the worldwide cause of the kingdom. One beautiful illustration of women working on the cutting edge happened over a century ago, when China was center stage.

The Banishment of Foot Binding in China
In 1871, Maria Brown and Mary Porter sailed for Northern China as Methodist missionaries. On the way, they struggled to find a Christian perspective on the Chinese practice of foot binding, which had been ingrained for a millennium. These women eventually concluded they must oppose the custom. It was clearly harmful to women since it was extremely painful and left them unable to move about freely.

Brown and Porter realized that physically-impaired women were limited in their ability to contribute to society, thus raising the country’s poverty level. They also foresaw the implications for evangelism, reasoning that a woman with bound feet could not become an itinerant preacher after her conversion if she could not walk unaided. The two missionaries decided that an admission requirement to their gospel training schools would be unbound feet.

Six years later, during an inter-mission conference in Shanghai, their ideas were presented to the assembly. Some of the men recognized that they had never considered all the implications of foot binding. They joined the women in using moral persuasion to stop it. Gradually, more and more missionaries and Chinese people became convinced that foot binding was a harmful practice.

In 1907, the Chinese government itself outlawed the practice. In just one generation, Brown and Porter were catalysts for transformational change in the whole country of China.3

What enabled these women to be cutting edge in their day? Three points:

  • They saw far beyond their own specific time and location.
  • They were able to think outside their immediate circumstances to grasp the far-reaching effects for society and the kingdom of what their male colleagues had accepted as “simply culture.”
  • They demonstrated great trust in God through their willingness to follow what they firmly understood to be his will.

From a human perspective, the likelihood that two single women could successfully oppose such an entrenched practice was non-existent. Yet once they fully understood the physical and spiritual ramifications, they relied on God to change what was to what should be.

They persevered with passionate obedience while facing opposition from missionaries and Chinese parents who thought their position extreme and foot binding necessary. The end results were astounding. Certainly, part of the spread of the gospel through China can be credited to these two women, whose futuristic thinking proved strategic, as they were willing to insist on what we now see clearly as a holistic gospel that brings healing and transformation.

Women Cutting Deeply into Culture Today
What about women today? Are women just as involved in cutting-edge mission work? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Whether “cutting edge” means new locations or new methods, wherever we find today's mission work flourishing, we find faithful women there, doing that.

From the very beginning of modern missions, women have been an integral part of the movement. Today, women comprise two-thirds of the missionary workforce worldwide. I know two women pioneers (one using marketplace ministry and the other multiplying disciples by equipping women for ministry) who target limited-access countries. Women pioneer as well as participate, and if we look around our agencies and churches, we see women leading in every possible ministry.

Yet when was the last time we promoted a woman’s mission work as cutting edge? Why don’t we see the women who are mission innovators?

I think part of the answer might lie in our own acculturation. Like the men in China who had accepted the practice of foot binding, we too have acquired previous cultural attitudes that do not consider women as central to the gospel story. Yet it is culture, in Bible times and now, that puts men first—not the gospel. It is culture that tells men to go it alone—not the Bible. Culture defines what is “women’s work” and “women’s sphere”—not Jesus.

A New Testament Perspective of Women in Missions
In the New Testament we see a very different picture of women’s work.

  • Jesus had women followers.
  • Women were the first to tell others that the Messiah was alive.
  • Women were among the disciples in the upper room who received the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues, evangelized, and likely baptized new believers.
  • Women led house churches—Mary, Nympha, and Chloe each had churches in their homes. The Philippian church met in Lydia’s house. Phoebe was a deacon, Priscilla a teacher.

The New Testament does not present a model of women conforming to cultural standards. Quite the contrary, it gives us a picture of cutting-edge women preaching the gospel and spreading the kingdom, just like faithful missionary women do today around the world.

A Call to Partnership and Full Recognition
From its beginning, the Lausanne Movement has promoted the partnership of men and women for the cause of the gospel. In 2004, they issued this challenge: “We call on the church around the world to work towards full partnership of men and women in the work of world evangelization by maximizing the gifts of all.”4

The Cape Town meetings in 2010 again stressed that women’s “contribution may be undervalued, diminished, overlooked, or even prevented.”5 I'm convinced that this exhortation is precisely what's needed for dynamic change in missions of the future: men and women partnering together to take gospel transformation to the whole world.

The trends, methods, and locations on which mission work focuses change over time, and rightly so. The true mark of cutting-edge mission practice is the faithful, passionate obedience to God’s call, by women and men working together around the globe.


1. Andersen, Margaret L. and Patricia Hill Collins, eds. 2007. Race, Class & Gender: An Anthology. 6th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson Wadsworth.

2. Robert, Dana L. 2004. “Women in World Mission: Controversies and Challenges from a North American Perspective.” International Review of Mission 93(3):50-61.

3. Robert, Dana L. 1997. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 173-176.

4. Crane, J. L. 2011. Lausanne and Gender. Accessed 3 July 2011 from www.lausanne.org/all-documents/lausanne-and-gender.html.

5. The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world. 2010. Accessed 3 July 2011 from www.lausanne.org/participant-information/twg-paper.html.  

Leanne Dzubinski has twenty years of cross-cultural experience in Europe, including Germany, Austria and Spain. She holds a DMin in effective ministries to women from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a MTheo from Dallas Theological Seminary.