Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Women in Theological Studies: Some Honest Questions

I'm a little nervous about writing this...but, darn it, it's been bugging me. I've been sitting on this post for several days, thinking how best to articulate it.

It isn't something I've encountered face-to-face, but in the corners of the internet I frequent, I've occasionally run into an attitude that's something like this: A woman doesn't need to pursue an advanced degree in Theology in order to teach children and other women.

I can't tell if this is somewhat misogynistic, simply an ill-considered remark, or if it may have a grain of truth.

It seems there are two issues here.

First, if my primary calling is going to be in the home, with children, why go through all this higher education? It's an awful lot of time and energy spent that could well turn out to have been wasted. But, it seems to me that, if you go down this route, it isn't too long before you hit the question, "Why should a woman bother to be educated at all?" Even if you concede that a basic liberal arts education helps make her a well-rounded human being (and I am very much a proponent of reading/learning for its own sake, degrees or no), it takes for granted that she will never be called to exercise gifts outside of the domestic setting. (Or that, far more practically, circumstances may force her to help support her family financially, whether that is her preference or not.) Presumably, even if she puts her career on hold while her children are small (something I would be nothing but grateful to have the opportunity to do), she will not need to devote most of her waking hours to them for the rest of her life. There may be other vocations alongside of or joined to her work in the home.

Second, the issue of theological education.

Lately, I've felt like I go to bat for my tradition every day in my graduate department, and sometimes feel a bit kicked around for belonging to that tradition. And I talk all the time about wanting my scholarship to be devoted to the service of the church and in submission to it. So, I've assumed that when push comes to shove, when I'm on the job market, my denomination/etc. will have my back. But occasionally I wonder if there is really a place for me, as someone who will never be ordained, to have a call to teach theological subjects. I wonder if, even if no one is ever hostile to my training, even nothing but admiring, they'll admit that there is no natural place for a woman with my resume within the tradition. And maybe there isn't. And maybe that's right.

Maybe theological teaching, even on the undergraduate level, is best left to the ordained officers of the church. I can see how there may be a case for this. If I sought jobs in institutions closer to my own confession, my guess is (I don't know for sure) that this is what I would run into. If I'm open to working at a more broadly evangelical institution, like my husband's alma mater (and I see that as a good, live option...except, would I be subject to the discipline and accountability of the church in any concrete way in that scenario? another question...), then it might be less of an issue. As far as what I can do on the local church and denominational level throughout my career, though, will it have to be mostly circumscribed to women's ministry? (And please know that I am not knocking women's ministry. It's just not a world that is familiar to me -- though that's changing -- much less something I am trained for. I'm not even all that interested in studying "women's issues" in my graduate research!)

In short, the question I am asking is: Is there really a place for conservative/traditional/confessional women in theological academia? I am a product of environments where this was not an issue, and I chose to sink years of training into this path without imagining that a scenario would come up where that would be called into question. Now that I am in a position where I can foresee it being an issue, even if only in isolated circumstances, I am struggling with how to think about it.

Maybe it's entitlement and pride talking. I am quite aware of entitlement as one of my pitfalls; the attitude that, just because I've worked hard for something, means I "deserve" the kind of position and sphere of influence I've envisioned for myself. I don't think that's a correct attitude with which to approach any service to the church. So if what I end up doing looks quite different from being on faculty at a Christian college, I want to be gladly open to that. (I mean, heck, these particular issues aside, there is no guarantee that I will end up doing the kind of work I envision. Zero. There are few jobs and MANY gifted young scholars who are more accomplished than me.) Besides, as I have said before, what I am most excited about doing is writing...and that's not contingent upon my being hired anywhere.

I really do believe in God's sovereign plan, that when he put me on this path (long before I imagined I'd end up Reformed!), there was a specific reason. (And I don't think I've made flagrant errors in discernment by doing what I'm doing.) And I believe that what we do for Him isn't wasted. Even if we never have results that look successful by worldly standards, it won't have been wasted. Ultimately, it's all for His glory, not mine.

I don't think that venting about such things on the internet is necessarily the most fruitful way to seek answers. So I'm open to carrying on this discussion "off-blog," in fact hopeful that will be the case. In the meantime, I hope it's clear that these thoughts are offered in humility. I write this not as a challenge, but a sincere (if slightly anxious) inquiry. I honestly can't imagine a part of the church I could more joyfully, unreservedly be a part of.


  1. I have a very low theology of ordination (as I do of just about everything), but my instinct is that ordination prepares people for a very different career than "academic theologian," so I very strongly push back against the idea that ordained folk are inherently more qualified TO BE A PROFESSIONAL ACADEMIC than someone with your path.

    I don't think folks who are ordained are necessarily good at theological teaching in the academic setting (homilies are not classroom lectures -- much though I might wish the former to more resemble the latter at times).

  2. I admire you and your chosen path thus far. I think that your success in the academic arena is wonderful, and the attitude that women don't need higher education if they are going to be doing "womenly things" ie motherhood is ridiculous! There is so much to gain from an education in general not to MENTION theological studies.

    I think that you are doing a great job, and I am proud of all of you hard work. I've heard the same types of things (from people I know)- that women don't need an education, and I couldn't disagree more. Keep up the good work, and I'll be praying for you!