Living on the Boundaries

  • Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Christine D. Pohl
  • Feb 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl, Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism and the Theological Academy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005. $18.00. 203 pp. pap. ISBN-10 0-8308-2665-3, ISBN-13 978-0-8303-2665-0.

When a student kindly gave me this book as a gift, I put it near the top of my always too long �soon to read� pile of books at home. When a colleague mentioned on her blogsite that it had become a very interesting and helpful book to her, too, I put it on the top of the pile. When I began to read it this Saturday morning, I realized that I had no choice but to rearrange my entire weekend�s schedule, so that I could finish it and review it at once. It is that important!

Creegan is Lecturer in Theology at the Bible College of New Zealand in Auckland. Pohl is Professor of Church in Society at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Both women were roommates together as students at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the mid-1980s. Creegan went on to complete her doctorate at Drew; Pohl at Emory. From the autobiographical information shared in the preface and opening chapter, Pohl would appear to be single, while Creegan went on to marry and have two sons.

The wide-ranging chapters deal with a whole host of crucial topics for reflection by all who would consider themselves evangelicals, feminists or theological students, educators or administrators. The bulk of the information derives from questionnaires returned by more than ninety women who hold (or held) tertiary-level academic positions in the fields of theology, biblical studies, church history, ethics or missions and who identified themselves (or once identified themselves) as evangelicals. Another twenty-five or so interviews were conducted face-to-face at academic conferences, and a number of those women were interviewed longitudinally. Many of the responses are reprinted verbatim, without attribution, throughout the book, which is also lightly documented in footnotes referring to additional, published materials.

Why did one group of women abandon identifying with evangelicalism? For a few, the step was taken due to genuine theological change at the core of their beliefs, often during doctoral studies. For a significant number, it stemmed from the feeling that, although their core beliefs remained consistent with the historical verities of Christianity, the term had come to include positions with which they did not identify, most importantly a complementarian or patriarchal or even patronizing approach to gender roles. Some preferred to identify with a denominational tradition that included a broad theological spectrum from conservative to liberal, rather than with a term that automatically suggested (however wrongly) conservative socio-political as well as theological perspectives. Many were now willing to embrace the term �feminist,� some because they had truly adopted an approach to theology and Biblical studies like that of Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza or Rosemary Radford Reuther, which did not accept the authority of the entire canon but only of those portions of it believed to be liberating. Many accepted �feminism� only when they became aware of more conservative forms of feminism, including a group like Christians for Biblical Equality. Others rejected the term because of the negative associations it had in the particular circles in which they operated, preferring to speak of �egalitarianism� instead. Among women who �left� evangelicalism, some believed that no rapprochement between evangelicals and feminists was possible. Others acknowledged viable possibilities but simply declined to adopt them. Of those who �stayed,� a much larger number �lived on the boundaries,� struggling spiritually, as well as intellectually, as they tried to position themselves in both worlds. A much smaller number deemed the exercise impossible and remained evangelical while rejecting feminism altogether.

The largest portion of the book deals with the ambivalences and tensions which women professors in the evangelical theological academy face. This might involve having to decide how to respond to such thoughtless invitations as a hostess at a social gathering requesting all the women to join her in the kitchen for domestic work, when all the other female guests are faculty wives, not professors. Or it could mean having to decide whether to try to fit in or to help reform an institution�s criteria for tenure and rank advancement which requires a quantity of scholarship and publication that is humanly impossible for anyone whose circumstances require her to be the primary nurturer of her children (and perhaps caretaker for an elderly parent) as well as teaching full-time and carrying out all of her other institutional responsibilities. Additional conundra include: what does one do when it becomes clear that, despite institutional policies that allowed a female theology professor to be hired, a double standard is employed so that she is not given the same opportunities within the system�s infrastructure as male colleagues? What does she do when she discerns that numerous younger students (women and men alike) are more conservative than her (older) colleagues and less willing to grant her the authority and right to teach than her peers? What about those many circumstances where she is denied access to that which an institution�s policies in theory grant, so that it becomes clear it is a matter of who holds power, rather than a given interpretation of the Bible, that forms the real barrier to the full exercise of her gifts?

Or, turning to struggles with the larger world outside of evangelicalism, what about the umbrella organizations like the American Academy of Religion or the Society of Biblical Literature that have, on the one hand, spearheaded so much affirmative action for women and minorities, while at the same time marginalizing and caricaturing evangelicals, including women and minority evangelicals? A woman who identifies with both evangelical and feminist thought might imagine herself uniquely positioned to be welcomed and have significant influences in the larger evangelical and/or feminist worlds. Instead, most of the time she finds herself marginalized in both! Most liberal or secular feminists have very little accurate information about the breadth and diversity of evangelicalism, including the significant strand of evangelical egalitarianism of the last century and a half, but the same is true of many evangelicals! Little do many twenty-first century conservatives realize that nineteenth-century feminism sprang largely from the efforts of courageous evangelicals, both men and women. Instead, we continue to hear people parrot the inaccurate mantra that being a feminist is just being �politically correct� or keeping in step with late twentieth-century secularizing trends. (Creegan and Pohl could have gone on to mention churches and schools like the Evangelical Free Church of America or Moody Bible Institute that once promoted the ordination of women and then reversed their positions in light of the polarizing fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s.) And how do women scholars point out these true historical facts (or their contemporary counterparts, like the conservative retrenchment that has not stopped lurching rightward in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979) without being branded too �liberal� theologically or too �pushy� personality-wise?

An important motif unifying this volume is concern for the next generation of women evangelical theological educators. How will they be raised up? How will they be encouraged? What will keep them from burning out and not wanting to engage in these conversations any more, as has happened too often in the current generation? The role of supportive mentors remains crucial, including male mentors, at least as long as the demographics of gender remain as lopsided as they do. Men have to find ways to get over their fear of temptation (or even what it might �look like� to others) and take on younger women as protégés. What about diverse teaching styles? Many women professors in the academy today have consciously opted for a more nurturing interactive style in the classroom, at least in part to counterbalance what they believed was too much straight lecture, or rationalizing intellectualism, from their male colleagues, past or present. Now, younger students, women and men alike, perhaps due to an overdose of the latter in their educational careers are calling for more �hard content� (and, though our authors don�t say it, my experience with the same criticism of my more creative attempts at interactive classes would lead me to add, due to the �big bucks� the students are having to shell out for their education!).

Moreover, what does one do with the concept of call? Many churches and schools have historically stressed, perhaps even overstressed, the admittedly subjective arena of a theological professional needing to have a strong sense of God guiding him or her into a particular ministry. But then when women emerge, announcing that they have experienced precisely such a call to certain positions of theological leadership, the reply may come back that they couldn�t have perceived that call rightly.

Then of course there is the anomaly of the local church. Many colleges, seminaries and other parachurch organizations are more open to hiring women for positions that include teaching Scripture than many churches are, even when those churches form the very heart of the constituency of the school or organization in question. Where are women students and professors to worship so that they see good models and good opportunities for their gifts to be exercised, including in the areas of preaching, teaching and pastoring? How are they to respond when the leadership of the churches they do attend contradicts what their schools promote, indeed what they themselves have taught from God�s word in their classrooms? As one of the women that Creegan and Pohl interviewed put it, �I cannot take my brain, my gender or my vocation to church, and there is not a lot left of me after that� (p. 120). The most common response to this dilemma to date has been that these women go to mainline denominations that allow them their voice and begin to lead them in more evangelical directions. As one of the women that Creegan and Pohl interviewed put it, �This shows that God has a sense of humor; the women rejected by evangelical churches may be the ones who largely evangelize the mainline churches� (p. 116)! But it gets tiring when the women feel that they have to take the battles they are fighting elsewhere in life to their places of worship as well.

The last major chapters of this book reflect on the problems raised from the perspective of the major categories of systematic theology. Obviously, human sin is at the heart of why so many women have suffered in the ways they have and, while the problem is by no means limited to men�s sins, men do need to accept a considerable proportion of the responsibility. One does not have to reject a high view of Scripture to be a feminist, indeed as the CBE and like-minded groups and individuals have demonstrated. It is possible even to be an inerrantist and an egalitarian without any necessary contradiction, as the handful of women in the Evangelical Theological Society demonstrates. But many more models are needed. If our understanding of redemption involves not merely an increasing restoration of pre-Fall perfections, but an anticipation of the even greater eschatological blessings of new heavens and new earth, then we should be working to demonstrate more and more of those realities within the community of God�s people right now in this world. And no definable, orthodox theological perspective has ever argued that gender distinctions will lead to any kind of hierarchy in the eschaton! We can celebrate differences without perpetuating discriminatory distinctions. Our authors discuss the whole vexed problem of inclusive language for deity, noting that even as we may choose to retain the masculine pronoun and image of Father for God, we need not shy away from highlighting the maternal metaphors for deity used throughout Scripture. And surely we ought to be able to agree on gender inclusive language for humanity (though sadly we haven�t yet).

A short concluding chapter recapitulates many of the points made and offers a wonderful catalogue of practical suggestions for men and women working together in the evangelical theological academy. Most of these are commonsensical even if sometimes rare; many of them stress simply the need for continual gestures of encouragement for women who have to endure too many discouraging stimuli as it is. From a curricular perspective, the most important step faculty can take is to keep a balanced, courteous discussion of these issues ever in front of their students, while modeling Christian love, even when they at times agree to disagree with each other on subordinate issues.

For a male complementarian to review such a book and not stop at this point, but actually go on to offer some critique, is to step into a minefield that sane persons probably would avoid. But I think I lost that reputation a long time ago, so I press on! Nothing in the closing paragraphs of this review should be interpreted as adding anything but very small caveats to what overall is an extraordinarily good, timely and persuasive volume that I hope will garner a wide audience.

My first comment is not really even a caveat, just another affirmation, namely, that male evangelical theological academics share many of the same feelings of marginalization by the larger academy and confusion about calling. For many years I thought God had called me to be an evangelical voice in the liberal or secular academy, but those doors never opened. Many male baby boomers were refused employment in the American university world years ago because we were evangelicals (and, if they were racial or ethnic minorities, because they were not white); today evangelicals are too often refused employment today in the same contexts more if they are both white and male. Likewise, it is often very frustrating for male evangelical academics to find churches in which they feel they really fit, especially if they represent that borderland variously labeled �liberal evangelical,� �progressive,� �neo-evangelical� or �post-evangelical.� They are still far too conservative for true liberals, but dangerously suspect in the eyes of more conservative evangelicals. On occasion, they wind up being fired by their academic institutions for similar reasons and then have to face the triple hurdle of finding employment in the university world, despite being white, male and evangelical. Indeed, some women have explicitly told me this is why they would like strict equality. They hate feeling that some of their successes might come at the expense of opportunities for men and wonder if some of the animosity between the genders isn�t perpetuated by �reverse discrimination.�

Second, while I am fully in favor of men encouraging, mentoring and hiring budding women scholars and have tried myself to be an active participant in all of these activities over the years, I doubt that many women realize how difficult these tasks are. More conservative men and women criticize us, too, for our commitments, while the women who are grateful for them unfortunately and often unintentionally can send us frustratingly mixed signals. Some repeatedly insist when asked that everything is proceeding smoothly, only to decide later that they want to complain about mistreatment. A professional counselor shared with me not long ago that two different missions organizations� executives independently told him that their ministries were seriously contemplating a higher age requirement for single, female missionary appointees, because they were at an impasse as to how to support younger unmarried women who consistently reported that everything was going fine on the field, only to return home with bitter complaints about what was and wasn�t done to help them overseas. Some would resolutely support affirmative action but then change their minds if the best woman we can find and hire turns out not to be �good enough� in those areas of her job description that they most value. Some lobby vocally for being evaluated by just as stringent a set of standards as are applied to male students or professors, until those evaluations point out certain inadequacies or failures. Then we can be berated for being insensitive to the distinctive needs of women and to their differences from men. (The solution, it seems to me, is for institutions to revise their criteria for job evaluations, tenure and rank advancement so that they are flexible enough to cover all kinds of unique situations for men and women alike as they progress through stages of life, including though scarcely limited to maternity leave policies for women faculty who have children.) I do not dispute that men�s insensitivities to gender role issues can greatly exacerbate these problems; I have learned that the hard way, through trial and error myself, and I doubt that I have made my last mistakes ever! I would just respectfully request that the women who value the support and encouragement that we want to give them would give us the benefit of the doubt when they wonder about our motives, a large dose of forgiveness when we do blow it, and the same kind of encouragement they so much appreciate when we get it right. Praise the Lord that Denver Seminary, far more often than not, is precisely such a place where I have experienced this.

As the product of a liberal Lutheran upbringing in the 1960s and 70s, I just missed living through the end of the old era of conservative Lutheran pietism and historic adherence to the major tenets of Luther�s theology among the vast majority of American Lutherans. The young pastor, fairly fresh from seminary, and the young interns (including one woman) that came to our church during the 1960s exposed me to much more liberal than conservative theology. When I went off to a Lutheran liberal arts college for undergraduate study, all five of our religion department�s professors, all ordained, white Lutheran men noticeably older than me, could rightly insist that the exclusively liberal theology they taught was redressing the imbalance of the decades of conservative theology that previously prevailed. What none of them seemed to grasp was that for many eighteen-year olds in 1973 what was needed was some historic Lutheran orthodoxy to balance out the predominantly liberal thought we �kids� had grown up with.

It will be interesting to see how the potentially parallel phenomenon plays out in the area of evangelicals and gender roles. Although they are still in the decided minority, an increasing number of younger students come to my classes every year blithely unaware that gender roles has even been the issue it has to the extent that it has in the history of the Christian church. In a growing number of evangelical contexts, especially among younger people, many trends point in the direction of what not too many years ago was a complemetarian majority soon being supplanted, if it hasn�t been already, by an egalitarian majority. I have no problem with that whatsoever, so long as complementarian voices aren�t silenced in the name of �but we�ve heard plenty of that in past years.� For any given student, for example, all she or he experiences is the short span of time she or he is with a given institution. Will every year�s student body sense a balanced presentation on the topic of gender roles during whatever period of time they are with that school?

Ironically, if a complementarian interpretation of Scripture is right, then the men who hold that view have no excuse for not implementing almost everything for which Creegan and Pohl, as egalitarians, so articulately argue. For it is the complementarian position that regularly stresses that the church is modeled on and parallel in structure to the home, and that Ephesians 5:21-33 contains timeless, absolute commands that cannot be disregarded. One of those commands is for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself sacrificially for her to purify her and present her unblemished to God. By analogy, then, male church leaders should love the women in their charges to such a degree that they bend over backwards to encourage them to utilize their gifts and talents to the fullest in every dimension of Christian life they can possibly justify. The telling criterion for me in any church or parachurch organization, complementarian or egalitarian, is not what the actual, written policies are, but if the leaders of the church are striving as hard as possible within the constraints of their policies, to encourage the involvement of gifted, women teachers and leaders, or whether the actual ethos and opportunities in the given context are considerably more restrictive than what the policies theoretically permit. Sadly, the latter seems far more often the case than the former. Equally ironically, egalitarian interpretations either relativize or redefine the biblical headship taught in this passage with hermeneutical or lexical improbabilities, which, if as consistently applied to Paul�s instruction to men as to his instruction to women, could jeopardize the timelessness of the very commands to love others as much as self, on which the biblical feminist agenda depends.

Creegan�s and Pohl�s work will hardly be the last word on the topic. But it represents many crucial words that need to be read, heard and discussed widely. I would recommend it as an absolute must-read for everyone who envisions working with either men or women in their ministries (which I hope means all of us!).

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
February 2006