East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Women in Ministry: New Paths
The Role of Women in Central Asian Churches

Olga V. Avetisova

It has been only in the past five or six years that the question of the situation of women in the churches of Central Asia could even be entertained.  The Soviet system led to the creation of an indivisible and centralized church authority.  This gave birth to the imposition of identical or similar traditions and principles in all churches of all regions.  All of our churches, regardless of denomination, were identical, as similar to one another as twins.

One of the offshoots of perestroika was freedom of religion (a relative freedom, of course), which gave rise to an influx into the church of a considerable number of educated and thinking people.  This religious freedom opened the door to a great many believers of foreign countries, as well.  All of this opened up new channels into the life of the church and, in many ways, completely changed it.  Freedom also led, as always, to the conflict between old traditions and new concepts.  This conflict touched on the traditional understanding of the role of women in the church.

The Position of Women in Traditional Churches
In accordance with established principles, women were not allowed as a rule to take part in the church service with the exception of the congregational prayer, the reading of poetry, and singing.  Women were relegated to the role of silent listeners during the service; performing various domestic duties in the house of prayer; and caring for the sick.  Women were allowed to take part in the making of church policies only during general votes.

Women in the Home and in Sunday School
On the other hand, the question of how to raise children was left to women alone, along with teaching Sunday school.  (There are almost no male teachers in Sunday schools.)  This means women alone were responsible for the upbringing of future pastors and deacons.  Religious women believed that since the Scriptures said, "Women should remain silent in the churches....It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church" (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), then their Christian duty was to listen to what the brothers said and to fulfill their orders through physical labor, and that was it.  They weren't allowed to teach; to spread the Gospel was forbidden; to organize churches was impossible, etc.

Can Women Lead Others to Christ?
I know one sister who was a devout believer.  This elderly woman was the only Christian in her entire city.  Being a saved child of God, she saw that people were perishing around her, knowing nothing of salvation in Jesus Christ.  She prayed that God would send someone who could tell them about Christ.  Many years passed, but no one came. But the very life of this woman bore witness to God, and people around her began to question her about what it was that made her different from them.  As well as she could, she began to tell them about Christ. Interested people got together and began to come to her to read the Bible. In this group, she alone prayed, she alone read the Bible, and she alone was considered a Christian.  I met her in a prayer house in Tashkent. She told me that she had come to ask for brothers to visit her city to hear the repentance of those who had for so long been gathering at her home.  "Why don't you yourself suggest that they repent?  After all, you said that some of them have been meeting with you for several years and have long been ready to repent."

"Yes, that's true.  But can I really do it myself?  I'm a woman, you know.  Only men can spread the Word and summon people to repent."  We conversed for a long time, read Scripture, until she finally said with unsure happiness:  "So that means I myself can suggest that they repent?  And this repentance will be real?  But what if these people decide to be baptized, won't the brothers say that they have to repent all over again in their presence?"  This limited understanding of the role of women is characteristic of almost all older churches [in the former Soviet Union].

Life, however, has corrected this.  In three republics of Central Asia--Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, and Turkmenia--there are 54 Baptist churches and groups.  Of these, only ten have pastors:  three are led by elderly men and seven groups are headed by young laymen.  Women lead all the rest.  They conduct the services, they preach, but they cannot perform religious rites, and they are not invited to church conferences, to which all other leaders and pastors are invited.

The Position of Women in New Churches
About 100 new churches have opened in Central Asia in the past five years.  Of these, 50-55 are Korean, 20-25 are Uzbek, Tadjik, or Turkmen national churches, and the rest have both Slavic and Asian members with worship in Russian.  For all intents and purposes, this is "new wine in new wineskins" (Matthew 9:17).  So what is the situation for women here?  In charismatic churches a woman may take the role of home cell group leader, prophetess, and missionary.  There she may pray for the healing of the sick by laying on of hands.  The sole responsibility she cannot accept is to perform baptisms, lay on hands during services, or perform the Lord's Supper.

The situation of women in Uzbek, Tadjik, and Turkmen national churches is usually shaped by Asiatic traditions:  complete subordination, humility, and silence.  As a matter of fact, frequently this appears so only in the church, while at home the picture is changing.  In reality, many women understand full well the meaning of the saying:  "The husband is the head, but the wife is the neck, and the head does not turn without the neck."

What Does Scripture Say About the Role of Women in the Church?
Theologians and writers who have delved into this question as a rule note that Jesus revealed to the world an entirely new perspective on women.  He lifted them from the dust and placed them on practically the same level as men.  He also pronounced that, in the eyes of God, men and women have the same worth.  "God sent his Son, born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4).  In the entire course of Christ's earthly life, women served him devotedly.  They never left his side, even during the last hour of the horrible tortures of Golgotha and his death, when all his other disciples had abandoned him (Matthew 27:55).  Christ appeared first to women after his resurrection (John 20:13-17), and women were directed by the angel to bring the good news to men (Matthew 28:1-7).  Equally with men, women received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18).  Together with men, they served the Lord and were His faithful servants (Romans 16:12 and elsewhere), and like men, women suffered during the persecutions.

Women's Gifts
What are women to do then?  Yes, God entrusted the right of solemn performance of religious duties to men.  It is doubtful that any sincere Christian woman who dutifully hearkens to the word of God would dare to contest this fact.  Preeminence in ministry belongs to men.  Amen.  But it is also true that "In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman" (1 Corinthians 11:11).  Christian women can do much to change things for the better in the local church.  The gifts given to women by God for the good of the church are independent of men.  The church will not be complete if the gifts given by God to women are not used.  The duty of the present-day minister of God is to recognize the gifts of all members of the church and create the best conditions for their manifestation. 

Olga Vladimirovna Avetisova was born in 1948 in Kislovodsk, in the Caucasus.  She graduated in 1975 from the Tashkent Polytechnical University.  She accepted Christ in 1966 at a Baptist worship service, and now works with all evangelical denominations as a mission leader and coordinator of missionary activity.

Olga V. Avetisova, "The Role of Women in Central Asian Churches," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 6 (Winter 1998), 12-13.

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© 1998 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
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