by David McNutt
I don’t even remember her name. But she was instrumental in my coming to faith.
The summer before my senior year in high school, I attended a week-long Christian camp with members of the youth group from my church. It was exactly what you would expect: rambunctious high school students enjoying time away from parents and with friends, with a mixture of outdoor activities and intentional times of reading the Bible, worship, and prayer.
In the midst of that week, the Holy Spirit was at work within and upon me. Over the course of several days, I had many significant conversations about Jesus, the nature of Scripture, and what it means to accept Christ as Lord. But the most moving was a conversation I had with a young woman, one of the camp counselors, who – looking back – was not much older than I was at the time. She read Scripture with me, listened to my questions, and offered her own – sometimes hesitant, sometimes bold – answers.
She was, so far as I know, not trained in theology academically. But she provided exactly the theological voice that I needed to hear in that moment. At the end of the week, I made a confession of faith and was baptized into a new life in Christ.
Women in Scripture, Church History, and My Theological Journey
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline?
The question sounds odd to me now, like an old newspaper headline from years past. But it must be asked and answered, even today.
In my reading of Scripture, it is more than evident to me that women were essential to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and the declaration, understanding, and articulation of the gospel: from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the women who financially supported Jesus’ ministry; from the woman who anointed Jesus with oil (whose story the church, by and large, has not told as Christ expected) to the women who witnessed his death upon the cross to Mary Magdalene’s affirmation of faith after encountering the risen Christ in the garden: “I have seen the Lord!”
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because the one we claim as Lord and Savior saw fit to be born of a woman, speak with women, teach women, eat with women, heal women, die for women, rise again for women, save women, and entrust his good news to women.
From its earliest days and throughout its history, the church has benefitted from (though not always recognized) the contributions of women to the life and ministry of the church. Women have been apostles (Junia), converts to the faith (Lydia), co-workers and teachers of the gospel (Priscilla), and leaders in the church (Phoebe). They have expressed their faith as martyrs, wives, mothers, nuns, empresses, mystics, biblical commentators, and theologians. Even those who would restrict women’s roles have always made exceptions to their rules: children’s Sunday school, the mission field, the small church, the hard-to-hire school.
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because the historic and contemporary body of Christ would not be the body of Christ without their contributions.
The tradition in which I grew up – the Church of Christ (a cappella only, thank you) – does not ordain women. True, women still found ways to contribute to the life of the church, but there were always restrictions. This was blatantly apparent to me when, as a newly-baptized young man, I was asked to participate in the distribution of weekly communion, but my mother, who had faithfully attended the church for decades, could not. The interpretation of Scripture and the theology that support such a practice were among the many factors in my decision to move to a denomination that explicitly supports women in ministry. Moreover, my own theological education was deeply shaped by women: informally by my mother, female family members, and female friends; and more formally by female professors and texts written by female theologians. Their prayers, words of encouragement, insightful questions, challenging books, and faithful witness have all informed my theological perspective.
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because our theology is much better with and much worse without their voices.
When I met Jennifer, the woman who I would later marry, I was a seminary student. I was, to her surprise, pleased to know of her plans to seek ordination. She is, after all, a “double PK.” In time, we both completed doctoral degrees, we have both been ordained, and we have taught classes together, written together, and even preached together. Today, she teaches church history and historical theology at Wheaton College. I hope that our children see in both of us the desire to glorify God in all that we do – together.
Why should women be encouraged to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? Because our families should reflect Jesus’ vision for the church, where women and men serve Christ and his kingdom side by side.
I see no good theological reason to limit women’s participation in the theological discipline. In fact, I see good biblical and theological reasons to support and encourage women. Let me be clear: I think that women involved in the theological discipline should be held to the same standards as their male colleagues; that is, they should be capable exegetes, astute theologians, effective teachers, and gifted preachers. Anything less than that would be unfair to both their calling and the discipline. But to discourage their contribution to the church and the academy would not only be detrimental to these institutions, but it would also fail to support fellow Christ-followers.
So, how might we practically encourage women to study, teach, and contribute to the theological discipline? I wear several hats, so allow me to put a few of them on in answering this question.
- As a husband to other husbands: I don’t presume to know the specifics of your marriage, but I have found it absolutely essential to support Jennifer in her ministry and the calling that the Holy Spirit has placed upon her heart. Has that always been easy? No, of course not. But that has been part of my own calling in Christ, and that attitude has been beneficial to our marriage.
- As a parent to other parents: Obviously, you know your child better than I do, but I would encourage you to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in your child’s life. Who knows what she’ll be called to do?
- As an ordained minister to my fellow clergy: When you preach the Word of God, be willing to preach the harder passages, including those texts that feature women. Don’t give women all the jobs that you’d rather not do. Interview (and hire) women for that opening on your staff. Put women in the pulpit.
- As a professor to my fellow professors: Look at your syllabus again. Update your lectures. Intentionally encourage and allow space for comments from female students. Remember, those female students pay for your and your family’s livelihood just as much as your male students do.
- As an editor at a Christian publisher to female authors: Seek out and be willing to receive feedback from both female and male colleagues in the academy. Find a publisher who believes in the importance of women’s voices within theology. Send me your proposal.
I have found that our theologies are often helpfully clarified in light of what ultimately matters, so allow me to close with an eschatological comment:
I trust that by God’s goodness and grace in Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, I will be brought before the risen and ascended Christ. On that day, when I stand before my Lord and Savior, I will not say, “Well, Lord, I didn’t want to restrict those who could share the good news of your incarnation, death, and resurrection. And I didn’t want to prevent anyone from seeking to understand and express their faith in you. And I didn’t want to overlook more than half of your faithful disciples around the world. And I didn’t want to tell my wife or our daughters that they could do anything except seek a vocation in the church or theology. And I didn’t want to reject that application to our program, or ignore that student in my class, or turn down that article for our journal, or reject that book proposal. But, Lord, she was a woman.”
The Rev. Dr. David McNutt (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is an Associate Editor at IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, and a Guest Professor at Wheaton College. He is also an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and he serves as a Parish Associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn. He and his wife, the Rev. Dr. Jennifer McNutt, serve the church together through McNuttshell Ministries, their preaching, teaching, and writing ministry.