The recent box office hit Hidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked at NASA during the 1950s and 1960s. While the country was still segregated, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson programmed the earliest digital computers, worked in aeronautical engineering, and calculated flight trajectories, launch windows, and drop zones for the first manned space missions, including the Apollo 11 flight to the moon.
But Hidden Figures is more than a feel-good celebration of girl power and pursuing your dreams. It tells a larger story about how shared mission unites people across gender and racial lines, creating space for their gifts to flourish. It tells a story that the American evangelical church needs to hear.
Education toward Vocation
Years before she worked for NASA, Katherine Johnson (née Coleman) was simply an African-American girl in rural West Virginia with an uncanny ability for math. In this Makers interview, Johnson recalls how her gifting eventually took her to college; but even there, she only ever anticipated becoming a teacher. “You could either be a teacher or a nurse,” Johnson remembers. When one of her professors encouraged her to pursue higher level mathematics to become a research mathematician, Johnson had her doubts. “Where will I find a job?” she asked him.
Johnson’s hesitation to pursue advanced math reveals a basic assumption about education and work. As a society, we educate people toward what we believe they are called to do. Johnson lived in a world that could not envision her doing anything beyond teaching or nursing. In this sense, Johnson’s concern was legitimate: why study advanced math if there would be no place for you to practice advanced math?
Just as we educate people toward the work we believe they will do in society, we also disciple people toward the work we believe they will do in the church. Discipleship, after all, is simply another form of education. Understanding the link between discipleship and vocation sheds light on the state of women’s ministry in the North American church.
We’re keeping women in the annex building.
Over the last several decades, women’s ministry (both by women and to women) has grown dramatically. But even as women are increasingly visible in public ministry, they are increasingly detached from the organized church, more often a product of the marketplace than the congregation or academy. This loss of accountability combined with a strong focus on consumer needs has led to the criticism that Christian women’s resources often “lack depth,” are “overly feminized” and “celebrity-driven.”
Given the relationship between education and work, what does the current state of women’s discipleship reveal about the work we expect women to do in the church? Is it possible that we are not discipling women beyond inspirational sound bites and a consumerist faith because we don’t believe they are called to more? Is it possible that we have neglected their theological education because we don’t see them as essential to the larger mission?
Despite her genius, Johnson questioned whether she should study advanced mathematics because she knew that she was entering a society that didn’t think it needed her gifts. Her brilliance could be left undeveloped and untapped because society could reach its goals without her. Johnson’s professor eventually persuaded her, and she went on to earn a master’s degree from West Virginia University. Even still, she spent seventeen years as a math teacher before the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA) came calling in 1953.
Surprisingly, nothing about Johnson’s personal qualifications or giftedness changed in those seventeen years; what had changed was society’s goal. As the Cold War settled in, the United States and the USSR became locked in an arms race that extended to the stratosphere. When the Communists successfully put a satellite in orbit, the scope of the country’s mission grew exponentially. Suddenly we were aiming for the moon, and to get there, we needed all hands on deck.
What is mission control for the church?
Most evangelical churches, regardless of their position on gender roles, point to the Great Commission as the central calling of the church. This is the evangel, after all, the good news that is at the heart of evangelical tradition. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 28:18. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
But the Great Commission is not the first time that God’s people are sent out into the world to spread his glory. In fact, the Great Commission has roots much deeper in the scriptural narrative, ones that reach back to the beginning of time, ones that reach back to our identity as human beings.
In Genesis 1:27–28, the scripture records that God created mankind in his own image, “male and female he created them.” Bound up in this imago Dei identity is the specific mission to “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth, and subdue it!” In order to extend his rule over all Creation, God commands those who bear his likeness to go into all the earth and reproduce themselves.
Interestingly this work of reproduction becomes one of the primary metaphors that the New Testament uses to describe the Christ’s work in and through the church. Through his life, death, and resurrection, believers are given new life—we are born again. The Second Adam is filling the earth and subduing it with his bride, the church. In this sense, the Great Commission is actually a re-commissioning, a restoring of the work that God first called us to as human beings in Genesis.
This lens provides insight into how God intends his followers to fulfill the Great Commission. First, both male and female are essential to the mission. Neither can fill the earth and subdue it in isolation; neither can teach and baptize all nations in isolation.
But not only are male and female dependent on each other, the mission itself is multifaceted with each part depending on the other as well: as you are subduing, fill; as you are going, make disciples.
The church’s mission does include the work of evangelism as we culturally understand it, but the ultimate goal is to restore what was lost through the Fall—the ultimate goal is that image bearers would proclaim the glory of God through their lives. As Andrea Palpant Dilley details, mission work has had a substantial impact on cultural formation. Simply put, we’re aiming for the moon.
Or are we?
Our women’s ministries indicate our mission drift.
In many ways, the state of women’s discipleship reveals as much about our commitment to the Great Commission as it reveals what role we see women playing in that mission. After all, how a church disciples half her congregation says a lot about what they are trying to accomplish.
Is it possible that we are not discipling women effectively because our current vision of ministry is less than God has called us to? Is it so limited that it doesn’t require women’s involvement to be successful? In other words, are we suffering less from failed women’s ministry and more from failed eschatology and failed missiology?
Too often as the American church, we have been content with maintaining status quo, preserving the church as a place of retreat, and perpetuating a cultural Christianity instead of moving into the world to spread the glory of God. This underlying tension comes into stark relief when we consider the difference between how the church engages women in overseas missions and how it disciples them domestically.
Conservative pastor John Piper recently drew attention to the fact that 80–85% of single evangelical missionaries are women. To explain the disparity, Pastor Piper suggested that evangelical men suffer from a particular immaturity that keeps them from committing to hard things like marriage and mission work.
But maybe there’s another reason: Perhaps Christian women move toward foreign missions at a higher rate than men because the mission field offers them greater space to do the work of ministry than they might experience in churches in the United States.
It’s time to refocus.
In her book Dangerous Territory, Amy Peterson notes that female missionaries throughout history have “changed the Christian view of women’s roles and women’s spheres” simply because the challenges of frontier mission work forced missionaries to differentiate between biblical mandates and cultural gender norms.
Speaking of her experience working in a country closed to Christianity, Peterson recalls that questions about women’s work “just didn’t even make sense halfway around the world, for Christians in fledgling churches in countries where faith in Christ was forbidden.”
Missionary Elisabeth Elliot, herself an outspoken advocate for conservative gender roles, recalled a similar tension:
When my husband was killed by Indians, I found myself in some indefinable positions. There wasn’t one missionary man left in Ecuador who spoke the jungle Quichua language. . . . the door to the Auca tribe had slammed shut for those men and was, to our astonishment, opened to two women. It didn’t look to me like a woman’s job. But God’s categories are not always ours. I had to shuffle my categories many times during my last eight years of missionary work.
Refocusing the domestic church on the Great Commission does not negate conversations about gender roles, but it does reframe women’s ministry by reminding us of the ultimate goal. If we believe that women are called to partner with men to fulfill the Great Commission, we will disciple them to this end. But if our goal is anything less, women’s ministry reflects this.
When the goal of a church is safety and retreat, women’s discipleship will emphasize comfort, introspection, and self-fulfillment. A church satisfied with maintaining status quo will prioritize women within the church, perpetuating the religious subculture. And a church intent on reclaiming traditional roles (even if unstated) will focus on teaching cultural expressions of femininity.
Remember the magnitude of the mission.
Simply put, only the Great Commission is large enough to ensure a robust and flourishing women’s ministry. Anything less will result in one-dimensional discipleship that operates in isolation from the rest of the church. Anything less will perpetuate a culture where women are marginalized from ministry for the simple reason that the core mission is not large enough to need them.
But this means that it is not enough to simply move toward theologically sound resources or create pathways for women to pursue ministry. Without a vision for ministry that actually depends on women’s contributions, such initiatives can be little more than tokenism.
After all, NASA did not hire Johnson out of magnanimity or some sense of activism; NASA hired her because they needed her to accomplish their mission. Ultimately, women’s discipleship is not about empowering women; it is about empowering the church to do the work God has called her to. It’s about restoring our broader sense of mission, about cultivating a vision that is as large as God’s own.
Too often, we have been content to set goals well within our reach, to dream only to the limit of what we can accomplish without disrupting status quo. But this is not how God dreams.
God intentionally sets mission beyond us in order to require us to work together, calling us out of isolation into dependence. He intentionally set the frame of the Great Commission to need the participation of both men and women, reflecting his own unity and wholeness. He intentionally set the moon out of reach just so we’ll learn to trust him to do beyond all we can ask or think.
Cover image by Brittany Fan.