I don't want to distract you all from my fascinating post about poop, but you have to read this article. You just have to. No two ways about it, nope, nosirree. Because it's the best summary I’ve read of the issues and dynamics at stake.Ever browsed through the “mens” and “womens” section of a Christian book store? It’s depressing.
I was one woman in a class of about twelve people studying historical theology in one of Steve O’Malley’s classes at the seminary. The girls always headed to counseling, MDIVs, or intercultural ministries degrees. I can count on one hand the names of women I shared theology/history classes with at ATS, a woman-affirming environment, by and large. It was everybody’s husbands who were in those classes with me – theology of Aquinas, history of the sacraments, Christology, etc. And this is an excellent analysis about why that was the case and why it shouldn't be.
Beyond the Theological Locker Room
By Zoe Sandvig
Nurturing the Life of the Mind
When a former seminary professor told Christian author and speaker Carolyn Custis James that he had never heard of any great women theologians, she set out to prove him wrong. Through her research, she discovered that history is sprinkled with a few prominent female theologians, like Argula von Grumbach and Katharina Zell, sixteenth-century writers who defended the Protestant Reformation. But most of the female theologians James stumbled across did not wield the public pen or preach weighty sermons. Instead, as James explains in her book When Life and Beliefs Collide, most were ordinary women who lived lives of extraordinary significance because they knew their God well.
The modern-day Christian woman sits at the foot of this robust legacy. What is she doing with it? Is she sitting passively by, entrusting the study of God to her husband or pastor? Or is she gripping the handles of this powerful legacy of theology, as she travels along life’s bumpy roads?
Sadly, many women, and many men for that matter, ignore the call to know God with their minds, as well as with their hearts and souls. They have traded in serious pursuit of the knowledge of God for a purely devotional spiritual experience. But life is too arduous a thing to tackle without a firm theological framework. Attempting to live the Christian life without deep theology is like trying to run a marathon without a training regimen.
SITTING ON THE SIDELINESJames says that the reasons many women steer clear of theological study are diverse, but all of them are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of every Christian’s calling to know God both accurately and deeply.
A woman who avoids serious theological pursuit may do so because she sees it as a spectator sport. James explains that some godly women dismiss theology as an activity for the proverbial men’s “locker room,” like boxing, auto mechanics, or chewing tobacco.
She mentions a young woman she knew who sought theological titles at a Christian bookstore. When the woman asked the clerk where she could find the books, he responded, “We have books for men.”
Other women assume that accumulating too much theological head knowledge is a turnoff to possible marriage partners or a threat to the male leaders of her church. These women may worry that their theological interests will brand them as “feminists,” and therefore not respectful or submissive. Amy Lauger, a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, said she once had a well-respected female speaker tell her that when women learn theology, they often become hostile toward their husbands and children.
As James has observed, some women nurse their bruises on the sidelines while their husbands’ intense, usually obsessive, theological study robs them of their husbands’ time and attention. In fact, James said, some women see theology as a mistress to their husbands’ affections. Their husbands’ over-indulgence in theological study has alienated these women.
Even more, women want nothing to do with theology because they have seen churches fragment as a result of hairsplitting over minute, perhaps inconsequential, aspects of theology.
“This attitude adds to women not wanting to have anything to do with ‘theology’ due to the arrogance, bickering, and conflict,” said Joan Sato, a church-trained theologian from Indiana.
But most women do not avoid, fear, or despise theological study. They simply do not think they have the time. Women who are in the midst of giving 110 percent to raising children, encouraging their husbands, working outside the home, caring for aging parents, or serving in the church, barely have time to read a book for fun, much less Calvin’s Institutes.THE INEVITABLE IDENTITYHere is the catch: Theology eventually finds each of us, whether we go searching for it or not. Theology found Eve in the garden, with juice-stained hands and a guilt-streaked conscience. It was her poor theology that misidentified the wisdom that undergirded God’s command. She justified her disobedience with twisted theology and rejected the truth about God, while accepting the ultimate lie—that He did not know what He was talking about.
And that is where theology takes the field: in the reasons that govern why we do or do not choose to eat the fruit—and in the framework that dictates whether we believe in a little God who is withholding something good from us, or in a big God who says, “Don’t touch,” because of His sovereignty, love, and mercy.
Every woman (and every man for that matter) is a theologian, whether she wants to be one or not. The only question is whether she is a good one or a poor one.
The whole issue comes into focus when we remember that theology is knowing God. This is not a gender issue. It is not a matter of aptitude, instinct, or intelligence. It is about what it means to be a Christian.
Theology is not just about squeezing in time to read Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Rather, it is about on-the-ground training for the inevitable battle.
SUITING UPBut a woman will not have strong theology to instruct and support her unless she dedicates herself to it. If the only books she reads are unsubstantial and theologically feel-good, she will not have much to undergird her when life pummels her. If, however, she has strengthened herself with transcendent truths through disciplined study, she will have a compass to guide her through the inevitable storms. This can be acquired many ways. It can come together through official seminary education, or theologically rich Bible studies, or challenging conversations with others who take the study of God seriously.
Melissa Kurtz, Tonya Riggle, and Cheryl Fletcher are three women who have discovered unique ways to run hard after sound theology through their separate circumstances, challenges, and callings.
“[Earning] my seminary degree is the best thing I ever did,” said Melissa Kurtz, a neonatal intensive care nurse in Orlando, Florida. Although, as a woman, she was minority in most of her classes at Reformed Theological Seminary, Kurtz did not let that intimidate her from taking courses that caught her interest, like Philosophy of Science. While working through her Master in Biblical Studies, she was also working part-time as a nurse, preparing for her career. For her, seminary was not a step toward a future in “full-time ministry”—it was spiritual fortification for her work in medicine.
Now out of seminary and working full-time as a nurse, she sees her theology play out in the neonatal unit. Recently, when she was caring for a severely ill child, she remembered a course she took on the Gospels. Specifically, she recalled a class discussion about Mary during Christ’s crucifixion. As she cared for the child, she began comparing his parents to Mary and took extra care to treat their child with tenderness.
“Sometimes there is a misconception that women who study theology are only intellectual and don’t care about emotional issues,” Kurtz said. “There are ways to bridge that gap.”
Tonya Riggle, wife, mother, and theologian from Texas, has bridged that gap naturally: Motherhood and friendship have been points of contact between her theological head-knowledge and life-application. She reads N. T. Wright as she guides and disciplines her teenage son. She teaches Bible classes for high-schoolers and young married couples, while comforting a close friend through a time of suffering.
Good theology has also helped her work through her own painful memories: “Through the woundedness of my childhood, the questions of life swirled through my head. It was a relationship, but it was also theology. I had to grasp onto truth in a way that I could assimilate it and hang on to it.”
Unlike Kurtz and Riggle, Cheryl Fletcher has applied her theology toward a professional career in ministry. After obtaining degrees from Dallas and Fuller Theological Seminaries, she joined Young Life staff. During this time, she led Bible studies for college women with a curriculum that included Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, in an attempt to sway popular thinking that “theology is for men, and women just like to be devotional.”
Now on staff at a large church outside of Los Angeles, Fletcher admits that her doctrinal beliefs have changed over the years, but she remains committed both to serious theological study and a vibrant devotional life. In fact, she says she cannot have one without the other.
“I think theology can be tremendously devotional,” says Fletcher. “I don’t think we ever separate our heart from our mind.”
Knowing God is a woman’s highest calling and her most pressing need. What we know of Him, whether it is a little or a lot, is all we have to hang on to when the storm hits and we are being pulled into the downward spiral of worthlessness, despair, and defeat. It is also what energizes and guides us as we tackle the task before us—as mothers, daughters, wives, and friends.
It is what upholds a woman when a marriage engagement comes crashing down around her. It is what teaches her humility when she receives an unexpected promotion. It is what sustains her when she receives a grim medical diagnosis. It is what points her to gratitude when she watches her child succeed. It is what meets her in her deepest ache and her greatest hour. And it is what tells her who she is, in Him.
Zoe Sandvig is a staff writer with PFM, featured regularly in Inside Out and Jubilee magazines, and is a regular contributor to The Point blog.