This past summer I talked to a female college intern who showed salient talent for ministry. Whether that be youth, college, or church ministry, she exhibited an affinity and gifting to be very effective.
As the conversation turned to me encouraging her to consider pursuing theological education, her eyes squinted and her head turned. When I questioned her look of confusion and perplexity, she started to describe the paradigm for women’s ministry she had seen modeled in her life. She basically considered a woman’s role in a church, particularly those who worked at the church, as a hybrid between a catering manager and an event coordinator. Certainly, a woman could do children’s ministry, but in general my intern had never observed a woman’s role as a kingdom laborer as anything that required intellect or education.
Too often, in complementarian camps (a group in which I am situated on the more moderate end), trying to nuance the roles of women in a biblically faithful manner can translate into sending the message that women don’t need to grow in the intellectual side of their faith. The implicit message sounds something like: “Ladies, leave the theology and exegesis to the men. You just handle the nursery, the food, and the thankless service that the church relies on. Anything that requires intellect will not be asked of you.”
This portrayal sounds hyperbolic but this is exactly the message my intern received in an evangelical church that was not explicitly complementarian. Nobody explicitly said this, but the message came through to her. To send the message that women don’t need to develop their God-given intellect is not biblical complementarianism; it’s dehumanizing.
God made men and women alike as physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and social creatures. One way to understand sanctification is Christ restoring humanity to vibrancy based on God’s original design for us in his image. To neglect or diminish any aspect of a person’s development shortchanges the full extent of God’s redemptive work in them.
Train Young Women to Share God’s Truth In the Places To Which God Calls Them
Even in the strictest of complementarian of settings, women with deep intellectual engagement in theology and scripture benefit the church and further the Great Commission. Let’s say a church believes that women’s teaching roles should be confined to ministry to women, kids, and their own children. Don’t we want mothers with deep knowledge of the Bible to teach their kids God’s word? Don’t we want moms with a sophisticated understanding of biblical theology answering the complicated questions that kids raise in Sunday school or at home? Don’t we want women with a sound understanding of the gospel and with evangelism training sharing the gospel with the people they encounter in the world?
To form women with this theological and biblical depth requires female mentors who can help other women grow in God’s word and truth.
But this endeavor must start early. Girls and young women need explicit encouragement to flex their intellectual muscles as they grow in Christ. We need to recognize that historically somehow the opposite message seems to make its way to young women. Countering that message requires a deliberate effort to tell girls (and all children) that their brains are a central part of their discipleship.
Raise Up Girls With Serious Exegetical and Theological Tools
Churches of all stripes can take on some intentional practices to raise up women with strong theological and exegetical tools. Here are two practical examples:
(1) Get excellent female role models in front of girls.
I think part of the reason that so many young women with excellent Bible teaching skills come out of my church is because they have so many female role models. The church has a half dozen female members with seminary degrees. Many women without formal theological education teach two-year-long discipleship groups where they teach through scripture, lead a unit on church history, explain the foundations of the gospel, and train in evangelism. These women were trained and discipled well by other women, and they’re doing the same with a multiplier effect.
Our female youth pastors, many of whom grew up in our church, all have very strong teaching skills, and they do lots of Bible teaching as part of their ministry. Through our church and strong college ministries, they grew in their Bible and theology knowledge. Our girls see many women around them with robust intellects that they have used to mature in their faith. Getting these women in front of girls is an important practice.
Lastly, taking girls to ministry conferences where they see excellent female Bible teachers can pay big dividends. Women who have attended the Rooted youth ministry training conference have told me that having women such as Jen Wilkin, Nancy Guthrie, Mary Willson, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Jen Michel, and Jessica Thompson lead training and teach the Bible has made a major impact on them. Seeing women handle the word with confidence and intellectual prowess has encouraged them to grow as students of the word.
Taking young women to a conference like the TGC Women’s conference can be an outstanding moment for a teenage girl to see what they can grow into. When my daughter is a teenager, her mother and I will prioritize their attendance.
(2) Give girls meaningful teaching opportunities as teenagers.
Another reason I think we have many young women who can lead Bible studies when they go to college is because they’ve had lots of opportunities to handle scripture as teenagers. We enlist a number of middle schoolers to teach children’s Sunday school alongside adults. We also have several senior high girls who teach middle school girls’ Bible studies with the youth pastor.
Very few things communicate the necessity of the intellectual aspect of faith like having to prepare a lesson and teach in front of a group. The teenagers usually aren’t as reliable or punctual as adult volunteers but for their own development, these opportunities are invaluable.
(3) Encourage theological education for young women with ministry gifting.
When you see a young woman with ministry gifting or theological curiosity, encourage them to consider theological education. Does this mean they have to go into professional ministry? No, not at all. Of the half dozen women in our church with seminary degrees, only one of them works at the church. The others have marketplace jobs or primarily focus on their families. As lay people, they all have strong discipleship and small group ministries in our church and in the community.
For some women, theological education may mean being a full-time, residential student. For others, there are excellent online opportunities that can allow them to remain in their full-time vocations.
Even if they do not choose to pursue a theological education, simply making the suggestion affirms and communicates to a girl or young woman that she can use her mind for the glory of God.