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Published Date: October 31, 2019

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CBE’s Tribute to Gretchen Gaebelein Hull (1930–2019)

Gretchen G. Hull was instrumental in the founding of CBE. A woman with few equals, she was a gifted mathematician, pianist, author, editor, philosopher, and church leader. One of CBE’s founders, as well as a board member and early pioneering editor of Priscilla Papers, Gretchen was brilliant, gutsy, and never afraid to speak out. It was in her Manhattan, New York, home that CBE’s Statement on Men, Women, and Biblical Equality was drafted, later to be published in the April 1990 issue of Christianity Today. It garnered nearly 3,000 CBE members within a few months. Thus launched Gretchen’s work as a theological advocate for women’s equal service.

Traveling the world to expound Scripture’s support for women’s shared leadership, Gretchen’s book, Equal to Serve: Women and Men Working Together Revealing the Gospel (Baker, 1998) quickly rose to the top of CBE’s Best Sellers list. She also contributed articles to various Bible commentaries and Christian publications, including theological books such as The Global God (Baker, 1998) and Applying the Scriptures (Academie, 1987). For decades, Gretchen was a prominent speaker at churches, evangelical seminaries, colleges, and parachurch organizations.

The daughter of Frank E. Gaebelein—an early co-editor of Christianity Today and the first headmaster of The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York—Gretchen grew up on the North Shore of Long Island. She attended Branksome Hall in Toronto and graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1950. She then pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Columbia University, where she met her future husband, Philip G. Hull, a law student at Columbia.

The last time I saw Gretchen was five years ago. We spent the better part of the day engrossed, as we often were, in a rich exchange of ideas, from history, to philosophy, theology, and current events. Yet, by far, my favorite memory of Gretchen was an afternoon we enjoyed together in Saint Davids, Pennsylvania. While waiting for her to arrive, I was playing the second movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Hearing the doorbell, I dashed to open the door. Gretchen smiled, said “Hello” quickly, and walked to the piano. She sat down and finished the piece exactly where I had left off. I was delighted with her skilled “performance” and her love of all things classical.

Gretchen often regaled me with stories of her devoted Christian parents. She told me once that her parents taught her and her siblings to discern and develop their God-given gifts in service to a hurting world. What mattered most was not whether you were male or female but that you fanned into flame your giftedness and passion where the world needed you most. Yet, by the time Gretchen’s children left home, vocation for Christians was aligned not with giftedness, but according to gender. Saddened by the church’s concern for women’s roles rather than women’s capacity and calling, Gretchen searched for kindred spirits. Turning to her best friend from college—Catherine Clark Kroeger—she, Catherine, and others determined that an organization was needed to recover the biblical basis for gender and vocation. Alongside a formidable team of movers and shakers, they launched Christians for Biblical Equality in 1988.

According to Gretchen:

By God’s grace, I grew up in a home that emphasized truth and integrity and social concern and where our family’s desire was to be guided by God’s Word and not by legalism or role playing. Having placed my own trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, I accepted His Word as the only trustworthy guide for my life. For me, Scripture was—and is—God’s utterly reliable revelation of His plan for humanity, and I believe that the Bible is the ultimate authority for all people.

However, as I myself became active in church work, I became aware of the expedient use of women and also of the insensitivity of many Christian men toward women’s personhood. The fact that these loveless actions and attitudes created increasing tensions and hurts both inside and outside the Christian community made it imperative to seek a biblical perspective on their underlying causes.

Gretchen devoted her life to serving the church. She was a Ruling Elder of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. She was a board member of Presbyterians for Renewal, the Latin American Mission, and Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA). According to Dr. Ron Sider, founder, chairman, and past president of ESA, “Gretchen was a wonderful friend, wise counsellor and faithful board member of Evangelicals for Social Action. She served on our board for many years, helping us keep and strengthen biblical feminism as a central part of our larger commitment to social justice. Her strong commitment to a broad range of justice issues including economic justice was always clear. Gretchen Gaebelein Hull was a wonderful gift to me personally and to the entire church and world. I treasure her memory and give thanks to God for her life.”

One of her obituaries celebrated her faithful devotion to Christ—the most important element of her life—followed by her dedication to her husband, children, and family. Throughout her life, she enjoyed an enduring love of music, reading, and animals, especially her treasured pets. She relished playing two-piano classical works with her husband, who was also a gifted musician.

She died at 89 and was predeceased by her husband of 61 years, Philip G. Hull, and her sister, Dorothy L. Hampton. She is survived by her brother, Donn M. Gaebelein, her two sons, Jeffrey R. Hull and Sanford D. Hull, her daughter, Meredyth (Hull) Smith, as well as eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Through her work with CBE and other organizations, Gretchen opened countless doors for women and an enormous biblical sky over the church. Fearless, but also measured, logical, and honest, she was above all devoted to Scripture. Gretchen was a force for Christ, and her wisdom a prophetic call to us all.