The Liberalization of Women’s Ministry

Sharon Women's Ministry 18 Comments

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.

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Comments 18

  1. Blake

    Sharon, I agree with your conclusions about needing women’s ministry to be held to the same standards, but I think you may be connecting bits of history that are not so easy to connect. While the connection to Kant and Schleiermacher might be a bit more solid with liberal and mainline churches it wouldn’t explain why women from conservative evangelical and pentecostal/charismatic churches are in the same boat. The mainlines have embraced it even in their seminaries, but anything mainline is notoriously not welcome in conservative Christian churches.

    I would be more inclined to attribute such problems in conservative Christian churches to theologically deficient worship and views of complementarianism that are too chauvinistic. Whether one attends a church that worships in a traditional, hymnal-based way or contemporary praise and worship band way, all too often the songs emphasize us the worshipers and what God does for or gives us rather than basic truths about God. Worship is too easily ignored as majorly formative in these kinds of churches. Everyone makes worship the hook to draw a particular crowd and puts all the weight of formation on the sermon, sunday school and/or small groups. As much as we may want it to be this simple, the repetitiveness of worship, I think, ingrains whatever theology it presents into our mind more deeply by its participatory nature and rhythms than any sermon or teaching lesson can. If our worship is filled with bad or shallow theology, the education and degrees held by the pastor won’t counteract this. On top of this (and I don’t think I’m alone in this experience), there are the many housewives and homemakers that spend little to no time in their Bibles and seem to think that keeping the Christian radio station on in the background all the time will cause them to grow spiritually through osmosis. Most Christian radio suffers from the same kinds of problems as our worship and focusing on experience; too many nice stories and “worship” songs about the worshiper. Then there’s the confusion of faith and politics most Christian stations broadcast, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

    Although I am also a complementarian, I think its popular expression among conservative Christians betrays too much of scripture in favor of holding up culturally created, harmful ideals. The way I tend to see it pronounced is that the equality under Christ between men and women is usually an obligatory lip service in deference to a few verses which are quickly surpassed in any talk by going to duties and creating roles. Usually the duties and roles created end up not giving any practical sense of equality within the church or home. I worry that the tendency towards reliance on experience among conservative Christian women has come as a default because complementarians have preached, if not explicitly then implicitly, that women don’t need theological education from seminaries. I worry the actions if not the message of most complementarians is that the seminary is the man’s realm and thinking at a deep level should be left to men. I think in some significant sense conservative Christian women resort to what they know (experience) because they’ve bought into these lies and do what they can with what little they’ve been given. Then any that come along with credentials become suspect of feminism and bucking traditional values.

  2. Emily Gidcumb

    What do you mean by women’s ministry? Like, what are examples of things in a church that are considered women’s ministry?
    Also, I know of at least one church led by a pastor that has no seminary training, so I don’t see how they would encourage any women or men to go out and get it. Do you think all church leaders should have seminary training? I know that isn’t exactly related to this post, I just thought of it when reading through this. I like this post, even though the part about the philosophers was a little confusing for me 🙂

  3. Post
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    Sharon

    Blake and Emily, thanks for your comments! This topic is so big that I struggled to fit all the dynamics involved into one single post, and all of your questions are ones I considered incorporating but thought the post would get too massive.

    That said, Blake I largely agree with you. I agree that another big reason why women look to experience more than theological training has a lot to do with the fact that women have not been trained theologically for the bulk of the church’s history. Some of the teaching in among women’s ministers out there is a carryover of that historical precedent, which also makes me hopeful that it will change as more women pursue further education.

    However, I do feel that Kant and Schleiermacher are very influential in conservative evangelical circles, and I think we are naive to deny it. While the Reformed tradition is very strong on theology, a lot of evangelical traditions are not. Kant in particular has been so formative of the modern, cultural imagination that he has penetrated both mainline and evangelical camps. Until evangelicals start owning up to the ways in which philosophical liberalism has influenced our thinking, we will continue to have these problems. We are not immune.

    Emily, by “women’s ministry” I was largely speaking of larger, national ministries in this particular post, but a lot of the principles I described are true on the local church level as well. Statistically speaking, the majority of women’s ministers and female teachers in evangelical churches today do not have theological training.

    That said, I do NOT think that all ministers need theological training. The greatest example we have is the disciples themselves–these were unlearned men who were powerful ministers of the faith. Theological training is no determiner of God’s anointing. However, what I had hoped to communicate in this post was the unhealthy lop-sidedness of women’s ministries today. Given that almost NO women’s ministers have theological training, we are favoring one very particular type of minister, and doing so in a way that diverges with Christian tradition. I think that is dangerous and worth further consideration.

    Thanks to both of you for giving me the opportunity to elaborate! Great questions and great thoughts!

  4. Laura Ziesel

    Sharon,

    Thanks for this post. Two main thoughts:

    1) I saw the critical comments you were getting yesterday over at Her.meneutics and I think that some of the criticism stems from the reality that women are a bit more used to being “inspired” or “encouraged” in their women’s ministries rather than “challenged” or “rebuked”. Maybe this is just a denominational difference, but I think women’s ministries everywhere can use a healthy dose of strong Word-based teaching that lead to confession and repentance. I thought your piece was drawing a lot of criticism simply because you were calling us out on our very personal habits, and a lot of people aren’t used to that.

    2) I’ve been contemplating grad school for years and have just decided to go for my MATS. I caught myself thinking, “I don’t need this to do ministry” a lot. While that is true (there are thousands of great Bible teachers with no formal experience), I wanted my decision to not be based on how little I could get away with to teach the Word, but rather how much more could I learn and grow (without expecting perfection from myself). I think many view seminary or grad school as Christians giving into to “worldly” standards of education. But if you embrace grad school as a time for personal growth, including humbling and challenging years, the experience is not all about attaining credentials, it is about learning to ask for and accept help.

  5. Post
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    Sharon

    One more thought. Even though I said that the Reformed tradition places a particular emphasis on theology, some would argue that Martin Luther himself was the first existentialist. He framed his testimony using language of how he “felt” and how his revelation of grace ameliorated that existential guilt, and I think that is an interesting point to consider as well. A topic for another day, though!

  6. Post
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    Sharon

    Laura, thank you. That post drew a lot more criticism than I was prepared for so your words mean a lot. I really appreciate it.

    And what a fabulous perspective on grad school! You are so right–at the heart of theology is getting to know our Creator even better! That is a calling that every Christian should embrace, whether it is in formal education or personal time with the Lord each day.

    Thanks again!

  7. Blake

    As one with a BA in philosophy, I’m not familiar with your use of “philosophical liberalism” in connection to Schleiermacher or, especially, Kant. American churches are influenced by many things, but Kant is not one I would think of. Probably students of his in other schools of philosophy as so many philosophical trajectories came out of Kant (German Idealism, Marxism, Existentialism to name a few). However, this is all neither here nor there. Thanks for your reflections!

  8. Chris Pappa

    Blake,

    I think Sharon’s point was that Schleiermacher’s existentialist thoughts were the natural extension of Kant’s ethics.

    Chris

  9. Blake

    Chris, Kant’s thought as proto-existentialist is not a popular one among Kant scholars. There are some that make the argument, but most see his rationalist, foundationalist rigidity as betraying the normal spirit of the subjective pushback of existentialism. Furthermore, Schleiermacher is not an existentialist. He may have some things in common with them, but he predates them. Kierkegaard is recognized as the father of existentialism. While Schleiermacher had a significant influence on Kierkegaard, K. didn’t blindly accept all of Schleiermacher’s opinions. Kierkegaard’s own existentialism comes a lot also from his Moravian pietist faith and as a reaction to the Danish State Lutheranism which had its theology, at the time, permeated by the thought of G.W.F. Hegel.

  10. Carol

    Sharon I think your comments are right on. Six years ago I was prompted by the Holy Spirit to enroll at TEDS for seminary training. As a lay Bible teacher for many years I was committed to serving my students by being deeply grounded in God’s word and in an understanding of how it is interpreted and applied in our diverse cultures. I am finishing a Masters in Christian Thought with the writing of my thesis right now and am so grateful for the opportunity God has given me to study. My reaction to my first Systematic Theology class was the realization that I was learning to love God more as He revealed Himself to me through this spiritually invigorated academic pursuit.
    Now I am also the Director/Chaplain of Women in Ministry at my church, where I have been worshipping with my family for 25 years. My commitment to the women is to encourage them to serve and love God through their giftedness and passions and to come alongside them as they themselves “do ministry.” The theme for our next ministry year is “Loving God with Your Mind.”
    When we speak of how we do ministry we can look for a model in how we do theology. Our “prolegomena” for theology is based on 4 legs: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. All of these should inform what we do, but scripture always holds the magisterial position. This falls right in line with what you have expressed Sharon. your observation that experience is holding too high a place in the typical Women’s Ministry programs is an astute one. In our ministry my team’s goal is to first undergird everything with a strong Biblical foundation, then submit to the working of the Spirit through our passions, life experiences and community.
    I admire your courage in addressing this issue. I’m actually surprised that you have had negative reactions to what I perceived as a thoughtful, well-balanced article.
    Keep up the good work.

  11. Joanna

    I would wonder if it is connected to broader cultural stereotypes of women being the emotional ones and men being the rational ones. The stereotype is stupid but still persists in a lot of ways.

    Have you read Carolyn Custis James’s book When Life And Beliefs Collide? It has some good stuff to say about the importance of good theology for women.

  12. Angela

    I wish I had a more articulate comment to leave, but all I can think of is to say that I love this post. You’re brilliant and articulate and your constant striving to know more, understand better, and be more open is wonderful.

  13. Marie

    “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.”

    There is so much in your post (which was fabulous in my eyes, by the way) that I want to comment on, but this in particular really struck me. I just graduated with a degree in Biblical Studies. I am so pumped about Scripture – everything from word studies to history to minuscule details of context really get me going! I’ve got such a heart to teach.

    But I’m not a mom.

    I’m the only married woman in my church who isn’t a mom.

    Is personal experience valuable? Yes, of course. I am bothered, however, that I can’t get these women to give a rat’s hind-quarters because I “just don’t understand” the stress that they face each day. Seriously? You can’t listen to someone who’s been given the gift of teaching simply because she doesn’t look at life from the exact angle you do? (I’m not demeaning mothers, by the way). I don’t get that.

  14. Sarah

    I think this is an interesting post, though I’m not intimately familiar with Kant and Schleiermacher. I wonder if the tendency – especially in women’s ministry – to emphasize experience over straight theological training could come from other things? Like the difference between how men and women typically process information?
    As a 20-something, Bible college graduate I, too, struggle with my lack of experience. I think one thing that can make it difficult for someone without experience to speak to those who have experience is that we can often come off sounding naive or too simplistic. At the heart of stressed mothers or hurting trauma victims is not, initially (for better or worse) a search for didactic truth but a need to be understood… to find community.
    When I stand up to advise a woman whose pain or frustration is different from anything I’ve ever experienced, I find it helpful to start first by listening to her experience. Seeking to enter into her pain. It’s then from that place of community, letting her know she has “been heard” that I can offer truths from Scripture. She is in a better place to receive them and I’m in a better place to offer them.
    For me, it’s also dangerous to teach solely from a position of study because it can turn me into a haughty teacher. I could have easily pulled together a teaching on gratitude and taught it… and felt like I’d been convicted by it in the process. But now, having gone through a trying several of months in which I’ve still been challenged to be grateful I found it more of a struggle than I ever imagined it could be… and anything I teach on gratitude on the future will come from a more humble heart.
    I agree with you that experience without theological grounding is dangerous. But I think the reverse can also be true.

  15. Post
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    Sharon

    Sarah, I completely agree with everything you said. As I mentioned in the blog, this issue is far more complex than I can account for in one post, and there are many more factors involved than the ones I named. The reason I pinpointed Kant and Schleiermacher is that they are two of the big players behind a much bigger philosophical trend that is not only present in women’s ministry but in the greater culture at large. In the church, experience has not always held the authoritative position that has held in recent history, and it’s important to understand that the very idea of making experience so central is a relatively new construct within the church.

    That said, I also agree that experience is indeed important, especially as a teacher. I’ve had a lot of the same experiences you describe. However, this emphasis on experience has resulted in a lot of inconsistency in thought. For instance, evangelical women have no problem opposing abortion, but if the direction of the conversation turns their way on questions about birth control or fertility treatments, these same women are quick to object, “You can’t tell me what to do with my body if you haven’t experienced what I have.” That is hypocrisy. We do not oppose abortion based on experience but on truth, and that same truth lays claim to our own bodies just as much as anyone else’s. The fact that many women are unwilling to even HAVE conversations that might challenge them on how they use their bodies is a real double standard created by the emphasis on experience.

  16. Amber

    I don’t have a very long response, but to say that I appreciate this post and your thoughts. I too agree with some of the other comments that most of my women’s ministry experiences have been inspirational and emotional. Nothing wrong with that. However, I’ve been to a lot of churches and I’ve always wondered why they only offered the study of Systematic Theology to the men. I always felt left out. Why can’t women be a part of that too? I know a lot of my female friends are not really into studying doctrine, church history, Old Testament history, and the literal meanings of some words in the bible…etc. Luckily I have older women in my life who love that stuff.

  17. Alexia

    Sharon,
    As an uneducated, untrained, staff member of a large church, mother of two daughters, I have a few comments.
    I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read your blog. I share it with my daughters ages 18 and 14 often. Your insight and the manner in which you handle issues testing it all in light of Scripture and bringing it back to Scripture is exemplarary! You are cautious to take ‘sides’ and inspire me as well as my daughters to examine things carefully, all the while modeling a submissive heart. How seldom do I see this.
    I yearn to see more women theologically trained in the church, specifically on a staff level. Life experience is significant in our teaching, but loses value quickly (for me) if it is not richly founded on God’s Word and drawing me more to a deeper study and understanding of Scripture.
    Thank you for braving the hard comments, please do not stop writing about what you feel led to do. Your perseverance is admirable and I pray that you continue to inspire young women in their study of Scripture.

  18. Post
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    Sharon

    Alexia, thank you so much! I really have the most kind and gracious commenters. 🙂 Second to Jesus, you all are the reason I am so encouraged to keep writing.

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