Women in the Mission of the Church
By Constance J. Tarasar, Ph.D.
The decade 1988-1998 has been proclaimed “Ecumenical Decade in Solidarity With Women” by the World Council of Churches. To promote an awareness of this Decade, several articles will appear in the Resource Handbook on the mission or ministry of women in the Church.
The following article offers theological and historical reflections on the topic. It can be noted for the purpose of our interest in lay ministries, that the word “mission” and the word “ministry” can be understood interchangeably in this article.
The work of mission is the work of the Church. In its catholic context, i.e. in the sense of wholeness, fullness, integrity, it has both universal and particular dimensions. It is at the same time addressed to the whole inhabited earth - in fact, the entire cosmos - as well as to the place “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name” (Matt. 18:20). One is not less than the other. It is also the work of the entire Body; it involves women and men, children and aged, healthy and infirm. Each person becomes a witness to Christ in a unique way, bearing the gift and the cross that each has received.
As I reflect on mission, I reflect upon my life, as well as the lives of all those apostles, saints, and martyrs to whom I owe the treasure that has been passed on to me. In my own life I see that God has worked in mysterious wayssometimes guiding, sometimes pushing, sometimes supporting me as I am led into ever new and totally unexpected challenges to accomplish his will and his work. Having learned to accept the “question mark” in my life, I have come to appreciate the meaning of the words “through the Cross, Joy has come into all the world.”
In the following pages, I will share a few of the perspectives that constitute my understanding and vision of mission. I begin with a brief theological reflection on the trinitarian nature of the meaning of mission, an understanding that increasingly becomes more concrete and relevant to me as I carry out my daily work. What follows are a series of reflections on the particular ways that women have participated in mission throughout the history of the church. The examples are by no means exhaustive, but representative.
A THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE The nature of mission in the church
There are numerous ways to conceptualize the nature of the mission of the church, but St. Paul’s vision in his letter to the Ephesians is most inclusive:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ . . . speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
(Eph. 4:11-13, 15, 16)
The unity of the Body of Christ - Christ and the church - is both the subject and object of Christian mission. Such a mission occurs within the life of the church and extends beyond it, for the sake of the church and the entire cosmos. Every member of the Body is essential to the work of mission and each is given a unique gift for the work of ministry and the building up of the Body.
The focus from which the church’s missionary effort begins and to which it returns is the divine community of the Holy Trinity. God in Trinity is both the source of the church’s life and the model for human community, which is to be taken up into God “so that God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:28). In this context, the concept of Person is central to the nature of Christian life and mission. As Christians we believe in a personal God - more specifically, One God in Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God in Trinity is the prototype, the perfect example of the relationship of persons in a community of love. Although each of the three divine persons is distinct and has a genuine identity as person, all three persons are fully and completely united, acting as one, with one will, always together and freely cooperating with one another. And yet, each acts differently in relation to human persons and to the world. It is this “unity without confusion” and “diversity with separation” that constitutes the mystery of the Trinity. This is the God who we proclaim and by whom we are saved.
God - a personal being
This God is neither a philosophical abstraction nor a nameless spirit, but a personal being: “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex. 3:14) - the One who creates us, loves, us, heals us, reproves and corrects us, gives his life for us, dwells in us, and calls us to new and everlasting life in His kingdom. To believe in God, to believe in any person is to commend ourselves freely to them in faith and in love. As Bishop Kallistos Ware says: “When I say to a much-loved friend, ‘I believe in you,’ I am doing far more than expressing a belief that this person exists . . . [it] means; I turn to you, I rely upon you, I put my full trust in you and I hope in you. And that is what we are saying to God in the Creed.” He continues:
The two most helpful ways of entry into the divine mystery are to affirm that God is personal and that God is love. Now both of these notions imply sharing and reciprocity. Each becomes a real person only through entering into relation with other persons, through living for them and in them. There can be no [person] . . . until there are at least two [persons] in communication.
(Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979, pp. 18-20, 34-35.)
The opposite of this life of persons-in-relation is individualism. Individuals, says Bishop Kallistos, are “isolated, self-dependent . . . a bare unit as recorded in the census” - because they do not love, they do not exist as authentic persons. “Love,” he says, “cannot exist in isolation, but presupposes the other. Self-love is the negation of love . . . for, carried to its ultimate conclusion, self-love signifies the end of all joy and meaning . . . . Hell is not other people; hell is myself, cut off from others in self-centeredness.” (Ibid., p. 34)
Vladimir Lossky explains:
A person who asserts himself as an individual and shuts himself up in the limits of his particular nature, far from realizing himself, becomes impoverished. It is only in renouncing its own possession and giving itself freely, in ceasing to exist for itself that the person finds full expression in the one nature common to all.
(Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976, pp. 124-125).
The importance of the Trinity
The importance of the Trinity for understanding the church and her mission is to remind us that our true mission is to draw all persons, all of humankind together into Christ. This is the message that we are bringing to others. It was Christ who first showed us, by his own life, that the “medium is the message.” The message of Christ is communicated by the one and only true messenger - God himself, through his Son in the Spirit - not only in words, but in attitudes and actions. If our witness is to Christ, then it is a personal witness not only to his words and actions, but to those of God in Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit. It is a witness to God’s personal relationships - within the community of divine persons, with the world and the entire cosmos, with me and those with whom I come into contact - enemies as well as friends. Our first task or perspective in mission is to image, as best we can and in a personal way, the Tri-personal God in whom we believe and whom we proclaim.
A second aspect of this witness of the Triune God, of persons-in-relation, concerns the way we enter into communion with God through the sacramental nature of the church. Through baptism into Christ we become members of His Body; through chrismation (or confirmation), we receive God’s gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed uniquely on each one. Participating in the eucharist, we are continually renewed in the partaking of the Body and Blood, drawing ever closer together with one another in the oneness of Christ’s Body, the church. Through the gift of the Spirit, special charisms are distributed - in the sacramental acts of orders, matrimony, monastic tonsure and blessings for a variety of ministries engaged in the upbuilding of the church. And when affliction of a spiritual or bodily nature engages us, the church ministers to us in the sacraments of healing: repentance (confession) or anointment with oil.
But this sacramental life exists not for ourselves alone, but also for mission in and to the world. It is part of that “equipping of the saints for ministry” to those who have not heard or followed the call of God. It is for orienting our lives - and calling others also - to the reconciliation and renewal of the cosmos that God has created us. It is a reminder and call to us to draw this world into ourselves, to make it a part of our lives, to see in it the work and the will of God, and to offer it up to him in thanksgiving as our acknowledgment and gift of the very life he gives to all. And, in turn, as we acknowledge ourselves to be recipients and stewards of that gift, our mission is to renew and transform it through our own lives, through our own understanding and use to the glory of God.
Our task then is to become instruments of unity - to work towards the unity of all persons and creation in God. In this effort, we begin with ourselves, with families, friends, colleagues, . . . extending outward to the stranger, the one in need, the one afflicted or lonely. As instruments of unity, we extend ourselves in love to others, to build relationships between us and other persons, to heal relations among persons - i.e. to create community - a human community of persons-in-relation, in the image of the divine community.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES The New Testament community in mission
Witness takes on many forms: proclamation, teaching, care for others, personal sacrifice, a particular lifestyle, material support, martyrdom, asceticism, even a silent presence. Each person fulfills his or her mission in a unique way, according to the gift given. When we look at the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul and others, it is sometimes easy to overlook the missionary role of women because, in most instances, they were not the center of attention or leadership. There is specific mention of women among the multitudes who followed Christ (Matt. 14:21; 15:22; 15:38; 20:20; Mark 3:32; 5:25; 6:3), especially the women who stood at the Cross (Matt. 27:55; John 19:25). There are those who ministered to Christ: Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:15), the woman who anointed Christ’s head (Matt. 26:7), Martha, the sister of Lazarus (Luke 10:38), and those who came to anoint his body for burial (Luke 23:55). Particular attention is given to the role of some women who confessed Christ: the Samaritan woman (John 4) and Martha (John 11:27) to those of great faith, such as the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24); to those who accompanied the disciples, providing spiritual and material support (Luke 8:1-2); and to those who spread the news of his resurrection (Matt. 28: Mark 16:9; John 20:18).
St. John Chrysostom remarks on the faith and dedication of these women, especially at the Cross, and he contrasts their courage and lack of concern for themselves to the fear and blasphemy of the men who stood back. Pointing to the women at the cross, he says:
They had followed him, ministering to him, and were present even unto the time of the dangers. Wherefore also they saw all; how he cried, how he gave up the ghost, how the rocks were rent, and all the rest. And these first see Jesus; and the sex that was most condemned, this first enjoys the sight of the blessings, this most shows its courage. And when the disciples had fled, these were present…
(St. John Chrysostom, Homily 88 on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. X, p. 522)
And at the tomb:
For what purpose do they wait by it. As yet they know nothing great, as was meet and high about him, wherefore also they had brought ointments and were waiting at the tomb, so . . . they might go and embrace the body. See the women’s courage? See their affection? See their noble spirit in money? Their noble spirit even unto death? Let us men imitate the women; let us not forsake Jesus in temptations. For they for him, even dead, spent so much and exposed their lives.
In the Book of Acts and the Epistles
In the Book of Acts and the Epistles, it is clear that women played a major role in establishing and facilitating the mission of the nascent church. St. Paul’s greetings reveal the extent to which women were involved; his comments are addressed particularly, not generally, to the efforts of persons he knows by name. He sends a simple greeting to Apphia “our sister” (Phlm. 1:2); to Mary, who he says worked hard among the Christians in Rome (Rom. 16:6); to Tryphaena and Tryphosa, “workers in the Lord” (Rom. 16:12); to the mother of Rufus, to Julia, and to the sister of Nereus (Rom. 16:13,15); and to Prisca and her husband, Aquila, who are mentioned several times in Paul’s Epistles as ones who had a church in their house and who risked their lives for Paul.
He also sends the greetings of Claudia, who is thought to be the mother of Linus (II Tim. 4:21); and recalls the faith of Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice (II Tim. 1:5). He exhorts Euodia and Syntyche to settle their differences, adding that they have laboured side by side with him in the gospel (Phil. 4:2-3). Finally, he commends to the Romans “our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church of Cenchreae” who, he says, has been “a helper of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1-2).
In addition, there were, undoubtedly, other women in the various house-churches who helped to make prominent the households to which Paul sends greetings: the houses of Nympha (Col. 4:5); Philemon (Phil. 1:1-2); Stephanus, whose household included the first converts in Achaia and who devoted themselves to the service of the saints (I Cor. 16:15); Onesiphorus (II Tim. 4:19); the household of Aquila and Prisca (Rom. 16:3-5); and the family of Aristobulus and Narcissus (Rom. 16:10-11). The Book of Acts also mentions the church in the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where there also dwelt a maid named Rhoda (Acts 12:12); as well as the household of Lydia (Acts 16:1).
The importance of the early house-churches
It is to the courage and devotion of the patrons and members of these and the other numerous house-churches that the primitive church owes much of its existence and growth, for it was there that the church gathered, sometimes under most difficult and dangerous conditions. It was in these households that new Christians were nurtured in the faith, and where the family character of the life of the local church established close ties and a firm foundation, with different persons assuming fatherly, motherly, brotherly, sisterly roles and relationships within the Christian family. Each had an “office” to fulfill, and all “offices” were necessary for the care, efficiency, and even safety (for example, the doorkeepers) of the household of God that met there. Quite naturally, a diversity of “orders” evolved from such a situation, with qualifications for leadership related to one’s ability to manage a household well, and to exhibit the virtues by which one would want children to be influenced (see the letters to Timothy and Titus). Such qualities are applied to men and women alike as they are called to fulfill their special gifts or charisms in the church (I Tim. 3:2-13; 5:1-16).
Finally, we read of the qualification for widows and deaconesses (or deacon’s wives) in I Timothy; of the women who accompanied the apostles (I Cor. 9:5); of the four daughters of Philip who prophesied (Acts 9:36-43); and of Dorcas (Tabitha), a woman full of good works and acts of charity (Acts 9:36-43). In addition, the Book of Acts simply records the presence of numbers of women who were added to the church, many of whom were among the early martyrs. We read of the disciples gathered together in prayer “together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14); the believers added to the Lord“multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:4); and the persecutions of Saul where we see him dragging off “men and women,” committing them to prison (Acts 8:3); Philip’s preaching resulted in the baptism of “both men and women” (Acts 8:12); and in Thessalonica, Paul and Silas persuaded a “great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” (Acts 17:4). Such was the case also in Beroea, where “many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (Acts 17:11-12).
Knowing the context in which these letters and accounts were written, it is not insignificant that so many specific references make a point of naming women who, in all probability, held considerable respect and status in the life of the church. One should also note the varieties of service and witness by women that are already present in the primitive church; teaching, prophecy, diaconal ministry (though not yet an “order”), and the service of prayer held by widows.
Ministries of women in the second and third centuries
Church life in the second century continued to affirm a positive attitude towards women and their roles in the house-churches, though little change occurred in the actual forms of ministry for widows, virgins, and those who served in a diaconal capacity. As persecution increased, many women witnessed to the faith of martyrs, the most famous example being offered in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitasa “well-born, liberally educated and honorably married” woman and her slave who confessed the faith and who died at Carthage. (“The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas,” by Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. III, pp. 699ff.)
In the third century, however, several different emphases emerged. The first was a heavy emphasis on virginity, especially by Tertullian whose views towards women were often contradictory (and influenced by Montanism). He and others exalted the celibate life and some even forbade marriage; but Clement of Alexandria defended marriage against gnostic attempts to discredit and reject it.
In spite of heretical views that overemphasized virginity and reflected rather negatively the role of women in the church, there was, at the same time, a growing experience and body of literature in the church that shows a certain positive development, stability, and affirmation of the existing ministries of women - a development that parallels that of other orders or offices in the church held by men. Particularly, the role of the deaconess begins to take on specific functions in ministry to women; assisting in baptism, education, home visitations, ministry to the sick and needy, attending to the placement and conduct of women during the services (similar to the functions of deacons in their ministry to men in the church). By the beginning of the fourth century there is a prescription for the ordination of deaconesses which, in the rank of orders, is placed between that of the deacon and the subdeacon, thus giving to this women’s order a high status among the “quasi-clerical” offices.
Women in ministry in the Nicene and Post-Nicene church
Because of the growing recognition and “official” character of the church in the Byzantine Empire, the conditions of church life changed radically. No longer were house-churches the norm, but permanent church buildings and large basilicas. Following the massive influx of adult converts to the church, which had required the assistance of an active group of deaconesses as well as increased diaconal responsibilities among younger widows, the ministry of these two groups gradually became more formalized and eventually went into a period of decline. Fewer adult baptisms (because most children began to be baptized at a young age) required fewer deaconesses for this particular service. The emphasis on the virtues of virginity, a life of continence, and the desire to engage the devil directly in order to seek union with God, led many Christians - men and women - to dedicate themselves to monastic life. The wilderness of the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts, and the harsh life of the Cappadocian caves led thousands to a new form of martyria or witness, which later found its way even into the midst of the cities.
Although this movement began as an ascetic, eremitic (hermit) form of existence, it quickly led also to the development of a coenobitic or communal form of monastic life. It is to these communities that the church owes its tremendous spiritual riches: its tradition of prayer, iconography, hymnography, liturgical development, spiritual writings and defense of true doctrine - elements of the church’s life today that are inseparable from its work in mission.
This monastic movement produced its “desert mothers” as well as “desert fathers,” several of whom were quite prominent, along with their male contemporaries, in the history of the church. From the family of St. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa we note the influence of their famous grandmother Macrina, their mother Emmelia and sister Macrina. The grandmother had built a chapel to the forty martyrs on their ancestral estate, where later the younger Macrina and her mother established a small community of religious women. This Macrina greatly influenced her brothers Basil and Gregory; of Emmelia’s five sons and five daughters, three sons and one daughter were canonized as saints. Gregory and Basil extol the virtue of their grandmother and sister in their writings.
Gregory of Nazianzen’s mother Nonna and his sister Gorgonia were also highly respected for their Christian virtues. Of his mother, Gregory says:
...she who was given by God to my father became not only, as is less wonderful, his assistant, but even his leader, drawing him on by her influence in deed and word to the highest excellence; judging it best in all other respects to be overruled by her husband according to the law of marriage, but not being ashamed, in regard to piety, even to offer herself as his teacher . . . . She is a woman, who while others have been honored and extolled for natural and artificial beauty, has acknowledged that one kind of beauty, that of the soul, and the preservation, or the restoration as far as possible, of the Divine image.
(Gregory Nazianzen, “On the Death of His Father,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. VII., p. 257)
In the essay “On his Sister Gorgonia,” Gregory states that she was recognized as a common advisor not only by her family and friends, but by all men round about, who treated her counsels and advice as a law not to be broken. She had a knowledge of the things of God, she opened her house to all and had a compassion upon and shared her goods with others, often times entertaining “Christ in the person of those whose benefactress she was.” She was “seen to surpass not only women, but the most devoted of men, by her intelligent chanting of the Psalter, her converse with, and unfolding and apposite recollection of the Divine oracles . ...” (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration VIII, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, pp. 241-242.) Gorgonia greatly influenced her husband, children and grandchildren, dedicating her own family and household to God. It is from these concrete images of her household and Macrina’s that we can imagine how great the role of women was in the house-churches of the early Christian community.
Deaconesses and monastics
Many fourth century deaconesses are given particular mention by church historians. Theodoret describes the deaconess Publia, a widow known for her virtuous deeds, as one who stood up against the emperor Julian. He also writes a letter of consolation to the deaconess Casiana. Others commend the deaconess Eusebia (Sozomen); the deaconess daughters of Terentius “fruitful in good works and verily like lilies among thorns,” and Theodora the Canoness (Basil); the deaconess Theosebia, wife of Gregory of Nyssa, the “glory of the church, the adornment of Christ, the helper of our generation . . . the most beautiful and glorious among all the beauty of the Brethren . . . truly sacred, truly consort of a priest, and of equal honor and worthy of the Great Sacraments” (i.e. her office of deaconess) (Gregory Nazianzus).
At the end of the fourth century and beginning of the fifth, we note the presence of a number of pious and often well-educated women in the company of Ambrose, Rufinus, Jerome, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. Marcellina, sister of Ambrose, was consecrated a nun by Pope Lierius. Marcella, a woman of Roman nobility, lent her house to Jerome and his pupils for study and prayer. Her influence, backed by a remarkable knowledge of theological literature, contributed largely to the condemnation of Origenism by Pope Anastasius in 401. It was from her circle that Jerome recruited his companions Paula and Eustochim to share in his self-imposed exile at Bethlehem in 385. Jerome himself writes to Marcella about several women: Lea, who converted and became the head of a monastery; the virgin Asella, who became an ascetic at age twelve; and Blaesilla, the daughter of Paula, who was also an ascetic and who knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Both Marcella and Paula presided over communities of women.
Other women, both in Byzantium and in the outer reaches of the Empire, for example, in what is now Great Britain, followed similar paths of service as founders and abbesses of women’s communities, or as deaconesses. Among one of the most prominent was the deaconess Olympias, the friend of St. John Chrysostom, to whom he addressed at least seventeen letters that are extant. By the sixth and seventh centuries, under the Emperor Justinian, and later under Heraclius (612), it was reported that there were, at any given time, twenty to sixty deaconesses assigned to the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople alone (the figure of sixty, however, has been questioned). Though the order continued at least until the eleventh century, it had greatly diminished; the speculation is that it was also absorbed into the monastic vocation.
Women in the Byzantine Court
At the same time and in the centuries that followed, several women in the Byzantine court very actively supported the work of the church. The first among these was Empress Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who made several pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Palestine seeking the sites where Jesus had lived and died, and establishing churches there. She herself was willing to serve others and contributed generously to the poor. The Empress Placilla (385), wife of Theodosius, educated herself in the faith and devoted her life to ministry to the maimed, visiting the guest chambers of the churches, ministering to the sick, and even working in the kitchens. The Empress Pulchera, regent to her brother Theodosius II, not only governed the empire excellently, but raised him in the faith and helped to fight heresies in the church, as did the Empress Irene, wife of Leo IV, who summoned the seventh ecumenical council to restore the veneration of icons in the church. It should be noted that women were among the first martyrs over the issue of icon veneration; the main participants in the riot following the edict against icons in 725-26 were women.
Other women of the court and many among the laity were also active in charitable work. A woman doctor and several women nurses attended to patients in a hospital founded by John Comnenus (12th century). Two kinds of hospitals existed during the Byzantine period: those that were church institutions, staffed by clergy, monks and nuns; and diaconates, which were serviced by the lay “philoponoi” (friends of the suffering). Some diaconates were especially set aside as women’s hospitals and pious laywomen often served there as nurses as part of their philanthropic activity. Particularly noted is the work of the saintly Euphemia, praised by John of Ephesus; and the money-changer Andronikos and his wife Athanasia, who devoted their leisure hours to works of mercy in Antioch as “philoponoi.”
Much of this activity of women in the Byzantine Empire was made possible by the remarkable changes in laws concerning the legal rights and privileges of women. Many of them were influenced by or served to influence the status of women in the church, as well as in society. Georgina Buckler’s review of several collections of civil and ecclesiastical laws, dating from the time of Justinian throughout the entire Byzantine period until the fifteenth century, notes the significance of this body of legal literature. She concludes that “under a law fundamentally old-Roman but modified by Christianity, the women of Byzantium in the eleventh and twelfth centuries enjoyed a position both of security of law and importance in fact that has rarely if ever been surpassed.” Although civil and canon laws were always distinct, she says that the Councils of the Church inevitably influenced the emperors. (Georgina Buckler, “Women in Byzantine Lawabout 1100 AD,” in Byzantion, Review Internationale des Etudes Byzantines, Tome XI, 1936, Brussels, pp. 391-416.) Clearly, the mission of the church was positively affected by the attitudes and possibilities granted to women by changes in Roman law.
Women saints in the mission of the church
Many women have already been named who were canonized by the church for their witness to the faith through martyrdom, charitable acts, Christian virtue, and mission. Countless others could also be named: Nina, the apostle to the Georgians; Olga, whose grandson the Great Prince Vladimir brought the Christian faith to the land of Rus’; Rhipsime and Gaiana, virgins who were among the first martyrs of Armenia; the martyr Irene, with her sisters Agape and Chionia, who tried to save the sacred scriptures and church books during the time of persecution; Juliana Ossorguine, a sixteenth century wife and mother whose piety and selfless service to others during a time of great famine in Russia is regarded as an exemplary witness of Christian life; Mother Maria Skobtsova of Paris, who gave her life for others in a German gas chamber; and many known and unknown women in our century who were confessors and martyrs for the faith in the Gulags of the USSR.
Throughout this sketchy overview of women in mission in the history of the church, it is apparent that mission occurs through particular personspeople of faith who reach out to God and other persons, motivated by a desire to offer themselves in service and joy. There is very little that is “institutional” about the examples of mission described in these pages. If one completes the picture with the stories of male saints and missionaries, the outcome would be the same; in each case, the most effective mission came about through the selfless service and witness of particular persons of faith.
The divine model of One God in a Trinity of Persons perfectly united in love is the vision and gift given to us for our life in human community, beginning with our life in the church. Love cannot be legislated; it can only be shared in freedom and in joy. That is the way of saints, martyrs, servants, teachers, prophets, and apostles of Christ. Only in this way can we hope to fulfill the words of the Lord, offered in prayer to the Father: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).
Reprinted with permission from the International Review of Missions, vol. LXXXI, no. 322 (April 1992), World Council of Churches, Geneva, pp. 189-200.