The Dreaded T-Word and Why Women Avoid It

This morning I’ve been reading in Carolyn James’ book When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference. A friend recently recommend this as a great resource for thinking about women’s ministry. Chapter two of the book is on “the dreaded T-word” – theology. Unfortunately, both men and women, in the church and in the academy, have promoted the idea that theology is for men, but not women. Carolyn James disagrees and explores the misconceptions behind such thinking and talking.

Two ideas seem to bolster the notion that theology is for men and not women. The first is the belief that God did not equip women for theological pursuits. According to this thinking, women are more relational and practical, and their role centers on being a wife and mother rather than theological reflection. The presupposition is that God designed a world in which womanhood and theology are incompatible. The second is the conviction that deep knowledge conflicts with the biblical idea of wifely submission; a thinking woman will find it difficult to submit to her husband and to church leaders. Consequently, the safest and most sensible path, according to some, is for women to leave theology to the men.

Carolyn James addresses both of these misconceptions and persuasively argues that theology – which is just a technical word for knowing God – is for everyone.

If we are not careful, we will post a “men only” sign over theology without stopping to realize that what lies beyond is for every Christian. The whole issue comes into focus when we remember that theology is knowing God. This is not a gender issue. It is not a matter of aptitude, instinct, or intelligence. It is about what it means to be a Christian. In one sense, it is fair to say that no one – man or woman – is wired to know God. All of us are blinded by our sin, and the task of knowing our Creator dwarfs every Christian’s abilities. Yet it is also true that God never leaves us to our own resources. He sent his Son to remove the only real barrier that prevents us from knowing him – our sin – and to help us on our way with a flesh and blood picture of what God is like. His Holy Spirit opens our minds and works in our hearts so we will understand and embrace him.

The chapter goes on to discuss the robust portrayal of women who knew God in Scripture, the false notion that theology is bad for the soul (rooted in the abuse of theology by those who pay lip service to truth but fail to let it permeate their hearts and change their lives), and the equally misleading notion that theology is only for professionals. The last few pages of the chapter list several reasons why women need theology – here they are with some brief excerpts:

· Women need theology for themselves.

Life comes to women in stiff doses. When it does, and we are crushed or shattered or stretched beyond our limits, we need to surround ourselves with good theologians . . . who will encourage and help us. But at the end of the day, it won’t be their theology we will lean on, no matter how good it is. We will lean on our own. Adversity and adventures have a way of exposing the state of our theology. We may have heard a lot about God. In the thick of things, we will discover what we really believe about him. We ask too much of ourselves to wade into these deep waters with so little to keep our faith afloat.

· Women need theology for each other.

Years ago I read an article in a magazine for Christian women that listed ways to cope with depression. One suggestion was to paint your nails. Perhaps a manicure, a trip to the mall, or a good laugh may serve to distract some of the pain for a moment. But in the end this trivializes our problems and leaves us right where we started.

· Women need theology for their children.

Many Christian leaders today would echo John Wesley’s words: “I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians of England.” One of the biggest and most significant tasks facing the church today is to raise the next generation of strong believers. Is there a more pressing task than for us to leave behind an army of theologians – our own daughters and sons – stronger than we proved to be? It is a task to which every woman and man in the church is called and which demands the best from us. Some of the toughest theological questions are asked between supper and bedtime. The most perplexing problems we will ever face to come to us from a teenager caught between the allure of the world and the claims of Christ on her heart. Children and young people need adults – parents, friends, and mentors – who have something real to offer them.

· Women need theology for men.

Questions of leadership and teaching aside, women often have unique opportunities to minister to the deepest needs of men . . . A wife knows better than anyone the depth and intensity of her husband’s struggles. If her theology is weak or superficial, she will be ill equipped to come alongside with strength, encouragement, and godly counsel that she alone can give.

Women need theology for the church.

By likening the church to a physical body, the apostle Paul shows the folly of neglecting theology. Weakness in any part of the body, no matter how small or insignificant, is a burden to the whole. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26). Just think how self-absorbed we can be over flabby muscles, the need for reading glasses, thinning hair, or a sore toe – nothing life threatening, but serious matters when they affect your body. Yet in the church, we do not simply tolerate weakness; we actually promote it. The consequences have been devastating. Atrophy and malnutrition are rampant in the body of Christ, and we have grown comfortable with them.

God calls women, along with men, to be runners (Heb. 12:1-2), warriors (Eph. 6:10-18), ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), body builders (Eph. 4:16), teachers, and encouragers (Col. 3:16; Heb. 3:13; 12:12-13). These callings stand in hopeless conflict with so-called feminine virtues of ignorance, passivity, and neediness. Each demands high levels of strength, courage, and activity – impossible for the spiritually malnourished.

When it comes to helping women become better theologians, the church should be first in line. The church is not threatened if we do. It is endangered if we don’t. Where there is weakness in the church, we are all vulnerable. When women are not included in the conversation, there are blind spots in the church’s ministry – overlooked needs and issues, places where our theology is underdeveloped and detached. In Christ’s body, every member needs all the others – not simply to be there but to contribute.

Good stuff. I'd encourage you to order the book, read it, and share it with others - women and men.


Amanda said...

I'll have to check out this book.

cgl said...

This is so important and the concept that theology is only for men is so integrated into churches (at least those I have attended). We would probably have less 2 Tim. 3 women if we got rid of this notion.

CityStreams said...

I love that you call it the T-word. It's true that when I hear the word theology I want to run in the opposite direction. Usually it means that someone's about to debate something. But she makes a lot of good points that I can relate to. I'm going to have to look for this book. Thanks for the review!

Brian G. Hedges said...

Hey CityStreams,
The "T-Word" designation is from Carolyn James herself - the blog post is the title of that particular chapter. Unfortunately, "theology" is too often a topic of debate, rather than a spur to our worship and progressive intimacy with God. But theology is simply the study of our Lord. Surely the more we know him the less we should proudly engage in debate and the more we should be humbled and helped by his unfathomable ways!

Thanks for commenting.

mwh said...

I think citystreams raises a good point, in addition to a good post. Theology for many is made unsavory by turning it into another arena for "one-upsmanship". I'm certainly guilty of that.

Good stuff!

Alissa said...

i think this is interesting because i really like studying theology. maybe i'm weird.