Title: Women and Christian Mission: ways of knowing and doing theology
Author: Frances S. Adeney
Publisher: Pickwick Publications, 2015
Reviewer: Louise Simon
This book is an empirical study based on nearly one hundred interviews of Christian women from a variety of backgrounds, Christian traditions, and cultural contexts, all of whom were involved in mission. The author, Frances S. Adeney, is the William Benfield Jr. Professor Emerita of Evangelism and Global Mission at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Adeney’s starting point for the broader study of women and mission which led to this book were the practices she noted as a participant observer in an Indonesian Protestant university, and the information she obtained through interviews with women seeking to gain leadership roles in the Indonesian church. A second major influence for Adeney’s research stemmed from her listening to women talk about their work and realising that women are doing their theology, rather than talking about it. Adeney wanted to know more about what it is that women are doing in mission theology, how they understand mission, and what common themes there are in women’s mission theologies.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on the journeys women took into mission, the sources of authority women use to think about and practice mission, and the commonalities and divergences in women’s mission theologies. Part II examines how the themes of the previous section influence women in their mission or church work, and how they influence women’s identities. This section also discusses obstacles women face in their Christian work, and the strategies they use to overcome those obstacles. The themes, obstacles, and strategies detailed are then examined in a case study and through the life of an exemplar of contemporary Christian mission. Part III presents a historical overview of women in mission, and sums up the contributions of women to mission theology.
Adeney describes what she terms a traditional way of doing theology as theology that starts from the top down—it starts with God and the attributes of God—and contrasts this with the way women do theology which is from the bottom up – starting with their experiences. She found that many women don’t write theologies of mission, and that while some may reflect on the reasons they follow God in a certain way, others simply do the jobs in front of them in the best way they can. I related to this, as I haven’t really articulated why I do what I do, nor reflected upon what has influenced my approach to mission and my identity as a Christian woman. I found it interesting and challenging to think through the idea that what I do in mission is actually part of my own mission theology.
Chapter 9, on “Overcoming Obstacles”, was sobering in its details of how women have been, and can continue to be, marginalised, repressed, and excluded in their Christian work, but at the same time hopeful in showing how women overcome the obstacles they face. While I didn’t always identify with the struggles Adeney describes, this chapter was a reminder of the difficulties women can face in their service of God, and a call to support and encourage other women in their ministries.
Reading the sections that detail historical influences of women’s mission practices on the wider church and mission theology, I feel thankful for the foundations that they have provided for Christian women to build upon – some of which I take for granted, such as practising contextualisation, respect for indigenous peoples, listening, unity in diversity, holistic service, and compassion.
Adeney’s conclusion is that women don’t hold to a single mission theology. Common to all, however, are that they use “their own experiences as a source for theological reflection”, constructing “theologies from their practices and community involvement”, and using obstacles “to develop new pathways and theologies of mission.” They “value spirituality, equality, justice, and compassion” and develop “habits of perseverance, flexibility, and creativity.” She ends with a number of questions that stem from her findings, which, she envisages, could help mission workers and theologians of mission discern how to use women’s contributions in order to develop, equip, and nurture all Christians for God’s service.
Although there is much to recommend, at times I felt that Adeney is seeing gender bias where it might not be. For example, she argues that women are deterred from writing theology when their work is censured, and describes the “immediate and harsh” censorship of South Korean theologian Chung Hyun Kyung’s presentation about the Holy Spirit at the World Council of Churches meeting in 1989. Could it be that Chung’s theology was criticised because it was seen as erroneous/un-Biblical rather than because she is a woman? Adeney leaves no room for that interpretation of events.
Adeney’s observations about Christian women in Indonesia are, at times, overly generalised and potentially out-of-date. Her own data, and the sources she quotes from, are all from the 1990s, and Indonesian society has changed dramatically since then. For example, she quotes “Protestant church” statistics on the percentage of women pastors in different parts of Indonesia that are now 20 years old. She also fails to acknowledge that there are a myriad of Protestant denominations in Indonesia, and thus a potential range of participation rates of women in church leadership. Another generalisation which stood out was the assertion, illustrated with one reported interview in 1993, that “it is bad form for a woman to go overseas for graduate studies, leaving her husband and children to fend for themselves.” My own observations as a lecturer at Indonesian universities from 2011-2015, and those of my husband who was lecturing in an Indonesian theological college, are at odds with this view.
While the book would have benefited from a more thorough editing to reduce repetitions, typos, and inaccuracies (e.g. “Peace Core” rather than Peace Corps), and I did not agree with everything Adeney says, I think this is an important work for anyone involved in mission, man or woman, to read and reflect upon. I found it helpful to think about how I do mission, how I have observed others do mission, and to reflect upon the theologies behind those practices. The book also acknowledges that women, while not always articulating them, do have theologies of mission, and that those should be valued and examined for what they can contribute to mission and to the church.