Single women fill an important role in missionary work and therefore deserve special consideration. What can a single woman do on the mission field? Many Christians, including single women themselves, may be skeptical about their role and usefulness in missions. Putting aside the usual stereotypes and preconceived misconceptions, let’s consider what the Bible says.
Many women followed and ministered to Jesus (Matthew 27:55-56) and are among the finest examples of faith, generosity and service recorded in the New Testament (cf. Matthew 9:20-22; 15:22-28; Mark 12:41-44; 14:8-9). The greatest event in history was first witnessed and announced by godly women (Matthew 28:1-10). The first “missionary” to Samaria, besides Jesus himself, was female (John 4:28-30, 39-42). Women formed part of the nucleus when the Lord’s church began (Acts 1:14; 2:41), and the number of receptive women who obeyed the gospel was an important factor in the rapid growth of early Christianity (Acts 5:14; 8:12; 17:4, 12, 34). Among those in Berea who “searched the scriptures daily” and responded to the truth were noble-minded women (Acts 17:11-12). The church at Philippi initially consisted of devout women and met in a woman’s home (Acts 16:13-18, 40). Because of their uncompromising faith these dedicated, first-century Christian women even suffered brutal persecution (Acts 8:3; 9:2; 22:4).
Tabitha “was full of good works and charitable deeds” (Acts 9:36). Phoebe was “a servant of the church in Cenchrea,” whom Paul said “has been a helper of many and of myself also” (Romans 16:1-2). Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis “labored much in the Lord” (Romans 16:6, 12). Euodia and Syntyche labored with Paul in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3). There were widows who were “well reported for good works,” who “brought up children … lodged strangers … washed the saints’ feet … relieved the afflicted … diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:10). Any careful observer of church work and church history must concede that godly women have always been the backbone of the Lord’s church.
Since Christian woman are to be “teachers of good things” (Titus 2:3), we find that a number of them in the New Testament were endowed with the miraculous gift of prophecy (Acts 2:17-18; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 11:5). It stands to reason that if God had given this gift and the responsibilities of teaching and service to women, he would have expected them to be utilized. At the same time, however, there are certain restrictions placed on Christian women. They are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-12), neither are they allowed to speak as to lead the public assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).
Some have mistakenly concluded that the role of male leadership indicates that women are in some way inferior to men. However, even though male headship implies female subordination (1 Corinthians 11:3), submission and inferiority are not equivalents. While all Christians have been directed to love, serve, and submit to one another (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 5:5), each has been allocated different functions to perform. For example, elders are to “rule over” the flock and function as “overseers” (Hebrews 13:7-24; 1 Peter 5:2), and the other members are called upon to “obey” and “submit” to them (Hebrews 13:17). As far as the relationship to one another in Christ is concerned, there is equality and mutual submission among all believers. At the same time, there are different God-ordained roles, involving leadership and unilateral submission, to be respected and fulfilled.
Whatever a Christian woman does in the Lord’s service, she ought to be sensitive to “the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible ornament of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-5). She should be one who “trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (1 Timothy 5:5). A faithful Christian woman “cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34).
What can a single woman do on the mission field? There are any number of ministries in which she can be involved, including evangelism, prayer, teaching children’s and ladies’ Bible classes, correspondence work, youth activities, encouraging weak Christians and other singles, secretarial and administrative work, counseling, developing teaching materials, language acquisition, translating, writing, babysitting, easing the work load of other missionaries, providing transport, teaching special skills, and the list could go on. But instead of making a longer list, the best answer to this question, given by one female missionary, is the following: “Whatever I can that needs to be done” (Grace Johnson Farrar, “Opportunities for Women on the Mission Field,” Christian Bible Teacher [March 1988]: 103).
A single woman, serving the Lord in an environment foreign to her own, must be acutely aware of special problems she may encounter. For any woman in any culture, personal safety can be compromised if good judgment is not exercised. If at all possible single women should travel and work in pairs or in groups or with coworkers, but rarely alone. In many cultures women are expected to be married and have children, so the single female missionary may face a certain amount of suspicion, prejudice, and castigation. It is very important that cultural norms be learned and respected (e.g. women not exposing their hair in some Middle Eastern countries). Nevertheless, these challenges pale in significance to the good she can accomplish and the special needs she can fill.
Any single woman who exhibits a sincere desire to do whatever she can for the Lord with whatever abilities, opportunities and resources she may have, deserves all the respect, encouragement, support and appreciation she is due. Thank God for the single missionary woman!
–Kevin L. Moore
*Adapted from the author’s book The Single Missionary (2002) 47-51; reworked and adapted further for a previous post on “A Woman’s Service in the Church,” <Link>.