The dense smoke rising from the women’s ordination debate may be clouding our view of an important factor—one that should concern us no matter what our position on ordination: there is a woeful lack of self-respect among an entire category of Christian women.

Gary Bredfeldt, chair of the Ontario Bible College Department of Ministry Studies, recently demonstrated that entering women students at nine Canadian Bible colleges were seriously lacking in measures of self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense of personal competence. In the general population, women of the same age rank about 7 percent behind men on a standard measure of feelings of personal competence. In the Bible college sample, the gap was an appalling 40 percent. The Bible college women rated 20 percent lower than women at secular institutions, while the Bible college men rated 15 percent above their secular counterparts. Although Bredfeldt’s study gives only preliminary results, it ought not to be ignored.

Students of women’s psychology have long noted the confidence gap between men and women. The title of one study seems to say it all: “What’s Skill for the Male Is Luck for the Female” (Deaux and Emswiller, 1974). Or as Rosalind Barnett and Grace Baruch noted in The Competent Woman: “When failure occurs, women are the ones who tend to believe their abilities inadequate, men to believe their efforts insufficient. When success occurs, on the other hand, women tend to think that the task must have been easy, or that luck was with them; men credit their own abilities.”

Granted that this confidence gap exists, we must wonder why it is exacerbated in some Christian circles. What is it about the churches that send their young adults to Bible colleges that widens this gulf?

Churches are often criticized for focusing too much on sin and guilt, as if that created high levels of self-loathing and dangerously low levels of self-esteem. But whatever it is that depresses these women’s self-esteem seems to give men an ego boost.

Perhaps the use (or lack of it) of women’s gifts is the key. In No Time for Silence, Janette Hassey documented the vigorous nature of women’s ministry during the evangelical resurgence between the Civil War and the rise of fundamentalism. During that period, Bible colleges and institutes focused on practical training for young men and women to carry the gospel to meet the needs of the world. Evangelical theology then opened the door for women’s adventures on behalf of the gospel. There were several factors at work: the horrible fate of the unsaved motivated believers to ignore social conventions for the good of the lost; a sense of the nearness of the Second Coming predisposed believers to see women’s gifts as part of the predicted latter-day outpouring of the Spirit. These women received public encouragement from leaders such as D. L. Moody, A. B. Simpson, and A. J. Gordon.

In addition, social factors were at work: the temperance and suffrage movements gave women experience in organization, administration, and public speaking; the social upheaval of the frontier and the desperate needs of the urban areas created the action-oriented atmosphere in which social convention withered and women’s ministries blossomed.

Historically, North America’s Bible colleges trained the women who responded to God’s call to service and mission. But the lack of personal competence today’s Bible college women feel may make that training task much harder. The churches that send young people to Bible colleges today are direct descendants of those that did so back then. Let the churches relearn a concern for the lost that outweighs convention. Let them hold up before their young people the rich history of the women who followed God’s call into high-risk ministries. With these role models, young women will turn to the Bible colleges as ministry training centers rather than as mate markets, and perhaps will rebuild the confidence needed to accept God’s challenges.

By David Neff.

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