Should a woman study at seminary? I’ve seen the question raised quite a bit over the past few months for various reasons. Some of that reason, of course, is the fault of “Christian” feminists who will always try to scrabble their way into a pulpit to cross-dress as a pastor. But what about women who have no designs on the pastoral office and still wish to learn theology? Is seminary a legitimate option?
Unfortunately, most of the commentary I’ve seen on that question has been hot garbage because it was oblivious to a very basic point: “Should a woman study at seminary” is not the same question as “Should a woman learn more about God’s Word.” Learning more about God’s Word is good. Learning more about God’s Word specifically through a formal degree program at a school dedicated to training pastors is not always good. There are a multitude of ways to learn more about God’s Word: the Divine Service, sermons, Sunday school, Bible study, reading great works of theology, engaging in conversations with learned Christians, listening to podcasts, asking your husband at home, and many more. Some are more appropriate than others in different contexts, and only some bear a specific command from God. (Please note that the most offensive entry on the list is one of the specific commands from God.)
Nevertheless, the question piqued my interest because I myself studied at seminary without any intention of becoming a pastor, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunity. Now, I could write about what a seminary education offers and analyze how useful that is to women given their different callings. (That is how I first began writing this, so maybe I’ll post that another time.) But instead, I decided to address it with a story about why seminary was such a positive experience for me and the most important thing I learned there.
When I enrolled at seminary, I had second career plans. I wanted to leave IT behind and teach philosophy in college from a Christian perspective. Christian philosophy had played a big role in God bringing me back to His Church after I had wandered off during high school and college. I wanted to share that gift with others, and I wanted to do so where it was most needed–those spiritual charnel-houses we call universities.
However, I knew delving deep into philosophy is a very effective way of getting “weird” theologically. So I wanted to do some formal study of sound theology first so that I would have a foundation and anchor when delving into philosophy. One of my church body’s seminaries seemed like the ideal place to begin. Then it would be on to a philosophy program. By the time I finally achieved a tenured position, I would have credentials, position, status, and the tools I needed to perform a great and mighty work on behalf of Jesus Christ.
Step one in my plan went swimmingly. I loved my time at seminary. I studied under some excellent professors, read a lot of great works of theology, and delved deeper into Scriptures than I ever had before. Apologetics and ethics were my big interests, and I encountered inexhaustible wisdom in God’s Word and the Church’s traditions to fuel my engagement with those interests. What I gained at seminary is priceless beyond words.
But I also lost something at seminary; and that loss proved to be even more valuable. Like everyone else born in the past 50 years, I had been raised to despise the idea of having children. I was taught that pregnancy was an STD to be avoided at all costs. I was taught that education and career came first, and children were an optional add-on for when you’re too old to do anything interesting. I was taught to love mammon–money, big vacations, nice restaurants, leisure, etc.–and knew that children would eat away at my precious mammon. For all these reasons and more, I “knew” that children were a hinderance. And especially as one now intending to be a high-minded intellectual–to be “great”–it was a hinderance I didn’t want and couldn’t afford.
But the more I studied God’s Word and broadened my view beyond the modern world, the more I realized how alien my hatred of family truly was. Alien to God’s word. Even alien to humanity. At seminary, God taught me that my ideas of greatness were horribly wrong.
At the same time, the Lutheran doctrine of vocation helped me to understand where greatness truly lies. I, of course, had already heard Jesus’ teaching that the one who would be greatest of all must be the servant of all. That’s why my big plan was a plan to serve others! But I was operating under the faulty American notion that service is self-chosen. I had been told my whole life that I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up, and I believed it. So of course I aimed for the mode of service I found most appealing.
But that’s not what servants do. Servants are given tasks by their master. They have agency, but that agency is within their master’s priorities, not their own. I had made my plans, but what did my Master actually command of me? Radical Lutherans might disdain that question, but every Christian has asked it. And nobody reading the Lutheran Confessions could avoid finding answers. A faithful student could hardly read Luther’s critiques of monasticism and all of its mighty self-chosen works like vows of celibacy & outwardly pious rituals and not draw the connection to his own choices. I had not been called to celibacy–I was already married–but I had chosen barrenness. The very first thing God ever told humanity to do was to be fruitful and multiply, but I had “bigger” plans than that.
That’s not service. There wasn’t anything wrong with my aspirations per se. But my plan was not a plan for greatness in God’s eyes. My idea of service had more to do with myself than anything else.
The year following graduation–when I was applying to philosophy programs and taking some undergrad classes at a local college–was when God finally hit me with the choice. Biology provides us with hard limitations, and the fertility window is one of those. This was my plan for a second career, and my wife and I were nearing the end of that window. If we wanted children, that was the only time left. But how would I financially support a family? I had a reliable means, but it wasn’t five years of a PhD program followed by however many years it would take me to find a tenure-track position in a glutted field. It was my paused career in IT.
So I put what I had learned at seminary to good use: I abandoned my plan in favor of God’s instructions. I let go of my dream of greatness in favor of God’s and truly serve. And in raising the children God has given me since, my only regret is my stubborn and ignorant delay in getting started. I absolutely love my sons and would not trade them for anything under the sun. The vocation of father has taken a lot of getting used to, but it was never beneath me the way I had been taught. The world gave me the unappealing idea of raising generic, faceless children, but that never matched the reality of raising my children that God gave me. God’s plan was even a greater blessing to me than mine was.
So my time at seminary was not wasted because it irrevocably changed my life for the better. And I do still use my degree–as a teacher & elder at my local church and as a father doing his best to catechize his children. While I may not read or write as much as I once hoped to, I still do both. And fatherhood has shaped my writing in ways that academic study never could have. So God didn’t just leave my preferred kind of work by the wayside.
So to any women considering studying at seminary because you have big dreams of serving God in ways the world esteems, consider first what He has actually asked of you. Family is the clear vocational priority for the vast majority of men, but that is doubly emphasized and doubly obvious in Scripture for women.
God wants you to learn–quietly in all submissiveness. But instead of using that learning to teach men in the church, he wants you to be saved through childbearing. But he does have a teaching role for you: “training younger women to love their husbands, be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands.” He has asked you to help manage your husband’s household with skill and grace. He wants you to teach your children about His Word and raise them in the faith. This is the greatness to which the vast majority of women (and almost certainly you) are called.
Do you truly believe a seminary education is the best way to achieve these far greater works than the ones you have planned for yourself? Or perhaps the myriad of other ways God has given you to sit at His feet and learn His Word are far better suited to your calling. It was only due to stubborn ignorance and worldly influence that I needed seminary to learn that. Why would you need seminary to learn that?