So the story begins with a young woman who marries a young man. On their first Easter together, they decide to cook a ham. The wife asks her husband if he will cut off the ham bone before she bakes it. When the husband asks “Why,” the wife replies, “That’s the way my mother cooked ham.” The husband suggests they should call her mother to find out why she cut the ham bone. When his mother-in-law answers the phone, she informs them, “That’s just the way my mother used to cook the ham.” Next, the husband suggests they call grandmother to find out why she cut the ham bone. When grandmother answers, she explains that her ham was too big for the pan, so she always had to cut off the bone to make it fit. After they hang up, the young husband and wife realize their ham will fit into the pan. Therefore, there is no reason to cut off the ham bone.
The moral of the story is that some “traditions” may have originated to solve a unique problem for a given situation, but were never meant to be passed down as instruction for all people for all time. The Christian church’s historical position on the limitations on women’s roles in ministry may be one of those “traditions” that was never meant to be normative for all Christians for all times. This is a good time for Christians to re-examine one of those traditions, the tradition of limiting a woman’s ability to teach, due to a growing interest among women to study and to teach apologetics.
I. Traditional Views of Women Teaching May Impact Apologetics
Christian Apologetics is a species of evangelism and discipleship, through proclaiming and defending the Christian faith and practice. Apologetics is not just for men. Women need it, too. Apologist Tricia Scribner opines that women “read practical self-help books that assist…in negotiating the challenges of everyday life, and…flock to meetings where entertainment and fellowship are high on the list of priorities,” but “ignore the deeper theological and apologetics studies.”All Christians, men and women, are called to share the Gospel and make disciples, love God with their minds, love others, be transformed by the renewing of their minds, demolish bad philosophies and arguments, and defend the faith.God gave women intelligence—they should be encouraged to use it.
In addition to women needing apologetics, apologetics needs women.According to Apologist Hillary Morgan Ferrer, apologetics needs women because women bring civility, have higher emotional intelligence, make it practical, and are more relational.The field of apologetics historically has been dominated by men.However, recent years have seen a surge of women interested in apologetics, including both informal and formal study.The number of female students formally studying and teaching apologetics at universities has witnessed some growth.However, we still need to tap the reserves to encourage more women to study and teach apologetics.
To suggest we need more women teaching apologetics brings to light a division among contemporary evangelical Christians regarding women’s roles in ministry. In recent church history, there are two broad Christian perspectives on the issue, complementarian and egalitarian.Both are considered within the bounds of orthodoxy, usually with a commitment to inerrancy.In general, complementarians hold that ministry roles are differentiated by gender, and egalitarians hold all ministry opportunities are equally available for both genders.Variations exist within each of the two views.
Although the issue of women’s roles is controversial, it is not considered an essential doctrine to the Christian faith. The aim of this paper is not to resolve specific questions about women’s roles in ministry or the home, or to argue that is should be an essential doctrine. Rather, the goal is to argue that Christians need to re-examine the tradition of limiting women’s ability to teach, as it could have a serious impact on women called to teach apologetics.
II. Questions Regarding Women Teaching Apologetics
As more women are drawn to study apologetics, naturally some with the gift of teaching will desire to teach apologetics, or will be asked to teach apologetics. Faced with confusing and inconsistent church tradition regarding whether women can teach without limits as to her audience or topic, women are left wondering if they can teach apologetics, especially to mixed gender audiences, including university classes in apologetics. Additionally, some women called to teach apologetics may experience resistance from their church (and in fact they occasionally do), depending on the tradition it follows in allowing women to teach.
Complementarians limit women’s roles in ministry when it comes to preaching and teaching men.Egalitarians do not limit a woman’s call to preach and teach.Furthermore, they find it oppressive to deny women the equal opportunity to fulfill their calling to teach and preach.Oppression of women is a serious matter, but it is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, this paper will briefly address two important questions related to the role of women teaching apologetics: (1) Are women inferior to men? (2) Should women be allowed to teach apologetics without regard for the gender of the audience?
A. Are Women Inferior to Men?
In contemplating the issue about whether women should be allowed to teach men in ministry, it is relevant to examine church history and its traditional view of women. Unfortunately, church history reveals disturbing misogynist views among some of the influential early church fathers. For example, third century apologist and lawyer Tertullian called women, “the devil’s gateway.”This reveals more than a hint of what today is called sexism. Christian Theologian Sarah Sumner comments:
The influence of Tertullian is incalculable. This is the same theologian who coined the word Trinity, developed certain aspects of the doctrine of original sin and defended the two natures of Christ. Yet it was he who believed that women are to blame for the entrance of sin into the world. Tertullian is famous for having uttered the words, “God’s judgment of this sex lives on.”
Tertullian was not the only church father who demonstrated a low view of women. St. Augustine of Hippo, perhaps the most famous Christian theologian in church history,revealed a low opinion of women when he argued that a woman does not possess the image of God by herself, only when taken together with man who is her head.Moreover, prominent Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas insisted that women were inferior to men in bodily strength and in intellect.Regrettably, the list could go on with quotes about the inferiority of women from great early church fathers such as Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others. From this sampling, it is not difficult to understand why some claim Christianity oppresses women. However, this is likely a straw man argument. It is not Christianity that has oppressed women, but specific people who have promoted their views that women were inferior, resulting in the marginalization of women’s participation in ministry and even oppression. Becoming aware of the church fathers’ prejudice against women should prompt us to be careful we do not to absorb their bias.This is a tradition that should not be continued.
Although these church fathers are highly influential historical men and enormously esteemed today by Christians (this writer included), there is no evidence that such an openly hostile view of women currently exists within Christianity. In fact, we have come a long way from Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas. Christians today acknowledge that women are intellectually and spiritually equal to men.However, hints of a Tertullian-Augustine-Aquinas inferior view of women still lay in the shadows of our Christian culture. For example, complementarians John Piper and Wayne Grudem suggest women may be more gullible than men.It is hard not to interpret this as women being inferior to men and to conclude that women cannot be trusted in leadership roles. Moreover, a complementarian view of male and female roles ultimately exposes a hierarchy among men and women. In a hierarchical order, men are often held as superior and women inferior. The tradition of an inferior view of women seems to continue, albeit in a more subtle form.
Looking back at church history, it should be obvious that “Christian thinking” is not always biblical thinking. This is especially true regarding the issue of women. Traditional views of the inferiority of women have been passed down unexamined, like the family tradition of cutting the ham bone passed down generation to generation. However, it is critical that we think biblically about roles of women.In interpreting the Bible, the most important principle to remember is it is inspired by God.Jesus is “the word” in flesh. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus placed a high value on women.He recognized the extrinsic value of women created in the image of God and the intrinsic equality of men and women, and continually showed the worth and dignity of women as persons.Jesus valued their fellowship, prayers, service, financial support, testimony and witness.He honored women, taught women, and ministered to women in thoughtful ways.
Acknowledging that Jesus values women will aid in demolishing non-biblical traditions and bias that women are inferior to men, and help women fulfill their calling in ministry, including a calling to practice and teach apologetics without restriction as to their audience.
B. Should Women Be Allowed to Teach Mixed Gender Audiences?
Broadly speaking, complementarians hold that women should not teach men or preach.Earlier this year, Piper went further and declared that women cannot be seminary professors because seminary professors are akin to teaching pastors, which are restricted to men.Women are prohibited from having authority over men when it comes to teaching the Bible or doctrine.Piper overtly dismisses a woman’s claim to be called by God to preach and teach.
A position like Piper’s is clearly relevant to the ministry of apologetics, or rather, the formal study of apologetics. If the purpose of apologetics is to proclaim and defend the faith, the apologist must understand the Bible and doctrine, and be able to explain it. If one adopts Piper’s view, female apologists should never be allowed to teach a class in apologetics to male students because it will likely include teaching the Bible and doctrine. In other words, women should be barred from teaching apologetics to mixed gender audiences. This view may prove to be an impenetrable wall for women seeking teaching positions at Christian institutions.
The good news is that not all complementarians agree with Piper’s narrow view that women can’t teach the Bible or doctrine to men. Some more moderate complementarians hold views that it is acceptable for women to teach men the Bible and doctrine under certain circumstances, like in a private setting (Priscilla),or the occasional teacher for a mixed group of men and women at a church,or when the female teacher has the blessing of the church elders or pastors to teach.Additionally, some more moderate complementarians such as Craig L. Blomberg believe Scripture teaches women can perform any function or office that a man can, except the highest office of ministry, which is reserved only for men.This provides hope for complementarian women who feel called into vocational ministry to teach apologetics. Egalitarian women already experience the freedom to teach and preach.
As previously established, it is a fact that women are becoming more involved in apologetics. As more women study apologetics, it is reasonable to conclude we need more women teaching apologetics, including in the academic setting. It is critical we have a clear understanding of what the Bible allows when it comes to women teaching, if they are to fulfill their calling. Egalitarians allow women to teach the Bible and doctrine to men with no restrictions. Some complementarians allow this as well, so long as women are not the senior pastor. It is important to distinguish between a narrow Piper view of complementarianism and a broader Blomberg view. One will allow women to teach apologetics to mixed audiences; the other will not.
A case can be made that a Tertullian-Augustine-Aquinas view of the inferiority of women has been perpetuated in the tradition of limiting women in ministry roles and subliminally embraced by some complementarians. However, the rise of women in apologetics is causing a rethinking of the tradition of restricting women in ministry generally, and as it relates to teaching apologetics specifically.
It is time to stop cutting off the ham bone since the tradition of limiting women’s ability to teach in ministry is not necessary or helpful to advance the Kingdom of God. Since the call to evangelism and apologetics is gender neutral, it is time to recognize that half of the church (i.e. women) are moving from the sidelines and getting into the practice of defending the faith. This should be encouraged so that we don’t leave behind half the troops God has called to engage in the battle for the hearts and minds of people everywhere.