Women Missing in Church History: Filling Out the Historical Record – Week 1
An Interview with the Author
Based on Women in the Mission of the Church, by Dzubinski/Stasson
(Used by permission: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021)
An Interview with the Author
By Rebecca Hopkins www.rebeccahopkins.org
Many Christians don’t know the many roles women have played in church history. But historian Anneke Stasson and researcher Leanne Dzubinski are trying to change that with their new book, “Women in the Mission of the Church.”
Writer Rebecca Hopkins will be summarizing the chapters in the coming weeks. To kick off the series, she sat down with author Dzubinski to talk about the book.
Can you start with describing the purpose of the book?
We wanted to show that women are part of the story of church history every single step of the way, not just here and there, not just one or two, but always involved. And so, because of that goal, it was really important to us that we cover all 2,000 years of church history.
We wanted to show the vast variety of things that women have done with so many different kinds of ministries and contributions to the church: married women, single women, mothers, single mothers, women who never had children, missionaries, preachers, monastics, ascetics, martyrs. Women have lived out their calling in so, so many different ways. And all of those ways contribute to the flourishing of the church.
We want to have stories of women who have encountered things that we continue to encounter, who have, by God’s grace, come through that and can be an example to us.
What do we lose if we don’t have this story?
Not knowing what women have done means that women today too often have to start from scratch in figuring out their calling. We lack mentors. We lack role models. We lack sometimes a vision of all the different things that women can do to serve God. And I read this in various Christian women’s blogs and discussion groups all the time, saying, “I spent the first half of my life just trying to figure out what I could do.”
A better knowledge of history, a better understanding of what women have done in the past can help women today get involved with greater confidence and conviction in their calling, rather than struggling in the first place.
I still hear that “women in ministry” is a new thing from the late 20th century or the 21st century and that women didn’t used to do this stuff. Well, that’s not true, but it’s because we don’t know the history.
Another thing we lose when we don’t know the history, and especially in American evangelicalism today—the last 40 to 50 years—there’s this tendency of trying to push all Christian women into a one-size-fits-all box. The narrative in some circles is that there’s one kind of good Christian woman and that’s a woman who gets married and has children and sees her fundamental role as caring for home and family. And that is a fantastic role and vision for a woman, but it’s far from the only one that God has given or called women to.
And then one thing has really been troubling me lately. I don’t know if you’re tracking with the numbers, but more and more women seem to be leaving the church or drifting away. The numbers of women leaving has surpassed in recent years the numbers of men. The church used to be more women but a recent Christianity Today article shows that women are actually leaving. And I can’t help but think this is part of the problem because they look at that one-size-fits-all narrative or that one box and they say that doesn’t fit me and so they feel like they have to choose between faith and life. And if we knew the stories that we told them more broadly, I think more women would be able to hold on to their faith because they would see that they’re not a mistake.
Really good point. So then what do we have to gain? What could change for the better here?
Clearly, it’s beneficial for women, but I think it’s beneficial for the church. And honestly, I think it’s beneficial for men. One of the patterns that we call out in the book—and we’re not the first to notice this pattern by any means—is that towards the beginning of any new movement, women seem to be welcome. There’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck mentality. But then as the movement tries to become more respectable in the eyes of society—and sometimes that goes along with gaining power or money—that’s when women start to be squeezed out. And sometimes their names and contributions are even deliberately erased from the record.
But what we don’t think about is that sometimes that push towards power and respectability also means a dilution of the witness that this movement has. Jesus says you can’t serve two masters. And if you’re pursuing power and money and acceptability in the eyes of society, you’re drifting away from pursuing Jesus. This is why the movements lose their power and we need another reform and another reform . . . And so I don’t want to directly say that when women aren’t there, the church loses witness. But there’s something intriguing going on here about becoming more respectable, cutting women out and then losing the impact over time.
This is one of Satan’s most effective strategies, because if he can keep men and women separated, then we’re back to what God said: It’s not good for the man to be alone. God wanted this partnership between men and women. So Satan knows that when we’re united, when we’re collaborating, when we’re partnering, that’s powerful.
I’m curious what kind of response you’ve gotten from the book.
The book reviews that I have seen posted in various journals and online sites have been really positive. Women have said how much the book has helped them. I’ve had professors who’ve used the book send us anonymized student comments upon reading the book, like, “I suddenly feel seen and known. I feel validated. I know it wasn’t just me struggling with this.”
I would like readers to walk away from this book recognizing that women have been and can be resilient and creative. Right now, we’ve been hearing resilience for so long that it is starting to get a bad rap, like, “I’m tired of being resilient. I just want it to be easy.”
Wouldn’t it actually be nice if women didn’t have to be so resilient? What that would mean is they didn’t have to be so resilient because the unnecessary challenges were less, the barriers were fewer, the obstacles were lower. And they could just get on with doing what God’s called them to do.