For Men Only? An Open Letter to Women in Seminary

"Like" the Patheos Evangelical Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Evangelical issues.

Dear Friends,

I know that seminary can be a mixed bag for women studying and training for vocational ministry. You likely encounter a confusing blend of support, apathy, and even downright hostility—perhaps all in a single day. I can't imagine what it would be like to dedicate oneself to God and to devote oneself to the ministry, while sorting through such a mixed reception from fellow students, professors and church leaders.

I will never forget a female student who, after a class discussion on the theology of gender and ministry, shared—with tears in her eyes—her struggle with this confusing reception. She was about to complete her Masters of Divinity, with the goal of following her passion toward God's leading in a church. But a troubling reality was settling in: the vast majority of the jobs posted by churches in her conservative denomination were explicitly designated "for men only." No mixed message there.

Along with the bleak outlook in certain vocational areas of church ministry, women seminary students can regularly experience forms of oppression or derogation, whether striking or subtle, that can add up to a heavy burden. In many evangelical seminaries, this can be compounded by predominantly male faculties, predominantly male textbook authors, and even by male colleagues who question your right to be there. Of course, each experience is different and each seminary is different, but studies suggest that the increasing number of female students in seminary during the last 40 years has not always equated to a hospitable reception and nurturing environment. (For some reflection on these studies along with a recent study, see "Women's Well Being in Seminary: A Qualitative Study, by Mary L. Jensen, Mary Sanders, and Steven J. Sandage, in Theological Education, Volume 45, Number 2 (2010): 99-116.)

If I may, I'd like to share a brief personal story. During my seminary days, I became theologically convinced of male headship in the church and home. I bought wholesale the argument that a "literal" reading of Scripture necessitates a patriarchal authority structure. We are fallen, sinful people, so we need well-defined, established and static authority structures. Male and female are equally worthy as human beings and both are created in the image of God. But men, not women, are designated the leaders. Perplexed? Don't argue. It comes from the secret wisdom of God. And, of course, from the pen of Paul.

At that point, I hadn't yet taken into account all of the theological complexities, hermeneutical and exegetical ambiguities and ethical implications that go with applying biblical texts to modern situations. For just one example of the exegetical ambiguities, I hadn't realized that "head" (kephale), which most translations render "authority," probably didn't mean for Paul and his audience quite what we mean by it. Many Christians assume that the "head" language in 1 Corinthians 11 designates "authority over," like a CEO over a company, rather than "source" or "origin" (see Phillip Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ, Zondervan, 2009). They sometimes miss other significant factors, such as Paul's assumption that women "preached" regularly in public (1 Cor. 11:5), that women and men are interdependent of each other and equally dependent on God (1 Cor. 11:12) and that genuine Christian community depends on mutual submission (Eph. 5:21).

While I wasn't prepared to go all the way with my literal hermeneutic (I didn't expect women to wear head-coverings in church or for men to keep their hair short), I was settled in my position; so much so that when the church where I served as youth pastor invited a woman to preach on a Sunday morning, I skipped the service. Thankfully, I didn't make my stand known to anyone but the pastor (as far as I was aware). Had I broadcast my little protest, who knows what damage I could have done to the church—in particular to women who may have already struggled to embrace their status as glorious creatures, created in God's image and equal to men in God's economy (Gal 3:28)?

In the years since, I've changed my position on women in ministry and in the home. I don't need to go into all the exegetical, hermeneutical, theological and ethical (not to mention practical) reasons for that. I'm sure you know them all anyway. But in sum, I came to realize that women and men are equal not just in "ontological worth" but in God's salvation history and that God's planned future for all people is an egalitarian community of mutually submissive, loving, and honoring relationships built on the Gospel of Christ, the Servant-Lord. Why should we structure our churches, families and relationships on the basis of past and present sins and failures rather than on the basis of God's planned future for shalom?