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An Open Letter to Women in Seminary

On January 04, 2012

Dear Friends,

Seminary can be a mixed bag for women. You likely encounter a confusing blend of support, apathy, and even downright hostility—perhaps all in a single day. I can't imagine how tough that must be to navigate. I will never forget a female student who, after a class discussion on the theology of gender and ministry, tearfully shared her struggle with this confusing reception. She was about to complete her MDiv, but a troubling reality was settling in: the vast majority of the jobs posted in her conservative denomination were explicitly designated "for men only." No mixed message there.

Along with the bleak outlook in certain vocational areas of church ministry, women seminary students can regularly experience forms of oppression, whether striking or subtle, that can add up to a heavy burden. In many evangelical seminaries, this can be compounded by predominantly male faculties, predominantly male-authored textbooks, and even by male student colleagues who question their right to be there. Of course, each experience is different and each seminary is different, but studies suggest that the increasing number of female students in seminary during the last 40 years has not always coincided with a hospitable reception and nurturing environment.

When I was in seminary, I believed that a "literal" hermeneutic requires a patriarchal authority structure. Furthermore, fallen, sinful people need well-defined, static authority structures. Men and women are equally worthy as human beings, sharing the imago Dei. But men, not women, are designated the leaders. Perplexed? Don't argue. It comes from the secret wisdom of God (and from Paul's pen). I hadn't yet taken into account all of the complexities that go with applying biblical texts to modern situations. While I wasn't prepared to consistently apply my literal hermeneutic, I was settled in my position.

I have since changed my position on women in ministry. I don't need to go into all the theological reasons for that. But in sum, I came to realize that women and men are equal; not just in ontological worth, but in God's salvation history. God's planned future is an egalitarian community of mutually submissive, loving, and honoring relationships built on the Gospel of Christ, the Servant-Lord. Why should we structure our churches, families, and relationships on the basis of past and present sins rather than on the basis of God's planned future for shalom?

In our day, I believe that the Gospel is most powerful and effective when egalitarian relationships are the norm and when the equal worth of women and men is not just affirmed, but exemplified in the church and relationships. It's one thing to preach equality; it's another to practice it.

Thank you for studying and preparing for ministry in whatever capacity and role God may call you. When opposition discourages you, be assured that people do sometimes change their minds. More importantly, know that you are valued and loved; the church needs you.

In Christ,
Kyle Roberts

A longer version of this open letter was originally published on patheos.com.

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