By Aimee Byrd
I had the pleasure of being treated to lunch yesterday by a friend I haven’t seen in three years. We were struggling in one sense, as we wanted to hear about each other’s family, but had limited time and the conversation quickly steered to theological discoveries, which provoked more questions. My friend just completed seminary and is now diving deeper into Greek and Hebrew languages. She mentioned how she longed to see more women encouraged to go to seminary and learn at that level. She had the opportunity to attend with her husband, and with her kids being older, was able to take advantage of that. One thing that she is painfully noticing is the lack of published female academics that she can use as resources for her papers. This took our discussion down many rabbit trails—ones with all kinds of rich landscape as well as painful recognition of brick walls and neglected terrain. We talked about what women can do after seminary, where and what they can teach, how the church is missing out when she doesn’t hear from half it’s members, and whether published women get read. I think a whole series of books could be written on these topics. But I’d like to comment further on another related trail we went down.
Our passion is for the church, and we lamented the fact that we live in a day when all kinds of resources are available to both men and women, and yet there is a large gulf between the academy and the layperson. I’m not an academic. I have a bachelor’s degree in education and art. And yet, I can benefit from the works of contemporary professors and other academics, as well as rich theological works from over a thousand years ago. But many laypeople do not take advantage of this, as there is such a gulf between popular level books that we are conditioned to read, and the well, sometimes painfully boring and abstract writing found in academic works. Even so, I have found plenty of engaging academic authors while also doing the work of sifting for gold in the less-engaging ones.
Sure, these authors need to write with precision, and their works are called academic for a reason. But there comes a time when we need to ask the question about the purpose of it all—is it for theological academics to always be talking to themselves? Sometimes, even often, yes, that is a good thing. Likewise, we expect medical doctors to talk in their language, and their exclusive academic studies and dialogues make advancements in the field that help us all. But the end game is to help patients and to provide preventative care for them. Medical doctors especially want to educate all the common folk in healthy living.
This is the same with theology. There needs to be a place for academics to talk to themselves, but the point is for the trickle down from the academy into the church, right? Seminaries train pastors, authors, and many other leaders that are supposed to be investing in the church. Laypeople first get to receive the proclamation of the Word and the sacraments as our foundation for discipleship in the church. But this receiving comes with a responsibility. All of God’s people are responsible to be active traditioners of the faith. Learners become teachers, even if it is in an informal context.
In their book, The Pastor Theologian, authors and pastors Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson lament that with the rise of the academy, theologians and intellectuals tend to find their home in that atmosphere. They warn of a theology that has become ecclesially anemic, and of the church becoming theologically anemic. Timothy George opens the Foreword of the book with a quote from William Ames, “Theology is the knowledge of how to live in the presence of God” (7). This is not a mere intellectual quest. It shapes our everyday lives and it is an eternal matter. Hiestand and Wilson discuss the need for pastor theologians leading way for the church to close the gap. This is important. I also think that we need more academic writers and teachers, men and women, working with pastors and informed laypeople to stimulate the trickle down of rich theology.
Speaking as a woman, it is a devastating failure for the church to see that the most popular Christian woman authors being read by laypeople, and even in women’s ministry groups, are often conditioning women in poor reading skills, terrible hermeneutics, and theological error. Is this the real trickle down effect? It’s easy for the more theologically minded to turn up our noses and to point out everything that is wrong with these authors. But it’s much more difficult to do the work to close the gap.
This is the less-marketable atmosphere in which I have been trying to wade in. It’s a tough spot to navigate through. It’s even tougher to work in circles that supposedly promote complementarity between the sexes, and then keep women from contributing as conversation partners at the theological table, from speaking at coed conferences, or just don’t encourage them in higher theological learning and publication. Why are all of the women publishing good academic works egalitarian? And why are complementarians warned that it’s dangerous to read them? Do we sound off alarms like this when it comes to other secondary doctrinal differences? These brick walls and neglected terrains are especially troubling when we look at the women with profound theological contributions in Scripture. In his book, Jesus Becoming Jesus, Thomas Weinandy points out that “Elizabeth could be the first Doctor of the Church”, as she “is the first to profess, by her words and actions, both the doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity.” Luke chooses to use the words of both Elizabeth and Mary to teach us rich theology. Elizabeth was able to speak profound theology in an incredibly memorable and fascinating greeting. And Mary showcases the Lord’s glory in doxology. Weinandy continues, “another woman, Mary Magdalene, will first proclaim that Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, is the risen Lord of glory” (25). Our richest doctrines of the faith were first proclaimed by women.
Paul calls many women co-laborers, naming four who “worked very hard” for the church in Rome (Romans 16:6, 12). This is how he describes his own ministry work in other contexts. We see that when Paul is led by the Spirit to Macedonia to preach the gospel, he finds a group of God-fearing women. He doesn’t ask where the men are; he evangelizes them and then plants the Philippian church with Lydia. Jesus invests in a Samaritan woman and she evangelizes a whole town. Wife and husband team, Priscilla and Aquila, pull Apollos aside for a little informal seminary-level training. These are but a few examples of men and women working together to evangelize and disciple with serious theology that transforms everyday lives—men and women closing the gap between the elite/educated and the common layperson to the glory of God.
We have the same Spirit now. And we live in a time where women have more rights and opportunities than ever. But how are things trickling down? Should women be doing less for the church now than they did in the first century? Should we be satisfied with being separated in our own ministries with unequipped teachers? Do we no longer belong in the world of rich, theological teaching that benefits the whole church? Shouldn’t we be an important part in closing the gap today?
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