“God says He created mankind, male and female, in His image. That means that you’re a female made in God’s image. And you have value simply because you’re created in God’s image,” said International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Jamie Schilt to the Malawian women seated before her in the Baptist Theological Seminary classroom in Lilongwe, Malawi.
For one week every year, wives of seminary students and alumni are invited to take classes at the seminary to help them address the challenges of ministry and find support and fellowship in one another. Classes include studying the Bible, teaching from a passage of Scripture, and learning about biblical womanhood. Crafting and cooking classes are also offered, as these are valued skills in their culture.
When the women return home after their week at the seminary, they are often the most biblically educated women in their churches and will be responsible for women’s programs. So, during their week on the seminary campus, the women also learn how they can start WMU and Girls in Action programs in their churches and engage with the national Malawian WMU.
Participants in this program receive a certificate of ministry for attending classes over a two-to-four-year period.
Jamie teaches several classes as part of the program. One focuses on how to read and understand the Bible. The course introduces the Bible’s authors and genres, how to determine who the passage of Scripture addresses, how to interpret Scripture in context, and how to apply it in the present.
The classes also delve into the implications Malawian culture has on the roles of women and how Scripture can speak into cultural expectations.
Historically, and still among some rural communities, due to declining birth rates, Malawians depended on women’s fertility. Fertility was central to the survival of tribes and the nation. Jamie said witchcraft practices in rural and remote areas are tied to women’s fertility.
These historical precedents are a heavy weight on society. While some of these practices live in the past, Jamie said many women still feel as though they’re clawing their way out from under a male-dominated society.
Women in Malawian culture are often treated like second-class citizens. Jamie said the classes are meant to empower and affirm a woman’s worth and value in the eyes of God. Jamie shares with the women that they have a role to play in the church.
Women enrolled in the seminary often encounter difficulties in their home churches. When they graduate and return to their churches, they are sometimes overlooked and underutilized. Jamie said some leaders worry women will usurp their authority. In an area where higher education is not the norm, an educated woman can breed jealousy in these contexts, she explained.
When Jamie teaches these women, she shares how their education is a way to serve their church, but it doesn’t place them ahead of anyone else. She asks them to consider how they can use their education to build up the body of Christ.
Building Up WMU in the Local Church
WMU in Malawi has been active since 1961. Women in the local churches meet regularly to discuss how they can identify their calling, know their gifting, and use both to glorify God.
Many groups spend their time visiting other women from their church during sickness and loss, checking on members who have been absent, and supporting members in times of celebration, like a new marriage or new baby. The local WMU groups also meet together both as an association and nationally.
In Malawi, women “are the most active, effective, and biggest percentage of congregants at church and [in] the whole country,” said Elizabeth Mvula, president of Malawi WMU.
The women at Elizabeth’s church, Capital City Baptist Church in Lilongwe, engage in multiple ministries: Ruth Ministry reaches out to widows; Rahab Ministry reaches out to sex workers and trains them in life skills; a third ministry supports a burn unit at Kamuzu Central Hospital; and other outreach programs have resulted in a few new churches, for which the group supports a pastor.
Just as Jamie seeks to build up Malawian women in Christ through her teaching at the seminary, Elizabeth strives to show women their worth in God’s eyes. She sees the possibility of influencing nationwide change and asks for prayer that more women would “see the value in themselves.”