“You can’t be what you can’t see.“ The need for female models of faith.
For better or for worse, most people are not pioneers. That doesn’t mean that they have no potential. But it does mean that they need role models. They need people they look up to, whom they want to imitate. They need to see other people, often people like them, succeeding at the type of thing they want to do. They need it for inspiration, leadership, paths to follow, and to help them believe that they can do it too.
When it comes to growing in faith, using gifts, and imagining opportunities for ministry and leadership in the church, men have abundant examples of other men to look up to. And examples given in sermons, Sunday school lessons, youth group and Bible study are frequently male. Women often lack female role models. And this can be a problem for girls and young women, for as Marie Wilson from the White House Project said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
It truly makes a difference to women to hear of and see other women of faith, who have shown radical faithfulness to God. It’s not that women aren’t there in the Bible, or in church history, or in our churches. In fact, there are a lot, if only we would look. But they are often left invisible.
If we want to encourage women in ministry and leadership, we need to make a conscious effort to provide examples, role models, and more robust and varied pathways for ministry to our young women. This can start in our Sunday schools with the Bible stories we use, in our sermon illustrations, in how we welcome and prosper women’s ministry gifts, in terms of whom we tap on the shoulder to send off for further training, and by our employment and remuneration of women in our Christian organisations.
Ridley College is seeking to strengthen female participation among its student body and faculty. Firstly, we are currently trying to develop women’s confidence and skill through the Womens’ Preaching Network, which seeks to build confidence and competence in Bible proclamation. Women come from many denominational backgrounds, from all over Melbourne and even sometimes from regional Victoria, and even Zoom in from Darwin! ‘This is very encouraging’ say participants.
Secondly, the Women’s Writing Group responds to the same need for Evangelical women writers. Graduates, students and ministry practitioners gather to write and discuss academic and popular writing.
Thirdly, in 2017 we started an annual conference for Evangelical Women in Academia (see the report on our recent conference in this TMA). Our conference speakers in 2019 will be Canon Dr Paula Gooder, Director of Mission Learning and Development in Birmingham Diocese and author of many books including Phoebe and Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person, and Dr Jude Long, Principal of Nungalinya College, Darwin.
Central to each of these initiatives is much-needed role-modelling by women and intentional support.
The writer of Hebrews 11 lists examples of faith, acknowledging there are many more examples that could be added. So, in the tradition of the writer of Hebrews 11, and to add to the list, I offer you these:
By faith, Eve believed the promise that through her offspring one would come who would crush the serpent.
By faith, Sarah believed the promise and followed Abram when called to go to a place they would later receive as their inheritance, even though she did not know where she was going. And by faith she was enabled to bear children, even though she was past childbearing age, because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one woman, and she as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
By faith the Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharoah, and did not kill the Hebrew baby boys when they were born.
By faith, Moses’ mother and father hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
By faith Miriam led the people in singing and worship after the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; whilst the Egyptians drowned.
By faith, Rahab hid the spies in Jericho, because she was longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called her God, for he has prepared a city for her.
By faith, Ruth followed Naomi to the Promised Land. Tamar actively took hold of the promise of heirs, and was declared more righteous than Judah. By faith the widow of Nain believed that through the prophet Elijah her son would not die.
By faith, Mary accepted the angel’s announcement that she would bear the Lord Jesus, even though she was so young, a virgin, and would be in danger of shame, even stoning.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail us to tell of Jael and Jepthah’s daughter, Deborah, and Esther, Martha, Phoebe, Joanna, Dorcas, Priscilla who risked her life for Paul, of Junia, Elizabeth, Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord, not to mention the host of women serving globally today, and in our own congregations.
These are just some of the “great cloud of witnesses”, as the writer in Hebrews puts it, who surround us, and who can inspire women (and men) in the life of faith in Jesus.
We can all work together to promote women in academia and ministry by addressing the issue of role-modelling so that more women have the opportunity to be what they can see