Conference Introduction - 6 June 1997
Women's Ministry and a Tale of Two Barbaras
Three women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, were the last mourners to depart from Golgotha following Christ's crucifixion. And Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the empty tomb. Thus, devoted women with broken hearts were the final witnesses of Jesus' death and the first to encounter the empty tomb, which allows all women and men to proclaim "Christ is Risen!" Furthermore, Jesus' first appearance following his resurrection was to Mary Magdalene. She who declared, "I have seen the Lord," was the first to testify to the reality of the resurrection (John 20:18).
Women also figured prominently in the origins of the Evangelical movement in Russia. Princess Elizaveta Chertkova, mother of a prominent supporter of Tolstoy, first invited Lord Radstock to preach in St. Petersburg in her palace. Princess Sophia Lieven and many other women of high society became believers under the preaching of Lord Radstock, opened their homes to Evangelical worship, and sponsored a remarkable array of compassionate ministries in the capital.
And then in the twentieth century, who can but marvel at the spiritual fortitude, exceptional organizational skills, and courage of the women who established the Baptist Council of Prisoners' Relatives? In the late 1960s and in the 1970s it was one of the most effective groups to challenge Soviet atheism and to publicize in the West the fate of those who would not forswear their faith. And today, as well, women in Evangelical churches are actively involved in a great range of evangelistic outreaches which, however, are not widely recognized. More needs to be done to encourage the work of women in the church and in evangelism.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 80 percent of new converts in the former Soviet Union are women. As a result, concerted prayer and greater financial support from all believers is needed for the evangelistic and compassionate ministries of women, and specifically for more literature addressing the needs and burdens of women. Women of the church have much to offer, but Evangelical churches and Western missions both are struggling to understand the unique needs of women and how best to incorporate women into Christian service in a rapidly changing society. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, women have been much more active in outreach, but resources are still lacking, as is training, support, and encouragement.
A story of two women named Barbara may prove instructive. I have a good friend who is a highly educated Russian believer, doing a great deal of creative evangelistic outreach through his church and through his professional work. But my Christian brother, whose testimony has inspired me so much personally, disappoints me in one respect, because he buys Barbie dolls for his daughter. I worry for any child who is encouraged to think of a Barbie doll as her heroine--this myth of the perfect figure, with limitless clothes, perpetual youth, and the perfect man: muscle-bound Ken. This is not reality and I believe it is not Christian to encourage our daughters to dream about Barbie figures, Barbie beauty, and Barbie wealth, which, as Jesus said, will all pass away.
In this conference we represent a great variety of Evangelical churches; but where we can, we should take inspiration from examples of selfless love in the Orthodox tradition as well, which is so much a part of Russian history and culture. In this case I am thinking of St. Barbara, one of the "new martyrs" of the twentieth century. Many of us know of the Communists' murder of the Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna in 1918, sister of Empress Alexandra and widow of Tsar Nicholas II's uncle, the Grand Duke Sergei, police chief of Moscow. He was killed in 1905 by a terrorist's bomb, with his wife as eyewitness. Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna founded the Convent of Sts. Martha and Mary in Moscow. She deserves our respect for turning her personal tragedy not into a sea of bitterness, but into a wave of diverse and creative ministries for Moscow's poor, especially the city's destitute young girls. But martyred alongside Elizaveta Fyodorovna on 18 July 1918 was her coworker, Barbara, who chose not to leave the side of the Grand Duchess when the Bolsheviks came to arrest her.
Evangelicals certainly have differences with Orthodox. But if we look at the examples of these two Barbaras, we all will want our daughters to appreciate the self-sacrifice and compassion of Barbara of the Convent of Sts. Martha and Mary, and we will want our daughters to discover the lie behind the idol of shop-window Barbie dolls. And beyond the Barbara martyred by Bolsheviks, we have the even better example of the namesakes of her convent. Because in Martha and Mary, whom the great Russian artist Nesterof painted in the convent's famous church, we have the heart for service and the heart for devotion, which in combination exemplify the model Christian life for every believer.
In 1914, nearly on the eve of Communism, British writer Stephen Graham worshiped in the Convent Church of Martha and Mary and was inspired to title his 1915 survey of Russian religious life, The Way of Martha and The Way of Mary. In Communism's wake part of the task of every believing woman--and every believing man--is to see how best to combine the service of Martha and the devotion of Mary.
Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
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