“This is going to sound silly,” I remember her saying. “But we have to remember the bathrooms.”
Jurrita Williams was speaking at an event for new female students at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) when she drew attention to a practical concern: the lone women’s bathroom in a main academic building. The three-story building had one cramped bathroom on the second floor, despite all three floors housing Bible, theology, and counseling classes attended by both men and women.
At this 2016 event, Williams was reminding incoming students that their presence had not always been expected or welcomed. A year later, the first-floor men’s bathroom was converted for women—a decision met with much celebration. That same semester, Williams became the first female student body president in the seminary’s nearly 100-year history.
To some, bathroom renovations might indicate nothing more than changing times at a conservative seminary like DTS. They also point, however, to a larger trend: the growing desire of many seminaries to welcome and integrate women at all levels of their community life.
An Expanding Presence
Today, the majority of even the most conservative evangelical seminaries allow women admission in all (or most) of their programs. The Association of Theological Schools’ data on enrollment shows no real variation among women’s enrollment in the last 20 years, with women making up 35 percent of total enrollment in 2017–2018 and 29 percent of master of divinity (MDiv) enrollment. Among evangelical seminaries, the numbers are smaller (on average, 21 percent of MDiv students)—but in many cases, they are growing. DTS first began admitting women in 1974, and the percentage of women students has grown from 13 percent in 1985 to over 38 percent in 2018. In 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention reported a 12 percent increase in female students at its seminaries from 2012 to 2016.
While the debate over women’s acceptance into seminaries has grown less fierce, some issues still linger. For example, the #MeToo movement has encouraged both men and women in higher education to take women’s experiences of sexual assault more seriously. The most egregious public failure in this regard was the recent controversy over, among other things, the advice of former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson to a woman who had been raped. The woman described how Patterson discouraged her from reporting the crime and insisted on questioning her alone in an effort to “break her down.” She was also formally disciplined, presumably for allowing a man in her apartment. After intense public pressure, much of it coming from women, Patterson was eventually relieved of all his responsibilities.
This incident demonstrates how women’s perspectives are desperately needed. Terri Moore, an adjunct professor of New Testament studies at DTS, pointed out that even for pastors who “don’t have a problem with power and they’re doing everything well,” many haven’t sat in a room with women discussing gender and sexual abuse. According to Moore, “They honestly don’t realize how pervasive some of this is.”
In spite of these developments, most seminaries recognize there is more work to do. Author and speaker Sharon Hodde Miller considered titling her dissertation on what leads women to evangelical seminaries “Why Are You Here?” In it, she describes the “persistent and alienating” question women in her study received from male students and professors. The Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduate also found that many women dealt with a nagging sense of guilt or shame for spending the money and time that their degrees required.
The challenges are substantial, because as examples above show and as Jones notes, schools can either “actively teach or passively discourage” women’s full participation and acceptance. So what is the key to changing that?
Where to Begin
The flourishing of women in seminary starts in the local church. Marianne Meye Thompson, dean of the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that seminaries are a “mirror and an outgrowth of the church” and that the more the local church values women and encourages them in a variety of ministry opportunities, the more both churches and women will view seminary positively.
“Women have always found a way,” Thompson is quick to state. When women who feel a call toward vocational ministry see few traditional routes that utilize a seminary degree, they instead gravitate toward the booming world of Christian bloggers and writers. But this has proven to be a less than ideal solution.
In April 2017, Anglican priest and writer Tish Harrison Warren wrote a controversial piece for CT Women—“Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?”—that sparked a variety of criticisms. Warren addressed the rise of “spiritual bloggers” who do ministry outside the traditional bounds of ecclesial oversight, asking a series of pointed questions: “What kinds of theological training and ecclesial credentialing are necessary for Christian teachers and leaders? What interpretive body and tradition do these bloggers speak out of?”
Critics of Warren’s piece argued that women have historically been excluded from both church leadership and theological education, so women are warranted in creating their own spaces for the ministry to which God is calling them. The criticisms drew attention to a particularly troublesome dynamic: Many detractors of “spiritual bloggers” decry their lack of credentials while failing to support their efforts to get that very same training.
Before women even get to seminary, they should experience churches that actively support theological education—including the time and money such education requires. Thompson notes that churches can be more intentional about “identifying women who have those gifts and encouraging them” —like offering the same financial assistance (part-time jobs, scholarships) and mentoring to women as they do to men.
How the Tide Is Turning
So once women make it to seminaries, how are they becoming an integral part of community life and education?
For one thing, female theologians (along with many of their male colleagues) are leading the charge in exposing the theological positions that even inadvertently subject women to harassment and abuse, an area that seminaries are well-qualified to address. Sandra Glahn, who specializes in first-century backgrounds and gender and teaches at DTS, edited Vindicating the Vixens, a work that reexamines the stories of women in the Bible and notes how those stories have been sexualized, marginalized, and misinterpreted to justify the abuse or degradation of women. Glahn takes a unique approach to creating constructive conversations around these issues:
Those who hold to inerrancy are committed to being countercultural over disobeying scripture. So when their study of history and scripture have left them with interpretations that disparage women, the way to change their minds is not by accusing them of being misogynists. It is to show them how they have misinterpreted the text and been uninformed about the historical involvement of women in the church.
Glahn’s first suggesting a misreading of the text rather than mistreatment of women has opened the door to substantive dialogue and significant change.
In addition to critiquing bad theology, women increasingly enhance the theological enrichment of the church. Beth Felker-Jones, professor of theology at Wheaton College, explains, “We all stand in context, and that context includes gender and race and class and century and country. That context is going to influence how we think about gender but also about everything. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We should expect to be enriched by seeing the diversity of the perspectives of the people of God.”
In this regard, male students have specific needs. As Miller explains, “[The professor’s] job is not just to instill people with theology but to prepare them for ministry. There are going to be women in their churches, and they need to be learning now how to honor women.”
Many seminaries maintain what Lynn Cohick, provost and dean of Denver Seminary, calls an “evangelical shortsightedness” that presents women as “simply at the level of seasoning the main meal.” When women and men learn theology and church history devoid of the influence of women, both are deprived. On the other hand, when men and women are taught a church history that shows a robust participation by women, it’s easier to see women’s presence in the church as significant and substantial.
Cohick argues that we have to improve our “historical memory.” “There are obvious reasons that only men were writing the creeds. But who paid their way? Who were their conversation partners?” We can acknowledge that “women have been involved in the church for the whole of church history” in significant roles—roles that women in seminary can admire and model.
The very presence of female professors is crucial in this whole effort. Jones explains, “What people are able to imagine for themselves matters in huge ways. As a theological educator, I absolutely want to open up women’s imaginations to all the possibilities that might be before them for using the gifts and talents they’ve been given.”
Male professors have just as large a role to play in that respect. “I’m thankful for male colleagues who are self-aware of some of the obstacles that women might face and the need to lift them up,” Jones reflects. The way male professors and administrators relate to their female colleagues and students—listening to and advocating for them—is indispensable. At evangelical seminaries, women can struggle to find mentoring and guidance, especially if they are studying in departments with entirely male faculty. Here men have an opportunity to use their power and influence in a gospel-centered way: giving it away and helping raise up female students and colleagues.
This happens most often in dozens of small moments in lectures and office-hour meetings. As a timid first-semester student at DTS, I vividly remember the day a professor asked for responses to a lecture. After my passionate comment, he said “Preach!” in front of the whole class. That same professor frequently used “she” and “her” when talking about people leading or teaching in the church. For women in seminaries, something as simple as rotating pronouns has a significant impact. “If you mean ‘people,’ you say ‘people’—not ‘men,’” Thompson emphasizes.
Women—particularly women of color—are especially encouraged when professors acknowledge that theologians, preachers, and leaders whom they refer to in one context may have held or hold sexist and racist views in other respects. If professors praise a man’s legacy without acknowledging his well-documented misogyny, students believe professors are doing a disservice by not sharing all the information. Teaching about people in a holistic, honest way makes a significant difference: It acknowledges that God greatly uses those who are imperfect—without dismissing the sin that distorts theology.
Administrators and other institutional leaders also play a role in integrating women into their campuses and classrooms. Most seminaries have student groups for women as well as a women’s director or adviser. As Miller notes, seminaries have to “be intentional about creating space for women.” This includes creating groups that offer financial, emotional, and academic support for their specific needs. Thompson insists that seminaries committed to women in ministry communicate that support during controversy—“when opposition arises, the administration affirms women”—as well as in the consistent, daily life of the community.
What’s Good for Women Is Good for Everyone
At many evangelical seminaries, progress can be celebrated. Momentum is building as “bathrooms” are being built—small but significant changes to institutions are occurring. Women’s advising roles have been created, women are accepting leadership positions, and an increasing awareness of female theologians and teachers in seminary inspires incoming students. Cohick says she’s seen a significant shift: “Among some women, there’s more confidence. Fifteen years ago, there was a level of angst that I don’t think women feel anymore. I don’t think women feel as isolated.”
Male students also are beginning to view this issue as their own. “A culture that’s bad for women is also bad for men,” Jones observes. “When we reduce part of God’s people, we reduce all of us.” The rich and varied perspectives of the people of God are an asset, and men and women need each other in both the church and the academy. When students observe how diversity checks against poor theology as well as enriches good theology, it helps us all grow into the full stature of Christ.
Kaitlyn Schiess is a writer and seminary student currently pursuing a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary.