Had somebody asked me in my early twenties whether I would like to go to a seminary and study theology, my answer would have certainly been “No.” Considering that this was when I was exceptionally active in my Baptist home church—I worked with Sunday school children, sang in choir, and served regularly as an organist in the church worship—such an answer may seem surprising.
Why was I so disinterested in theological education, and ultimately active Christian ministry, at that time? There were three main reasons for this: the relationship between the church and society, the view of theological education, and the view of women in ministry.
Former Yugoslavia: “Women’s Work”: Caught between Christianity and Communism
I was born and grew up under the communist government in former Yugoslavia. Unlike many of my peers, I was raised in a Christian family. To be sure, in contrast to most countries of the Eastern block, Yugoslav government under Tito granted certain freedoms to believers.
What was difficult, however, was to maintain a Christian point of view in an exceedingly secularized and atheistic society. Children learned from a very early age that in a communist society, it was not acceptable to believe in God. Those who broke off from religion had better status and more opportunities to get jobs or housing.
Throughout my education, I was constantly reminded that my Christian faith was an obstacle to a successful career and comfortable life. I still remember the first public confession of my faith when I was in the third grade. For some strange reason, our teacher told us that we had to come to school one Sunday morning to complete a group art project. I didn’t come because I went to church with my family. I knew that I would be in trouble, but I didn’t care.
The next day, in front of the whole class, I was asked why I did not show up the previous day. I answered that I went to church. Everyone laughed at me and the teacher ridiculed me in front of the others by calling me a “narrow-minded fanatic.”
Later, in high school, I lost my position as the editor-in-chief of a school newspaper when the school principal discovered that I was a Christian. In my senior year, I was not promoted to the position of the Director of the Student Economic Society for the same reason.
Those of us who belonged to the small Protestant churches consciously separated ourselves from the secular society. In order to preserve the boundaries between “us” and “them,” our churches created an alternative lifestyle, a sort of subculture, which enabled us to resist the communist mind control and the growing secularization of society.
In practice, this subculture was frequently defined through “dos” and “don’ts.” For example, we Baptists did not smoke, did not drink, did not go to the cinema, did not listen to rock music, did not follow fashion, etc. Young men had to cut their hair short, which was not so easy in the Beatles’ era. Young women were not permitted to wear make-up or short skirts, even though this was quite fashionable in the 1970s.
In a tradition that was suspicious toward intellectualism of any sort, theological education was not encouraged. Many of those who preached on Sundays did not know much about the Bible and theology. They simply read and interpreted the biblical text as they felt guided by the Holy Spirit, without any awareness that they were frequently reading their own ideas into it. Following another venerable Baptist tradition, we never talked politics. In our theology and Christian practice, church and state were completely separate.
Many Protestant churches had a long experience with the so-called “women’s work” that encouraged women to use their spiritual gifts, but only in the service of other women. For example, the women’s ministry in the Baptist churches of the former Yugoslavia was first organized in 1938 and was effective for many years. Unfortunately, it was frequently regarded as a sort of “kindergarten” for women—a place where they could “play leadership” and other roles otherwise reserved for men in a “real” church. As a result, I never seriously considered theological vocation while I still lived in former Yugoslavia.
Switzerland: Working out Spirituality and Social Practice at Seminary
However, I still cannot find a good explanation for why I never challenged the status quo or undertook more active steps toward responding to God’s call to ministry, which I had felt for a long time. Like many women in similar circumstances and times, I accepted the tradition as a given, and the very idea of trying to change the things “as they always were” was deeply disquieting. I found enough comfort within the given limits and even enjoyed them to a certain extent. Why should I do more when everyone told me that I should do less?
Yet, due to circumstances that I can ascribe only to God’s providence, my husband, who was interested in theology, suggested the idea of studying theology at the Baptist Seminary in Rüschlikon, Switzerland. After a lot of deliberation and prayer, we made a decision which was very uncommon in our context and surprised our family and friends.
Even though we had already started a family (we had two small children), we decided to leave our professions (I was a financial manager in a local beer company and my husband was a teacher in the public school) and begin a second career. In the former Yugoslavia, you simply didn’t do that. You could not afford the luxury of starting something completely new after you had made so many sacrifices to get your university degree and, even more difficult, find a decent job.
At first, I had no idea what I should do after I graduated from the Seminary. I simply enjoyed learning about the Bible, exegetical methods, and theology without asking where this would lead me. Yet, something happened to me which I wished would happen to many of my students: I found myself in an environment that constantly encouraged me to use the spiritual gifts I had. I saw women preaching, performing weddings, participating in theological discussions, etc. They did not have to fight for this privilege—everybody assumed that this was the most natural thing to do.
I was shocked when I was asked to preach at Seminary. I have never done such a thing in my life! It took me no less than three years to find enough courage to preach my first sermon. Through my studies, I came to realize that our view of women in ministry reflects our theology. This is not just a side issue that can be solved by the mastery of prooftexting, but a complex question that reflects our understanding of God and God’s relationship to us, our understanding of Scripture, and our understanding of spirituality and social practice.
At the end of my theological education in Rüschlikon, I was deeply convinced that the Bible affirms the fundamental equality of both genders because they both bear the image of God. I was also deeply convinced that the Spirit gifts us, and does not arbitrarily limit the use of these gifts according to gender.
Finally, I was deeply convinced that our relationship to God must be reflected in our relationship to each other; our spirituality must be reflected in our social practice. Regarding gender, the affirmation of spiritual equality must be reflected in our repudiation of gender hierarchy.
United States: Becoming a Female Bible Professor
Around the same time as these changes happened in my theology and personal life, the political scene of my country changed dramatically. The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s occurred almost overnight. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina brought immense suffering, devastation, and insecurity.
A newly-formed Croatian Baptist Union encouraged my husband and me to return home after we graduated from Seminary, but they offered a placement only to him. For me, this was a clear signal that I should pursue my deep desire to continue theological education in the United States. This dream became reality when we were both accepted to the Ph.D. program at Princeton Theological Seminary.
By the end of my doctoral studies, I accepted the offer of a faculty position at Bethel University, where I have just completed my fourth year of teaching. With much excitement, I accepted this offer as a unique opportunity to integrate my academic work with Christian life and practice. I am still truly grateful for this opportunity to participate in nurturing young women and men toward Christian maturity in scholarship, leadership, and service.
Moreover, following a decision of the Professional Committee of the American Baptist Churches in New Jersey to recognize my acceptance of a teaching position at Bethel as a response to God’s call to teaching ministry, I was ordained in my Princeton home church just two days after I defended my dissertation.
What can I offer my students about the question of the Bible’s view of gender relationships and equality? First of all, I can offer them my story. Students (and certainly many adults) like stories. Yet, I don’t share my story for the purpose of entertaining them or showing them how difficult it was to be a Christian under a communist regime. Rather, I share my story for the purpose of sharing with them an experience that is very similar to theirs.
I, like many of my students, grew up in a context that did not encourage women in ministry. I, like many of my students, rarely questioned the tradition to which I belonged. I, like many of my students, neglected my spiritual gifts because I believed they were of no use in the church, where everyone already knew what they were supposed to do. I, like many of my students, thought that a woman’s primary vocation was to be a mother and raise a family. I, like many of my students, did not think much about gender equality in the church, even though I cared about gender equality in society. And when I finally began to care about gender equality in the church, I, like many of my students, was reluctant to take an active role to initiate a change, preferring to passively wait for someone else to act.
The next thing I wish to communicate to my students is that our experiences, the traditions that formed us, and our worldviews influence the way we read Scripture. My students are frequently puzzled by the fact that both sides of the debate over gender equality—the so-called egalitarians and the so-called complementarians—claim to have scriptural support. It appears that the question is not what we read but how we read it.
In an attempt to simplify the problem, some interpreters have reduced it to the question of whether they should read the Bible literally or look for general principles that transcend a biblical text’s cultural and historical particularities. However, the problem is much more complex than that. Different people have different understandings of what the literal meaning of a given text is, even when they are familiar with the original language in which the text was written. They may still differ in their understanding of what the general principles of a given text are. How can this be?
I keep repeating in all my classes that there is no end of the interpretative process on this side of the eternity. We are always interpreting, always belonging to the same world that is conditioned by its cultural and historical givens. What we see and how we see it are always affected by our context as interpreters, which results in a number of different possibilities of understanding.
This, however, does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. In each case, the interpreter has to convince her audience of the validity of her textual understanding. I like to compare this process to the gift of prophecy and its evaluation in the early church. My primary purpose as a teacher is to teach students to evaluate different interpretations, with the ultimate goal of formulating their own position and understanding the basis for the beliefs they hold.
Finally, I encourage my students to discover and recognize the gifts of the Spirit in themselves and others. I wish to show them that any idea that imposes a restriction in this area represents an implicit denial of the freedom of the Spirit to give all gifts to both genders.
By sharing my spiritual journey with them, I try to emphasize that the highest criterion for discerning one’s call to ministry is spiritual giftedness. Office is determined by gifting, not gender. I also emphasize different types of leadership, which include not only the forms typically associated with men, but also those typically associated with women, such as collaborative leadership, relational rather than competitive approaches, etc.
Regarding marriage, I emphasize the idea of mutual submission which, I believe, can be realized in many different ways based on the personality, giftedness, and expectations of marital partners. Each partner should be affirmed by the other in order to develop his/her full potential, but the way this will happen cannot be prescribed in advance.
I would like to say that the learning process always runs smoothly for my students and me. In reality, however, we encounter many difficulties on this journey. Some students are excited about gender equality, some are mildly interested, some are indifferent, while some strongly oppose it.
However, I still believe that most of those who embrace the idea of equality see in it the liberating power of the gospel, which teaches us that our equal standing in God’s eyes should be shared in our mutual relationships. This equal standing does not erase our biological, experiential, emotional, and other differences, but rather fully affirms them by making them irrelevant per se for our roles in the church and family.
It is my hope and prayer that all my students will leave the classroom with a better understanding of Scripture and a greater willingness to recognize and use the gifts bestowed by the Spirit, regardless of their gender.