June 2023

By Terran Williams

Much of the evangelical church in America has somehow been trained in recent decades to see Christian women through the lens of a (mis)interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to …”) rather than the Great Commission (“Go, make disciples of all nations  …”).

Though I had made this mistake for years myself,[1] I have come to realize that this poorly chosen way of seeing women has devastating consequences for the worldwide cause of Christ. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love the American church. I have many friends who whole-heartedly follow Jesus in the midst of the 200,000+ churches there. Obedient to the Great Commission, these churches send out missionaries, teaching content and money all around the world. I have had the privilege of partnering with American initiatives that have impacted millions. The body of Christ in the rest of the world gives thanks to God for their generosity.

However, as someone living at the bottom tip of Africa, I have come to realize that the American church and so many of the theologians who serve up theology to it are largely oblivious to what God is doing outside of their country. Caught up in Americentricism, parochial squabbles, and in perhaps an overreaction to the (real) threat of doctrinal liberalism in parts of the church, the evangelical church there too easily loses sight of the big picture of the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world. Like Grug, the overprotective caveman father in The Croods, it is so determined to keep out the bad that it fails to let in the good, and cannot comprehend of a world of kingdom possibility beyond its tight strictures.

All the while the wider world opens up to the new thing God is doing. 

The new thing God is doing

Though the American church may still dominate the information highway, it is no longer the center of the action. Gina Zurlo, of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, has demonstrated that: “Christianity continues its demographic shift to the global south. In 1900, 18% of the world’s Christians lived in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania. Today that figure is 67%, and by 2050, it is projected to be 77%. Africa is home to 27% of the world’s Christians, the largest share in the world. By 2050, that figure will likely be 39%. For comparison, the United States and Canada were home to just 11% of all Christians in 2020 and will likely drop to 8% by 2050. Furthermore, the median age of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa is just 19”[2]—half the age of that in the US, with more decades ahead of them to carry the flame of Christ.

Says Zurlo, “Headlines about religion may be focused on the words and actions of Western male leaders, but the reality of the worldwide church is quite different. More and more Christians live outside Europe and North America, especially in Africa.” 

“[W]omen are central to that story,” observes Zurlo. Not only is 52% of the worldwide church female, they tend to be more committed to the cause of Christ. Compared to Christian men, these women are more likely to attend church services (53% versus 46%) and pray every day (61% versus 51%).[3]

I have heard someone say that in 2050, if one human face will be chosen to represent the Christian majority, it will be a young African woman. But this statement is inaccurate … the statistics verify that already now her face best represents the world’s largest faith.  

So many of these African women—I can tell you some of their names—break ground for the gospel on my continent. 

African women who are planting churches

For example, my long-time friend Paul Van Coller planted Hope Church in Mongu, Zambia.[4] It has since grown to be the largest in the region. God gave this church a vision to plant churches all over Zambia. When they prayed for workers for the harvest field, they did not expect whom the Lord of the harvest would send … not only men, but women, also. My friend Paul’s experience is resonant with that of the apostle Paul, who in Acts 16 was called in a vision by “the man of Macedonia” only to find out “the man” who would open the door to Europe for the gospel and the church was a woman, Lydia.

Though not enough suitable men were found, my friend explains, women, some of them disabled, would walk or hobble long distances to the church telling of callings to come to Jesus and messages from God to plant churches. This obedience is countercultural, because in an animistic culture women are thought of as the property of men. Nonetheless, after being trained in the gospel, brave and godly women such as Musa, Siyayumbula, Luboolo and Kangwali have preached the gospel in unreached areas. They have gathered men, women, boys and girls into new churches. 

Paul tells me how, despite some initial resistance because of their gender, some of these women now oversee networks of twenty churches. The churches they planted have multiplied again and again. 

Harvesters International, a church planting ministry that started in Malawi, has planted tens of thousands of churches in Africa, and many of them are led by women. You can read the stories here about the church planters Latuso of Lesotho, Honorine of Kenya and Ruth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I am so moved by the story of Catarina, who was commanded in a dream to plant the church she now pastors. She now prays to God for strength “to plant more churches all over Mozambique” and “to advance God’s kingdom and not turn back.”

Women reaching and leading in the Middle East and Asia

This is not only happening in Africa. Another friend of mine, Dr. Katia Adams, is of Middle Eastern descent. A few years ago she and her husband left South Africa to plant a church in Boston, US.[5] She tells me of the remarkable revival underway in Iran that was spearheaded principally by her grandparents and parents. Through their ministry, hundreds of underground churches have been planted. Over 100,000 have turned from Mohammed to Jesus. Here’s what’s so extraordinary: in Iran, where women are experiencing a brutal crackdown on their freedoms, half of all these churches are led and taught by women, and they are effectively reaching and teaching men. 

Another friend of mine, Dr. Leslie Segraves, a mission leader of Serving Shoulder to Shoulder,[6] shared with me what is happening in Asia. In South Asia, a movement of over 4,000 women equipped as disciple-makers have planted churches in no less than 20,000 villages! With a strong DNA of multiplication, many of these house churches have reached up to the 12th generation of church plants. More recently in Southeast Asia, beginning during the COVID lockdowns, a movement of 2,000 or more women equipped as leaders in a disciple-making movement have led thousands to Christ. 

Leslie also tells me about the tens of millions in China reached for Christ in the last half century. The story is well known: men and women have been propelled by the Spirit to oversee house churches consisting of their converts. For decades, more than half these church leaders have been women. 

But Leslie’s face turns sad as she explains that some of China’s church growth has started to slow down. A chief reason, she explains, is that outsiders have entered and brought increased church policy which has restricted women from joining their brothers in leadership. She tells me of some leading Chinese women who have lamented to her, “We have given our blood for Christ in our nation. But now foreign books and outside theology have entered and taught that women should not lead. We want to obey Christ, but we now no longer know who we are.” As far as I can tell, it is especially American Reformed theological ministries trying to “help” the Chinese church that have promoted Complementarianism along with their Calvinism.[7]

The urgency of the hour and a long tradition

Well-meaning as Complementarian advocates in Western nations may be, its effects on the Great Commission should make us think twice. Church growth is not keeping up with population growth. Missiologist Kent Parks notes that “Today there are twice as many people with no access to the Gospel as there were in 1980. In 1980 there were ‘only’ one billion unevangelized.Today that figure has risen to 2.1 billion!”[8]

Given the urgency of the hour, we need to recognize, train and release every worker the Lord of the harvest gives us. Women leaders, preachers and planters—like the ones I have described in Africa, the Middle East and Asia—are not an anomaly. They stand in the long tradition of many of the women heroes of biblical fame:  

  • Like Deborah, many of them exercise spiritual leadership over God’s people.[9]
  • Like Miriam, many serve in leadership teams alongside men.[10]
  • Like Huldah, many are chosen by God to discern the present priorities for God’s people.[11]
  • Like the Samaritan woman, many are instrumental in bringing villages to faith.[12]
  • Like Mary Magdalene, many have encountered the Risen Lord and have been sent by him to witness to men.[13]
  • Like Priscilla, many care for fledgling churches, and teach and raise up yet more teachers.[14]
  • Like Junia, many of them “are outstanding among the apostles”—groundbreaking pioneers who pay a great price for the advance of the gospel and churches.[15]

These women—in the Bible and in modern times—have not tried to replace or compete with their brothers. None of them are guided by secular feminism. They are simply trying to serve Jesus and use their gifts, too, alongside men. With close on 40,000 women coming to faith worldwide every day, hundreds or thousands of them may have comparable callings and giftings to Priscilla or Deborah, Miriam or Junia. With billions who have yet to hear the name of Jesus, we dare not overlook these women God is adding to the church. Let those whose gift is teaching, teach. Let those whose gift is leading, lead with all diligence. 

In the midst of all the American church’s good gifts exported to the worldwide church, two unhelpful ones have been snuck in that seriously damage the witness and mission of the worldwide church: not only the Prosperity Gospel but also Complementarianism. 

When I read the Danvers Statement, the Complementarian “creed” written in 1987 by John Piper, a co-creator of Complementarianism, to “confront women who intend to be pastors” (Piper’s words),[16] and consider these stories of women intended by God to teach and tend to the millions they have brought to faith, I cannot but toss the Statement out as a profound misalignment with the Spirit and with Scripture. (Even without these testimonies, a sound biblical analysis can solidly show this—the subject of my book “How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy”).

At the Jerusalem Council, the leaders who were debating the true meaning of Scripture relevant to what to do with Gentile believers, admitted into the conversation testimonies of what the Spirit was doing around the world. Though these accounts were not to override the Bible’s teaching, they helped the Council to decide between conflicting interpretations of the Scriptures. The same can be said for the debate on what the Bible really teaches about women and leadership/preaching in the local church. 

Given a more holistic biblical analysis and the testimony of the women leaders the Spirit is raising up in the Majority World, I conclude that the firmest ground for the church is to see women through the eyes of the Great Commission, and encourage them to use all the gifts God has given them, regardless of their gender. 


[1] For decades, owing to Complementarian literature I had read by John Piper and Wayne Grudem, I had seen the women of Scripture through a particular interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. In this text, I was now sure, women were only to play supportive roles and were barred from leadership and teaching men. Then I stumbled upon a well-supported, alternate interpretation. I was shocked to realize it was equally if not more probable. Following the counsel of Proverbs to listen to opposing views, I extensively researched the matter. This research was motivated not by cultural pressure but to make sure my doctrine of women was built on all of Scripture—patiently and soundly interpreted and properly pieced together. I concluded that I had misunderstood 1 Timothy 2 and other passages. I document my research in “How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy” (which is free on Amazon Kindle Unlimited).

[2] https://theconversation.com/why-the-future-of-the-worlds-largest-religion-is-female-and-african-178358

[3] www.pewforum.org/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/

[4] https://thezambiaproject.org

[5] www.thetableboston.com

[6] https://servingshouldertoshoulder.com

[7] https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2018/march/christian-china-bible-women.html For the record, not all Calvinists are Complementarian. For example, James K.A. Smith in “Letters to a Young Calvinist” tells how Calvinism, properly applied, led him to include women in leadership. 

[8] “Women Engaged in Church Planting Movements” Frontier Magazine 38-1

[9] Judges 4-5. See “Deborah” in  https://terranwilliams.com/what-winger-presently-gets-wrong-how-women-could-and-couldnt-lead-in-the-old-testament/

[10] Exodus 15:20-21; Micah 6:4. See “Miriam” in https://terranwilliams.com/what-winger-presently-gets-wrong-how-women-could-and-couldnt-lead-in-the-old-testament/.

[11] 2 Kings 22:14-20)

[12] John 4:4-42

[13] John 20:11-18

[14] Acts 18:24-26; Romans 16:3-4; 1 Corinthians 16:19. See Andrew Bartlett’s and my refutation of complementarian misinterpretations of Priscilla at https://terranwilliams.com/what-winger-presently-gets-wrong-women-leaders-in-the-new-testament-part-b/  

[15] Romans 16:7. About Junia the woman, John Chrysostom wrote: “To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles—just think what a wonderful song of praise that is!” See Andrew Bartlett’s and my refutation of complementarian misinterpretations of Junia at https://terranwilliams.com/what-winger-presently-gets-wrong-woman-apostles/

[16] www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-current-state-of-complementarity

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