Contextual Mission in India: From Women's Perspective

by Dr Susan Thomas

Date added: 21/10/2016

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Dr Susan Thomas

A paper from the Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion Conference in ECC Bangalore, 16th - 21st October 2016. For the other five papers from this conference click here.

Mission as it has been understood, is still actively involved in sending out people to make disciples, planting churches and saving souls. This is done as an attribute and activity of Trinitarian God and participating in God’s savings activity. Mission is carried out among people who are struggling to live   with dignity and wholeness to keep the purpose of once own creation.

From a women’s perspective mission is “forming partnership, building bridges and coalitions, and strengthening grassroots movements to struggle for life and work for justice for all people” -( Dictionary o.fem  p 185). In a globalized market economy women have been marginalized. Women are denied decision making power and justice in their struggle to sustain life.

The understanding of mission has been evolving according to the time and context. Thus the topic “contextual Mission in India from women’s perspective” is crucial and relevant.

In this paper I would like to answer two questions.

1)      What is the mission of the church to women in today’s context?

2)      Where is the place of women in church mission?


We are consciously or unconsciously influenced by the socio, political context such as Immigration, migration, globalization, electronic gadgets, social media etc. It characterizes our context. As a member   of a community, an individual automatically incorporate the customs, traditions, values and behavior appropriate for various roles in society. But one cannot be unaffected by the new influences on Society. In the history of the status and role of women at many points, new influences came in bringing about momentous complexities. For example, the impact of the west has been faced with a new challenge. As a result of the changes, the Indian woman faces the dichotomy between old and new patterns of living and leads to conflicts in values. But some have become aware of their own statues as full human being and that women have a role to play as partners in the building up of the kingdom of God.

In my observation there are three Categories of women in today’s Indian context. The journey of women and the transition evolving are highlighted in three stages.

1.    The follower:  For them their identity is defined and given to them. They are the traditional women who accept subordination and hierarchy of men. They are equipped to play traditional roles. Her life revolves around the home and family alone. She accepts and acts according to the traditional roles defined by the society. There can be many examples cited for this. In John 4, the Samaritan woman act according to the definition of the society. The people defined her identity as an ill reputed woman. So she hesitates to meet the people. In fact she avoids people and is willing to be marginalized.  Without any resistance she follows what the society has defined and decided for her.

2.    The Struggler:  The woman who is aware of the possibilities and responsibilities is the struggler, who is aware that she is created in the image of God. Yet she is not able to take a decision. The struggler realizes that she also has been created in God’s image and that she was created with a definite plan and purpose.    She deeply earns to fulfill this purpose but going ahead with it means going against the identity given to her by the society. Thus she is going through a mental struggle of taking a decision. To add to her struggle is the unfavorable social structure.

The mind goes through a tag o war between, what is wrong and what is right, whether to rebel or accept and ultimately what is the right path?  This is the struggle!

I have faced many such occasions, in family and in church. One such experience I debated over was when I was interviewed for M.Th admission,I was asked “Whether your husband agrees for your study?” I wonder whether the same question is asked to a husband.

Is that the implication given by Jesus when he asked to the Samaritan women “call your husband”. To receive the living water, according to the culture and Jewish religious understanding men are the custodian of women, her body and even her spirituality. So she needs to get the permission of her custodian, who can be her father, husband or son. By saying, “I have no husband” does she mean that “My body, my decisions, my spirituality is not owned by any men” I am free. Here there is a conflict even though she says she is free, she is not completely free. She is under the definition given by her society. Not able to overcome the social stigma.

3.    The empowered        

She is the one who is aware of her choice and is able to make conscious decisions of her own. Like Mary, whose son was Jesus, came out from the struggle. When the angel appeared to her and declared about the virgin birth she did not say “wait let me call and ask my father or Joseph”. Mary was able to take the decision. But in the case of Samaritan women she needed help to overcome the struggle to become an empowered person. When she was empowered by Jesus she no longer felt the need to live according to the identity forced on her by the society. By leaving behind the stereotyped traditional role models and identity given by the society she now turned to be a new person. She witnessed, preached and advised to the people.  Thus challenging and taking a role that is not acceptable to the society. She has changed and became an agent of change.




1.    Hypocrisy in mission and ministry challenges, given to people.

     Who decides the God’s call for woman? Church makes hypocritical claims that god calls everyone for god’s ministry. Hearing the liberated and egalitarian concept of mission and ministry many women do want to enter in to it. But in reality their role in ministry is limited and should act according to the design of the church. It seems that it is neither God nor the woman who decides for woman. It is the institutionalized church. Her call should be within the limits of the churches understanding.

      Here again I can site my experience, similar to many other women. I really wanted to take care of a parish and then teach in a seminary. But both my call was denied by my church. I have realized the limitations enforced by the church. Does God calls woman only to be in a subordinate role?

2.    The glorification of traditional images of woman as the  role model of Christian woman

      There are many stereotyped traditional images of women that decides the status and role of women in private and public. The glorification of images like woman as good mothers, wives and domestic worker limit her roles and status only in family circle.

     Woman as the property of men, as a sex object, as a tempterous again tells that she does not have a mind of her own, her body, sexuality belong to man who owns her and can do anything he likes.

     The images of woman as second class citizen, as weak devalues woman hood

     The images show that woman are defined and destined on the basis of her biological function and body.

It is interesting to note that Jesus never accepted the traditional role models of woman. Jesus gave them a new understanding of womanhood and new role models. However Christianity accepts and reinforces the traditional images of women on the basis of bible. Even the women who are empowered do not get opportunity to fulfill their responsibility and the structures are not receiving them.

3   The influence of Patriarchy, patriarchal values and patriarchal god and theology.

      Patriarchy means the rule of Father or Fathers. At a certain point in history the father took the power in the family. Patriarchy developed then into a social system which legalized the domination and rule of some people over others, especially over all the women. Legalization of patriarchal system has influenced the value system, the writer of the bible and thus the concept of god and theology. 

Patriarchal concept of God. Though there is an understanding that god is spirit, god is love and god is defined by the qualities and character of god, in the Bible the language, imageries and metaphors used is gendered and establish god as male. Addressing god as father, husband, master, and son of god has influenced the thinking and understanding of god. So people tend to believe that only male can represent god.

Hierarchy of god. There is a subtle concept of hierarchy and discrimination against feminine divinity in Trinity.  Trinity is explained as Father God and Son God both are male. But when Holy Spirit is explained no gendered language or imagery is used. Usually Holy Spirit is depicted using the imagery of Dove, without any gender.In Romans 8:26 uses “ Spirit himself”. Though the spirit is feminine, to represent feminine spirit, a female imagery is not used. Why the mother goddess is avoided?

Christology and suffering: Historic Jesus is a male. Is it important to have maleness in salvific act of God? Based on the suffering on the Cross women are encouraged to accept the suffering and injustice. They consider it spirituality.

4 .  The insulting imageries and language used in the bible.

Many of the imageries and language used to explain concepts and ideas are insultive to women and it creates poor self image for women and also legitimize the attitude and behavior of looking down at women( Jeremiah 50:37, Nahum3:30). The depiction of God as faithful husband and Israel as the unfaithful wife (Hosea) and many other sayings in the bible denotes that women are evil. Hence they have no divine elements and they cannot represent god. This attitude has affected the status and limited the role of women. Many believe that women cannot represent god or cannot take the role of a priest who mediate god.  

5 .Biblical stories that acknowledge discriminative values for men and women.

The story of Miriam, Michal and Vasthi who has questioned the leadership styles have been punished. This gives the implication that women are not suppose to rebellor question. This creates an atmosphere of fear in women and learned to accept any injust circumstances. The stories of Issac, Jonathan gives them a second chance to live. But in the case of Japheth’s daughter she is not getting a second chance. According to Old Testament Men has more Value than women. Leviticus 27:1-2 All these negative depictions has affected the psyche of the women.

6. The identity and personhood of women.

In Genesis creation story women’s identity is as a person created in the image of God. But as the time went on her identity and destiny is defined by her biological function and productivity. Embedding this idea a woman in the crowd shouted “Blessed is the women who bore you and breast that you suck”. Here she says that blessedness of Mary is based on her biological function. Though Jesus did not accept any of the biological function of women as her destiny and that does not defines her status and role. Jesus said she is blessed because she obeyed God’s command.

This is a great challenge faced by the women in India. Almost always, women are recognized and identified with their relational identity. Many a time women do not resist to it, because of fear, shame, doubt etc. She just becomes an extension of men.

7. Economic Dependency.

Because women do not have anything of their own, they are destined to adjust with all injustice and oppression.  Even among the employed, women do not have the freedom to use their own salary.  Many daughters do not inherit their fathers’ property.  They simply look after their father’s property, household and then they are transplanted to husband’s vineyard to look after it.  The brothers are even harder as the Song of Solomon 1:6 says

My mother’s sons were angry with me.  They made me keeper of the vineyards.  But my own vineyard I have not kept.

8. Positions and Power.

Though majority of the churchgoers are women, very few women get the opportunity to be in the decision making body.  I here acknowledge the lack of ability and training in doing so.  But it is because they are not trained and not given opportunity to exercise it.

THE NEED- or the mission to women and mission of women in this context.

1.    Challenge the traditional role models that perpetuate subordination of woman by using biblical interpretation.

     We need a hermeneutics that is not affected by the patriarchal structure, role models etc. When we study the encounter of Jesus with many women, he has challenged the traditional role models of women and given a new understanding of womanhood. He has talked and walked with women receive service and give responsibility to them. He has done all these to transform men and women and to challenge the discriminative attitude and double standards towards women. The story of the bend over woman by calling her to the altar or the pulpit, by teaching Mary, by giving a chance to witness in the crowd by the bleeding woman are examples of Jesus breaking boundaries and discrimination between male and female.

2.    Identify and deny discriminative and cultural value based biblical and theological interpretations.

      We need a contextualized theological thinking, which challenge male dominated theological thinking and create a gender sensitive theology. Most of our biblical interpretations are based on cultural values. One example can be seen in Jesus saying from the cross to his mother Mary and his disciple John ‘Behold your Son, behold your mother’. Most of the preaches use this saying to advise children to take care of  their parents because Jesus even on his death bed was concerned about his mother. This interpretation perpetuates the traditional understanding that women have to be taken care of. Why can’t we interpret it as Jesus last attempt to teach them the values of kingdom of god where the relationship is not based on biological relationship rather in relation with God. In this context it is not Mary who needed an emotional support. It was John who needed a mother. Mother is the one who take   care and protect her children.

3.    Popularize inclusive language in songs liturgy and to address God. Educate the congregation that by using exclusive language for God you are limiting God and also excluding women.

4.    Initiate leadership training programmes for women to empower them and to help them transform structures .I have initiated certain programmes to educate and train women and to transform the structures. eg. Divyabodhini, Vachass and penkalari.

5.    Educate men and women of their roles and responsibilities. Women created in God’s image and have the responsibility to take care of the created order.

6.    Expand or break the boundaries to include women. Need to challenge the male dominated religious structures.

     Women Evangelist

     We need to acknowledge and include women in the ministry of the church.

7.    Find out ways of worship that is inclusive. The pulpit, the altar, the litany, the sacraments, how far it is inclusive?

8.    Building partnership. It is not only enabling women to make decision but also men and women should learn to share equally the opportunity for decision making.

9.    Consciously resist the cultural symbols and practices of subordination and of discrimination.  Example- covering head.  Though it has no harm, it symbolizes and convey meaning.

Men eating first and women serving, treating men with priority, etc.  All these cultural practices perpetuate women’s subordination.

Above I have cited certain ways in which we can overcome the obstacles and hindrance the women face. We need to further develop a frame work which will support the women who are stuck and struggling through the different stages. Let’s all work with greater zeal to establish an inclusive and Christ envisioned society.

Christ envisioned society is based on service “ Not to served but to serve”. The word minister mean serve. At the time of the formation of Christianity it was the women who served the church. Even according to the culture, the serving duty come to women.  That is why the house churches run by ladies, they gave leadership in serving. In the beginning ,a minister was not an attracting position/job/carrier. The service becoming powerful and position oriented in a later period. The sphere of service which was open to all Christians, who are able and available to serve is limited only to men [Acts 6: 3].

Though over the years women slipped away from their responsibilities, now they are in the process of “ Struggle to be sun again” and “Dare to dream” to “Inherit our mother’s garden” and work towards Christ envisioned society.


Dr. Susan Thomas



Dr Susan Thomas

Dr Susan Thomas



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