Does a Woman Belong in Seminary?
I remember my first day at seminary. Walking into that first class, I was excited. It was Biblical Hermeneutics. (I didn’t even know what “hermeneutics” meant.) When I finally found the classroom I was one of the last to arrive. I quickly scanned the room to find that the room was full of men and only one other woman was there. Thankfully, there was a seat fairly close to her that was still available. I sat there looking around at the thirty or so men and two women. I took a deep breath, thanked the Lord for the journey that brought me there, and settled in for the first day’s lecture. That was the start of a journey that was a rollercoaster ride of sorts but also a time of growth, challenge, soul-searching and theological grounding. It has not always been easy.
Kyle Roberts, a professor at Bethel Seminary, published an article “For Men Only? An Open Letter to Women in Seminary” as part of his regular column Theological Provocations. He captures the sentiments that some women experience in seminary:
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.
While Roberts and I come to opposite conclusions, he raises some valid questions and shines a spotlight on an area with which women wrestle.
Do seminary women face a mix of support, apathy, and downright hostility? The short answer is – Sometimes. Roberts is quick to point out that not all seminaries are the same, and I am not aware of any evangelical theological seminary in which outright hostility toward women is part of their DNA. What I have found is that if a woman experiences such mixture of support it usually stems from one of two sources. The least common is coming from someone who has taken biblical mandates and principles beyond what the Bible even speaks of or truly has a bone to pick about, such as telling a woman she can only work with children or that she is forbidden to even pray in a public gathering. It is in these instances that one should have discernment as to what might be godly, biblical correction, and what is just a sinful nature rearing its head.
What is more common is that women perceive a hostility or opposition because they themselves are beginning to step outside the boundaries that have been established by God. In a study referenced by Roberts1, the anecdotal frustrations of women stemmed, at times, from a feeling of being marginalized since they were not encouraged to pursue the pastorate or other key leadership positions in the church and they internalized this as a message of unworthiness.
If you are experiencing what you perceive as opposition as a woman in seminary, ask yourself, “Am I walking worthy of my calling?” (Eph 4:1-3; Col 1:9-11; 1 Thess 2:11-13). The bottom line is to settle what you believe about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, then commit to line up under the authority of what God’s Word says. Granted, as Roberts points out, there are “theological complexities, hermeneutical and exegetical ambiguities and ethical implications that go with applying biblical texts to modern situations.” But when it is just not working, the problem is not with the biblical text; it is with our own understanding and how it is to be applied today. As hard as it can be sometimes, we must commit to align ourselves under the teaching and authority of Scripture. It is when we, as women, are living the way that God intended us to live, that the “opposition” within the family of God seems to ease.
Are the only ministry and church jobs out there “for men only”? No, there are many opportunities for women to serve God’s kingdom. Granted, churches will rightfully seek men to fill the more traditional positions but I would encourage women to be careful about seeking a position or title. If God has you in a time of preparation, rest assured that He is preparing you for something.
Many women today hear that they cannot do anything in the church. On the contrary, there is much for women to do and to be done. Scripture affirms that women with varied positions of service, influence, leadership, and teaching functioned in the early church (1 Cor 11:2-16; 14:40). We have a world full of women who need to know the redemptive message of Jesus Christ and how to receive the gift of life. These same women need to know how to grow in their faith and become mature followers of Christ. Too often, women get caught in the trap of wanting what they should not have. They long for that one piece that we have been told not to touch. (Sounds a lot like Eve, doesn’t it?) In the meantime an entire garden of opportunities goes unnoticed.
Is seminary really for women? Absolutely! Women have a place and a valuable role to fill in God’s church. It is clearly evident in Paul’s writings and even in the life of Christ, that women had an integral role in the ministry of the New Testament church.
- Priscilla joined Aquila in instructing Apollos (Acts 18:26)
- Paul mentions women, like the highly capable Phoebe, with favor (Rom 16:1-2) and employs women in the service of the gospel. (Phil 4:3)
- Women offered themselves in special ministries to Jesus (Jn 12:1-11)
- Women were among the first converts (Lydia, Acts 16:13-14). They were also martyred for their faith and served the church in very influential roles.
- Spiritually mature women are exhorted to instruct the younger women and be teachers of good things. (Titus 2:3-5)
- Women are to share the gospel. (1 Pet 3:17)
With that said, I hope you will agree with me that women in the church today have too often been accused of offering a gluttonous diet of fluff and not enough substance. We need women who are trained as competently as men to open God’s word, to take women to the deep things of God, and to be teachers that meet the standard set in Scripture. Yes, a woman needs seminary training and she need make no apologies for being there.
It has been 23 years since I first walked onto the seminary campus. Since then I have earned two degrees, served in two different churches, and now find myself back at the seminary working with women in a variety of stages of their seminary training. Has it always been an easy ride? No. But taking up my cross each day is not always easy (Luke 9:23). I have, however, come to terms with who I am as a woman, created in the image of God, called to bring glory to His name by using all I have to reach all I come in contact with in the way that He has determined.
At the beginning of this new school year, I challenge every woman entering a classroom to remember that we serve a loving, creative God who is using women to impact this world for Him in a thousand different ways. Don’t become sidetracked by the noise of the world. Let’s go to work, my strong, saved, gifted and called sisters in Christ . . . there is much to be done!
Terri Stovall serves as the Dean of Women’s Programs at Southwestern Seminary. She co-authored the book Women Leading Women. Terri and her husband Jay enjoy riding motorcycles and roller coasters. Connect with Terri on Facebook or Follow her on Twitter!
1 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.