the green fields beyond

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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.”

21 Comments:

said...

Great post man.

I love that there are so many intelligent, passionate, and Godly women at Westminster. Like you said, it makes the body of Christ stronger. I have serious questions for those who would not want to see the body Christ grow in intelligence, passion, and Godliness.

10:19 AM  
said...

thanks for writing this. one of the countless reasons why i love you.

2:00 PM  
said...

here! here! But I loved you first!!!!

2:18 PM  
said...

thank you justin. it's guys like you who make being a part of the WTS community worth it!

5:36 PM  
said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

3:39 AM  
said...

Sobering sensitivity Justin, if you convey to me in private who those guys are I'm happy to have a face to face with them as a brother...I don't look on that sort of behavior with kindness man.

I'd have been sunk without Kathy Lee's notes, and most of my classes throughout my MDiv would have been pretty flat without Susan's or Nan's questions, not to mention some of Molly's insights in study sessions (though I only had a few with her).

I'm serious about the request, if you let me know I'm happy to confront a brother for the sake of sisters.

Tony Stiff

8:57 PM  
said...

Thank you for speaking the truth in love and with your great (as always) logic and insight.

I loved you before Mel & Mattias!

I'm proud to be your mom.

And Happy Birthday!

3:17 PM  
said...

Thank you, my brother. I think all of us WTS men who hear your call need to start speaking out in gentle but insistent correction whenever we hear any of the kinds of things that started your post.

And happy borniversary!

8:50 PM  
said...

I'm not close enough to the daily ins and outs of the WTS community to know the range of current attitudes.

But I've grown up in close proximity with WTS and remember how godly women have come more and more to be enfolded within and to benefit the WTS community - from the early days of Women of Westminster with Sue Logan (aimed at first mostly at wives of seminarians) to the present enrollment of many fine women students of Scripture who co-labor in the kingdom in a variety of ways.

I think it's a terrific development and, from my vantage point, the presence of women at the seminary has born much good fruit, for both the seminary itself and the church and world. It's discouraging to hear of condescending attitudes on the part of some, especially those who desire to serve God's people in ministry. But thanks for your faithful witness here on behalf of the indispensible place of women in God's ongoing mission.

11:51 PM  
said...

I'm sad to hear this. It is surprising to me b/c I never remember hearing anything like that in my time at WTS from anyone. Good post.

10:24 AM  
said...

I don't think we've met, but as a WTS alum (MDiv, 1989) I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful post. I think you are absolutely correct, and I am deeply saddened that the attitudes you seek to correct are present on this campus. As a WTS board member, I rejoice in the growing presence of women students. Our theology of humanity calls us to embrace this trend. Thanks once again.

2:12 PM  
said...

Wow, I feel so clueless. I didn't even
know that was a vibe here. I just figured that seminary was like college: any girl here is going to be
10,000 times smarter than I am!

5:26 PM  
said...

And if you want to send anyone in my direction for a bit of friendly theological debate, feel free...

6:39 PM  
said...

Thanks, Justin. You are a model of practicing what you preach.

11:41 PM  
said...

Thanks Justin. Very bold and welcomed.

In the 5.5 years I've been at WTS I've heard similar comments. There is good news though, I know there are those on staff and faculty that are seriously concerned to avoid these wrongs and are asking students about their experiences. It is also worth noting that the number of female students has increased over the years (or at least it appears to me to be the case)--something that I hope is a positive note on the perception of female students.

11:28 AM  
said...

As a sister in Christ, and a future seminary student...thank you. :)

1:51 PM  
said...

Thanks, brother; you're the best. You've sounded a prophetic note of hope. I rejoice in your passion for upholding the contributions, fellowship, and raisons d'etre for us women in your midst. May it be just the start.

11:23 PM  
said...

Hey-
Sorry it's taken so long for me to get to this but I am grateful to finally read your words and to read most of the responses. Thanks for being willing to speak up about this!

11:49 PM  
said...

Very nice! I like it. make puzzles

5:36 PM  
said...

Beautiful. Challenging. Thoughtful. Helpful. Wise.

Thank you for this brother.

1:50 PM  
said...

Wow I didn't even know that was the atmosphere at Westminster. (I am not a student) I trust you will survive your comments with Christ's help.Personally I think the seminary will loose credibilty in the decades to come because of this if they don't repent.

9:00 AM  

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