Alright ladies–it’s been awhile since I’ve shared some of the more “academic” stuff I’ve been learning, but there’s something that’s been on my mind for awhile that I think is important. For those of you who love philosophy and church history, this blog will be especially up your alley, but for everyone who reads this I hope you will be challenged by it because it matters. So here goes.
As a young woman with an undergraduate degree in Religion and a Master of Divinity, I have found that one of the chief elements lacking in my credibility as a minister to women is experience. By that I don’t necessarily mean experience in ministry, of which I now have about a decade’s worth. What I’m instead referring to is life experience. Periodically, I write on topics dealing with singleness, or the sanctity of life, or some other hot issue, only to be met with the challenge:
If you haven’t gone through this personally, then you really have no business talking about it.
As hard as those comments are to receive, there is an aspect of them that I really value. Reminders about my inexperience have bred humility and mercy in my teaching. I may have theological training, but I do not have the perspective that comes with years of marriage, parenting, and surviving the hard knocks of life. As a result of such comments, I now consider my limited experience soberly. I think and hope I am a better teacher because of those comments.
However, the emphasis on experience as a mark of authority is also a cause for concern. It is symptomatic of a larger cultural trend in which individuals presume to be a experts based solely upon their own experience. Personal experiences is certainly a valuable component of any good and holistic conversation, but opinions shaped solely by experience are also more vulnerable to subjectivity.
As a cultural phenomenon this trend is indeed troubling, but what I find most alarming is its influence on the church. More specifically, this experience-based approach to authority manifests in an emerging pattern among ministries to women. Consider, for example, the landscape of popular women’s ministry organizations today. Many of the most notable women’s ministers of our generation have little theological education and instead stand on the platform of their personal testimony. They have overcome the pain of abuse or a miscarriage or an abortion or depression, and they now help other women do the same.
While I commend the women who have used their stories to do the work of God and I by no means wish to detract from their anointed ministries, this brand of female teacher has become the norm. In fact, evangelical women have come to expect it. We expect female preachers to share tales from trenches, and we struggle to connect with them if they don’t. A seminary degree or the ability to preach Scripture with power and authority—they’re all well and good—but if she isn’t a mom, then her credibility is shaky.
Strangely, we do not have the same standards for men entering the ministry. While some churches require pastors to be married before they can lead, age and inexperience are less often limitations for men. And in contrast with women, how many noted evangelical male pastors have created a platform for ministry based on their personal testimony?
Evangelical women are somewhat unique in their expectation that experience, not theological training, is what makes a female teacher authoritative. This attribute of women’s ministry today may not be surprising—experience is, after all, a marvelous teacher—but it is also problematic. At its root, it represents a liberalization of women’s ministry.
To understand why I have chosen the term “liberal” to assess the current state of women’s ministry, we need to turn back the pages of history and examine the origination of this trend. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Protestant church came under the influence of two significant men: Immanuel Kant and Fredrich Schleiermacher. Kant was a German philosopher who tried to establish a universal ethic that could stand on its own, apart from religious language and the subjectivism of the human mind. Schleiermacher continued Kant’s work by arguing that religious experience was an objective reality that validated the unscientific claims of Christianity. Religious experience, he argued, provided Christians with the grounds for talking about religion in a reasonable and academic way.
Kant and Schleiermacher were not alone in reorienting the Church’s authoritative center. The story of this shift is far more complex than any one blog post can detail. But suffice it to say that personal experience has not always enjoyed the status it holds today. Prior to these liberalizing influences, personal experience was interpreted through the lens of Scripture and tradition. In popular women’s ministry today, that order is frequently reversed.
Ironically, this very history is why female teachers and writers need theological training. Experience is certainly a valuable attribute, but without a working knowledge of our church’s doctrine and history, women can unknowingly gravitate towards practices that have been widely discredited in traditional Christianity. Just last month I learned of a new book by a famous female speaker, and her basic thesis is founded upon an idea that has largely been dismissed by modern theologians.
To be fair, personal experience is what gives contour and depth to the truths we profess. It is the source of wisdom, humility and gentleness. It is a bridge that helps us to connect with one another in profoundly intimate ways. It can also be an educational tool of the Holy Spirit and a means of sanctification.
But personal experience is not the ultimate arbiter of truth. As much as we need women with life experience to share their wisdom, we also need women who are guarding the theological integrity of our women’s ministries. For women-oriented ministries to remain sound, they must therefore hold female leaders to the same standards that the church holds men. Not because personal experience isn’t powerful or meaningful, but because women’s ministries risk departing from the safeguards of Christian doctrine if we make it primary.