the green fields beyond


Location: Charles City, Virginia, United States

Monday, October 16, 2006

To the Westminster community

Though I love this place, today I am more than a little bit ashamed of it. Once again, some male members of the Westminster community are making noises about how women “shouldn’t be here” at the seminary. Oh, they don’t usually come out and say this to the women face-to-face. But they make it clear, nonetheless, in various ways:

“Why would a woman be in the M.Div. program?” (said in a condescending or hostile tone)

“The women in the MA program are only here to find husbands.”

“The MA program isn’t real work…but it least it has brought lots of pretty girls to campus.”

There are other forms, less blatant ones, like a resentful attitude towards women who dare to ask too many questions, or who raise too many tough issues in class.

We have put Christian women in a no-win situation: if they don’t go to seminary, they can be condescended to because they “don’t know the Greek” or “haven’t read theology” (as if those were the only requirements for wisdom). And if they do come to seminary, to acquire the tools that we say will make them into more thoughtful Christians, then they meet with hostility and stupid statements such as the ones listed above.

Brothers, we must repent of such words and attitudes. Throughout the Bible, God has nothing but harsh condemnation for those who oppress the undefended—especially when those oppressors are the leaders of his people. (Not that women themselves are defenseless—far from it—but in this institution, they are more vulnerable because they are a minority, surrounded by male students, male elders and pastors, and male professors. Try asking a challenging question in a classroom where no one looks like you, and where 1/3 of the students roll their eyes whenever you raise a hand.)

If we are training to be elders, pastors, or other Christian leaders, we ought to remember that the majority of our congregants and workers will be women, if present statistics are any indication of future ratios. If we are dismissive of women during our time in seminary, then how will we treat them with respect in our ministries? I refer you to Isaiah’s blasts against those who show partiality, and to Jesus’ words about how we treat “the least of these.” We've been warned.

If we truly believe that biblical truth is capable of changing hearts and lives, then shouldn’t we be rejoicing that so many godly and intelligent women are coming here to learn that truth, and to tell others about it? Shouldn’t we be overjoyed that the church is being strengthened as more women learn how to study the Bible, how to interact with unbelievers, and how to share the Good News more clearly and accurately? Women in our churches are often looked down upon because they don’t “know theology,” or because their Bible studies are too “lightweight” and “fuzzy.” There is some truth to that charge; many a harmful heresy has been spoken or published in a women’s class or devotional book. But we will not cure such faulty theology by barring women from the places where careful study is being taught and encouraged! One way that it may be cured, though, is by the powerful work of women who have studied here and at other institutions. Today’s female MA, MAR, MDiv, ThM, and PhD students will write tomorrow’s Bible study guides and will teach tomorrow’s Sunday School classes.

And lest we think that women’s study at Westminster will only benefit other women, may I remind us all that they enrich us and our school right now. Women students consistently raise some of the best questions, and do some of the best work, in every class I’ve been a part of. Women students have, by their patient explanations in the study groups, saved many of us from failing our exams. Some of my most enlightening conversations have been with women students who are reflecting on what we’ve been taught here. They bring experiences and insights that men just don’t have. Because that’s how the Body of Christ works: each part plays a unique role in teaching the other parts about Christ. (Women enrich Westminster in non-academic ways, too: for instance, a woman student has organized the Culture Night for the past couple of years, and I haven’t seen any men complaining about this wonderful event.) And it certainly doesn’t end when they leave here: female Westminster graduates are currently serving God in a myriad of vocations around the world.

And as for the charge that the MA classes aren’t “real work”: first, remember that MA students take some M.Div classes, and they don’t seem to be floundering those. Second, though MA classes don’t have the language requirements or workloads of most M.Div courses, they are aimed at a different goal, anyway: not at producing PhD students or candidates for ordination, but people who can better serve the church in non-ordained, but vital, functions. So the MA-M.Div comparison is apples-and-oranges.

Also, if I may raise a point that is often unmentioned, MA students are sacrificing two years, and thousands of dollars, to learn more about God and his word. They do not get tuition discounts for being “under care,” as many male pastoral-track students do. And many of them do not have spouses working full-time to help them through Westminster, as is the case with some of us. Let me say it plainer: the MA students, and their full-price tuition, are keeping this place in business. Do you want your professors to continue receiving paychecks? Then stop insulting the students who contribute so much of that pay! They’ve sacrificed just as much as any of us to be here…more, in some cases.

I could go on, but for now I’ll just say, to my sisters who are studying here, in whatever program: thank you for your presence, for your patience with us, and for all you have contributed. Please continue to teach us about Christ. I repent of any ungraciousness or condescension I have shown you—even, inadvertently, in this essay.

To my brothers in the student body: please don’t dismiss what I’ve said. Ask yourselves if you are contributing to a hostile atmosphere, and if the answer is Yes, then throw yourselves on the mercy of the One who forgives bullies. And then welcome the women of Westminster, so that together we can get back to the task of extending the knowledge of God’s glory in Christ, until that knowledge covers this poor broken earth “as the waters cover the sea.”

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Thank You

Last night, while I was sitting in class, something the professor said set off a cascade of thankfulness in my mind. "You 70 people," he told us, "are the 1% of folks in your church who are privileged to be able to set aside a semester or a year or four years in order to think and read and discuss this stuff more deeply. Most people don't get the chance to do that, even if they want to."

He was right; being here, and getting to spend half my day studying what God is doing in the world, is an amazing privilege. Like so much else in my life, this time at seminary is a gift. So I just want to say Thank You to parents, friends, and church members who have made it possible for Melissa and I to attend seminary. We both feel that we've grown and have been changed for the better in our time here, and we hope to use our training faithfully and well, in Virginia and wherever else God puts us.

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