My Fifty Year Journey with Women and Ministry
in the New Testament and in the Church Today (1)
by David M. Scholer
There is something uncomfortable with writing about your own life; it can be self-promoting. On the other hand, we thrive on personal stories; this is especially true for feminists, I think. My students regularly tell me that the sharing of my personal story is a help and encouragement to them. Thus, I have accepted Letha Dawson Scanzoni’s invitation to write this kind of article.
The early years
I grew up during the 1940s and 1950s in Rochester, MN, in a wonderful Christian home and in a classic, fundamentalist-separatist Baptist church, affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). I learned from my contexts that women were to be subordinate and were not to speak or lead in church. By the time I was fourteen years old I had read John R. Rice’sBobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord, 1941).
Beginning to question
Nevertheless, I was puzzled. The women missionaries our church supported spoke on Wednesday nights (not at Sunday worship, of course) when on furlough; it sounded like preaching to me! Actually, there were three issues that bothered me: the extreme separatism of my church, with the underlying assumption that we were the “true” Christians; the dispensational eschatology that was preached constantly (and which has now become more widely known through the “Left Behind” novels); and the teaching about the role of women.
I began to explore in a quiet manner. As soon as I could drive, I went secretly (never telling my parents) to a Roman Catholic monastery and to a very large Assemblies of God church (both of these groups, I was taught, were not Christians). My secret missions led me to believe that they were Christians!
My two other concerns I only pondered, waiting until I got to Wheaton College in 1956 to study Greek and find answers. Wheaton not only confirmed for me that there were many Christians beyond my narrow group; the best professors I had also helped me dismantle my dispensationalist beliefs and assisted in opening my mind on the questions I had about women in the New Testament.
Forming an equal partnership
At Wheaton I met Jeannette Faith Mudgett, a wonderful and brilliant woman, who had grown up in the Pentecostal tradition; we were married in 1960. In our own limited way in the cultural-social framework of that time, we sought to have an “egalitarian” marriage; we also talked about women in the church. By 1962, as a seminary student, I concluded that there was nothing in the New Testament, fairly interpreted, that would prohibit women from teaching and exercising authority in the church. I was somewhat alone in these convictions, although my professors seemed to support me. In 1963, Jeannette read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique; and in some ways our discussion of this book combined with my New Testament studies was making us “feminists” — albeit still very naïve and without use yet of the label “feminist.”
Supporting women in ministry
In 1964, I began my doctoral studies in New Testament at Harvard Divinity School. One of my key professors was Krister Stendahl, whose 1958 Swedish book defending women in the church (2) was being translated into English by doctoral student Emilie T. Sander. Emilie was a person who was often marginalized by other students (the reasons were complex), but Emilie and I become good friends. Discussing Stendahl’s book with her increased my commitment to supporting women in ministry.
I was ordained in the American Baptist Churches USA in 1966; by that time I was a committed advocate in support of women’s ordination (the ABC and its tradition had ordained women since the 1890s, although not in great numbers). Within a year I had had my first opportunity as an ordained person to vote on the ordination of a woman, which was a thrill for me. Also at that time I began to receive invitations to speak on such issues (I kept no records in the earliest years).
In 1969, I began my professional career as a seminary professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. As I recall, there were that year 175 students, three of whom were women. Of course, there were no women on the faculty. By default, in a sense, I became the “confidant” and advocate for the female students, a role which I had (unofficially) throughout my twelve years on the faculty there (and in all years since, wherever I have taught). It was such a blessing. I learned much from listening to these students and their struggles with respect to their calls to ministry.
The turning point: A new course
It was in this context that I decided in 1972 to offer a new course, “Women and Ministry in the New Testament.” I cannot be sure, but I think this was the first such New Testament course offered in any seminary in the USA. (That year, by the way, Rosemary Radford Ruether offered the first course on feminist theology at Harvard Divinity School.)
The course I offered (taken at that time by virtually all men) was, in retrospect, the turning point in my professional and personal life. It preceded the 1974 founding of the EWC and the 1974 work of Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty (3) and the 1975 work of Paul King Jewett. (4) Obviously, the issue was being addressed by many at the same time.
This course put me on the “lecture circuit” in New England. All of that then blossomed into wider participation in the issues of women and ministry in the New Testament and the church in our time. I would like to comment on the subsequent history of my course, lecturing, publications and involvement with ecclesiastical bodies on the issue.
Growing outreach of the course
This Fall Quarter (2006) at Fuller Theological Seminary I will teach my course (retitled in 1989 to “Women, the Bible and the Church,” in order to signify the hermeneutical and contemporary aspects of the course) for the twenty-ninth time. I have taught it at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, North Park Theological Seminary and North Park College (half of these courses were team-taught with Jeannette), Whitley College (the Baptist seminary in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), and at Fuller Theological Seminary. This course has enriched my own life and has confirmed for me that these commitments are part of my understanding of the gospel. I have grown in my knowledge and in my understanding of women and their struggles in life and in the church. The course has also influenced hundreds of students who, in turn, have become stronger advocates for the full participation of women in ministry.
Over the years, this course has undergone many changes, both with respect to the changes in churches and society and in the way I teach it. (5)
More women in the course. One of the most obvious changes over the years is the increase in the number of women taking this course (as the number of women in seminaries rose). Women currently constitute about 80% of the students in my course, out of a total enrollment of about 80 persons each time I teach it.
Less tension and animosity. Another set of significant changes has to do with the social contexts of our culture. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, the tensions in the evangelical community over the place of women in the church’s ministry were very high and often strongly contentious. That climate meant that the course was sometimes a “battleground” between and among different factions of students. Although there is still very strong resistance to the full participation of women in ministry in many quarters, the “divide” between the positions has settled into a type of “peaceful coexistence.”
Women’s oppression and biblical interpretation. I have also become increasingly convinced that the social context of the oppression of and violence against women has deeply affected, often indirectly, the discussion of the biblical texts about men and women. Thus, I now have written on sexual abuse (6) and the Bible and bring this data into the classroom for lecture and discussion. It is very relevant, especially since many of my women students have been victims of sexual abuse within families and within the church. It is a significant part of my course now (but was not in the early years) to talk about this and the whole range of discriminations against women in our culture and other cultures and how these factors influence the way that we read and interpret the biblical texts about women. This is a point that makes Traditionalists and Complementarians “worry” about the biblical faithfulness of Egalitarians, but such worry stems from a misunderstanding of how our social locations affect the ways in which we read and interpret the Bible.
More emphasis on history. Further, I have in my course substantially increased attention to the roles that women have played in the church throughout history. Although this does not determine the exegetical meaning of texts, it does open our eyes to the way texts have been interpreted and gives us insights on how we might and should read texts. Also, I have emphasized increasingly the number of writings, by men and especially by women, before 1900 that have defended the full participation of women in ministry. This “answers” to a genuine degree that oft-repeated charge that Egalitarians today are simply an aspect of the modern feminist movement. Rather, I have learned by further study the depth of the biblical and historical roots of the Egalitarian position.
More emphasis on hermeneutics. I have also increased the emphasis in my course on hermeneutics. In general, what I have argued is that nothing in the New Testament itself tells us which is the most important or “controlling” text on women in ministry. Rather, this decision becomes a hermeneutical one, attempting to assess the context of each passage and its role in biblical teaching and seeking a balance of all (not simply a selective group of) texts. Further, one needs hermeneutical skills to assess the cultural contexts of passages written in first-century culture, in which, generally speaking, women were considered inferior, subordinate, not worthy of education and suited only to domestic responsibilities. I have developed and published over the years guidelines for assessing cultural relativity in New Testament texts (on all issues, not just women in ministry).
Rearranging the debated texts. I have also changed the organization of the New Testament texts since I first taught the course. Initially, “controlled” by the debate at the time (when all seemed to rest on 1 Timothy 2), I began my course there. After treating 1 Timothy 2, I then divided texts into what I called the “negative” and “positive” texts, putting 1 Corinthians 11 in the negative category. As time went by, and I reflected more deeply on what I was doing, it came to me very strongly that there was no good reason to start with 1 Timothy 2; that was an agenda set by the Traditionalists, not by the New Testament. In time, I have come to organize the course with attention to Jesus and women first, then women in Acts and then Paul’s affirmation of women (Galatians 3; 1 Corinthians 7; 1 Corinthians 11 [realizing that verses 5, 10 and 11-12 made this a “positive” text] and Paul’s women coworkers. Then I deal with only two texts which appear to limit women’s ministry—1 Corinthians 14, which must be reconciled with 1 Corinthians 11, and then 1 Timothy 2, which is really a very problematic text (I have written extensively on this as have many other Egalitarian scholars). I should say that I also at the beginning of the course deal extensively with Genesis 1-3, which is foundational, and give a very brief review of women in Israel’s history.
First century cultural context. I also now spend considerable time in my course on women in both Second Temple Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. We go through about fifty primary texts in class, which gives students a reasonable grounding in the cultural realities for women of the first century of the common era and how most men perceived them. This is an essential component of exegetical and hermeneutical work on the New Testament. I also have students read the primary text collections of early Christian literature and the comments of the Church Fathers on women as collected by E. A. Clark and P. C. Miller.
Appreciating Judaism. One particular issue to which I have given increasing attention is the oft-repeated Jewish charge that Christian feminism is a new form of anti-Semitism, by making Jesus the Christian hero who liberates women from oppressive Judaism. I have, thus, given attention to the accomplishments and positive roles of women in Second Temple Judaism before I cover the negative views of men toward women. Further, I have argued (in print) that Jesus is a hero to both Jews and Christians.
Spreading Christian feminism
The lecture circuit really began for me in 1972. The first event I recall was an invitation to speak on these issues at the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship group at Brown University. About 150 students were present. At the end of my presentation the floor was open for questions; the first man who spoke began by saying: “Dr. Scholer, just assume for a moment that you were a Christian, how would you respond….” This set the stage for most of my speaking in the 1970s. In those years I debated the issues with Robert Sproul, John Gerstner and others; subsequently, I was in debates with James Hurley, Douglas Moo, Wayne Grudem and others. I did find a wonderful and warm welcome within the EWC and spoke at most of the national gatherings through about 1990 or so. When the CBE (Christians for Biblical Equality) was founded, I also became a speaker at most of their national gatherings for some years. I spoke in a wide variety of churches, ecclesiastical bodies and academic contexts, all of which, I deeply hope, helped the cause. In 1984, Stan Grenz, Cathy Kroeger, and I organized a major conference in Oak Brook, IL, with many distinguished speakers. (7)
I also undertook two major lecture trips to Australia. The first in March 1985 grew out of an invitation I received from three Australian Anglican women who had attended the EWC 1984 meeting at Wellesley, two of whom are still living and are dear friends (Rosemary Christmas and Marlene Hickin). In March 1985, I spoke over 35 times in 12 days in the Sydney area, including a major lecture at Macquarie University at the invitation of Professor Edwin A. Judge. In 1989, I was in Australia for nearly two months; I taught at Whitley College (noted above) and lectured about 75 other times (often with Jeannette) in churches and seminaries in Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, and Canberra. It appears that this bore some visible fruit within Anglican and Baptist life in Australia.
Writing for Daughters of Sarah
My first little publication was in Daughters of Sarah in 1975 (and was the beginning of a wonderful friendship with Lareta Halteman Finger). (8) This is not the place to comment much on my 75 modest articles and reviews on these issues, but I am grateful to have had the opportunities to write a little. I believe I subsequently had four more articles in Daughters of Sarah, the most significant of which was the 1980 article on Paul’s women co-workers, which was one of the earliest presentations of this line of argument. (9) I think that one of my most crucial, influential and debated (among Complementarians) article was “Feminist Hermeneutics and Evangelical Biblical Interpretation,” which was first given as an invited (to my great surprise) paper at the 1986 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. (10) Also very often quoted are my articles on Jesus and women and on the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9-15. (11)
Opportunities with many groups
In the course of my professional life I became deeply involved with these issues in my own denomination, the American Baptist Churches USA, as well as in other ecclesiastical bodies. Within the ABCUSA, I was a major author of the official denominational Policy Statement on “Women and Men as Partners in Society” and was active in the ABC Women in Ministry group from its inception (in the early years I was the only man in attendance). The Women in Ministry office published in 1986 a pamphlet of mine entitled A Biblical Basis for Equal Partnership: Women and Men in the Ministry of the Church (2d ed., 1997), of which there are over 50,000 copies in circulation within (and beyond) the denomination. In 1989, I did a six session video series with Myrna Grant entitled “Partners in the Gospel: Women in the Church’s Ministry,” produced and directed by Jeannette and distributed through Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In 1988, shortly after the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) voted to ordain women, I was employed by this denomination to be one of the coauthors (along with three Covenant leaders) of the official denominational position paper, A Biblical Basis for Women in Ministry. The ECC also published several articles of mine on these themes in their denomination journals, Covenant Companion andCovenant Quarterly.
Of course, the 1985 and 1989 lecture tours in Australia indirectly contributed to discussions on the ordination of women in both Australian Baptist and Australian Anglican life. One of my articles was reprinted in 1990 in an official United Pentecostal Church International (Hazelwood, Missouri) volume. (12) In 2004, the Church of God, Anderson, IN, reprinted one of my articles in their official statement on women and ordination in that denomination. (13)
In recent years I have received three awards for my contributions to the issues of women in ministry: The American Baptist Women in Ministry (2001; at which occasion I was their first male main speaker), the Fuller Seminary Women’s Concerns Committee (2004) and the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus (2004). These honors have meant very much to me.
This has been a long reflection; I realize how embarrassed I am in talking this much in positive terms about myself. I must hope that the sharing of our personal stories is a way of encouraging and bonding with one another; we have much at stake in the long road toward genuine equality for women and men in the church.
I hope, too, that what I have said is a witness to the gospel, its power and its purpose for women especially, who have been for too long marginalized in the very church for which Christ gave his witness and life. The Pauline (as one of my students once said: “I have had enough of Paul; I want to meet Pauline!”) vision of Galatians 3:28— the text used in the ordination sermon of Antoinette Brown in 1853, the first woman ordained in the USA in a recognized denomination—continues to be a critical beacon light of and for the gospel.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).
1. I have written other articles on this topic, on which this article draws, although this is a thoroughly new piece. The previous ones are: “Participation in the Issues of Women and Ministry in the New Testament,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 15 (1988), 101-08; “Past, Present, Promise: What I’ve Learned in Forty Years about Women in Ministry,” Priscilla Papers 16:4 (Fall 2002), 12-15, reprinted as “What I’ve Learned About Women In Ministry,” Christian Ethics Today 9:34 (October 2003), 14-18; and “Women in the New Testament: A History of and Reflection on My Course of 34 Years,” E-Quality (an online journal; forthcoming in late 2006). back to text
2. The Bible and the Role of Women: A Case Study in Hermeneutics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958). back to text
3. All We’re Meant to Be (Waco: Word, 1974). back to text
4. Man As Male and Female (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1975); Virginia Mollenkott’s Women, Men, & the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon) appeared in 1977. back to text
5. These reflections are very similar to those I have written for the unpublished article “Women in the New Testament: A History of and Reflection on My Course of 34 Years,” E-Quality (noted above). back to text
6. “The Evangelical Debate over Biblical ‘Headship,’” in Women, Abuse and the Bible, ed. C. C. Kroeger and J. R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996). back to text
7. The results were published as Women, Authority & the Bible, ed. A. Mickelsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986). back to text
8. “Exegesis: 1 Timothy 2:8-15,” Daughters of Sarah 1:4 (May 1975), 7-8. back to text
9. The 1980 article was “Paul’s Women Co-Workers in the Ministry of the Church,” Daughters of Sarah 6:4 (July/August 1980), 3-6 (reprinted in various revised forms four times). This article and one other (on Perpetua) from the Daughters of Sarah included in the 2001 anthology The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of Christian Feminism, ed. R. Finger and K. Sandhaas (Philadelphia: Innisfree, 2001). back to text
10. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30 (1987), 407-20; reprinted twice. back to text
11. “I Timothy 2:9-15 & the Place of Women in the Church’s Ministry,” in Women, Authority & the Bible, ed. A. Mickelsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987 [reprinted twice]); and “ Women,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green and S. McKnight (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992 [reprinted once]). back to text
12. Symposium on Oneness Pentecostalism 1988 and 1989 (Hazelwood: Word Aflame Press, 1990). back to text
13. Go, Preach My Gospel, ed. J. Flynn (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2004). back to text
Ed. Note: Knowing that EEWC members have been prayerfully concerned about David’s health, I asked if he would like to give us an update. He replied that his “cancer remains incurable but is presently stable.” He and his sermon on living with cancer were discussed in a feature article in the Los Angeles Times October 22, 2005, page B2. The sermon was published in Perspectives 21:1 (January 2006), pp.9-13.
Or you can hear David deliver the sermon at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, by clicking on “Living with Cancer” in the Guest Minister section of http://sermons.lmharnisch.com.
David M. Scholer is Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, a position he has held since 1994. Since 1997, he has also held the position of Associate Dean for the Center for Advanced Theological Studies in the School of Theology at Fuller. David and Jeannette are longtime members of EEWC.
Editor’s note: Dr. Scholer died on August 22, 2008.
© 2006 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, volume 30, number 2, Summer (July-September 2006