Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

Photo by MART PRODUCTION on Pexels.com

This is a question that’s been haunting me. My writing, publishing, and speaking were born out of both a desire and struggle to learn about discipleship in adulthood. I had some basic questions as a young adult:

If I’m going to take this being a Christian thing seriously, what does that look like?

If Christianity is true, what can I hold fast to when I don’t want to act like one?

And how do I grow into maturity?

In seeking answers to these questions, other women resonated with my curiosity and I was asked to teach a women’s Bible study. Of course, the beautiful answer turns our eyes to knowing and communing with the triune God. In this time, I experienced the thrill of discovering theology, a group of thinking women who ask the hard questions, and our joy in growth together. But this excitement came crashing down when the pastor revealed in a flippant comment that his expectations for our learning were lower than the theological questions we had. After all, we were the women’s Bible study. Keep doing your nice learning over there. Wink.

Where does a thinking woman in the church go to be discipled? Turns out we capped out.

I could tell numerous more stories about this quest and how it was squelched over and over. I know many of you reading this right now can too. My loneliness as a thinking woman in the church led me to write. Each book I wrote was another step in trying to make sense of what I was seeing/experiencing and asking the theological questions behind it. They trace a sort of bildungsroman of a woman disciple trying to find a space and communicate in the church. Ultimately, I was a searching for beauty, significance, and where our true longings are meant.

True Community and False Belonging

I’ve learned some things about true community and false belonging in this process. My work made visible what was lurking behind the platitudes stating the equal value of men and women in the church. While outwardly, the church says it values the woman’s voice, it’s governing principles often shut it out. The difficulty of a woman trying to think and communicate in complementarian spaces turns out to be because she is in the boy’s room. But I also learned that the Lord uses this very challenge as a backdrop to get my attention and reveal that discipleship is more than I ever imagined—it is a participation in the covenantal, spousal union with Christ. That keeps me going. That’s the good stuff. And it cannot be taken away.

Ostensibly, we hold to our creeds, explaining what Scripture teaches on first order doctrines. We have this standard for orthodoxy. And various denominations hold to different confessions within this orthodoxy, from which we can worship together, be discipled, and speak out of in more detail about what we confess.

Ostensibly, the Reformed community wants to be identified by their confessions. But if you think that gives you freedom in belonging you quickly find there is more you must subscribe to in order to have the hand of fellowship.

Christians are to be a loving community—it’s our greatest commandment! We are to love our God and love one another. It is how we are to be known! This is where true community can be found. Love, truth, beauty, and goodness are what we commune in—hold in common. In that, we see one another as gift, and give one another our freedom in belonging. Freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened as we grow in holiness. This sounds like a good picture of discipleship.

And yet, over and over I experience a false belonging in contrast to genuine community. These freedoms turn out to be a mirage for those of us who to hold these truths dear while strengthening and stretching our thinking within these bounds. The invisible fences zap us. They are the implicit creeds one must subscribe to regarding when we can talk, what we can say, and what we are to think. In order to have fellowship, you must navigate the invisible fences. Many of these are intermingled with cultural mores. And we are told what to think instead of encouraged in how to think. That’s not discipleship.

Still, Where Do We Find This?

You should go to seminary. 

You should get your M.Div.

Or, why not work on your PhD and teach?

Yes, that’s what Paul said to Lydia.

Ok, I’ll stop it with the anachronism.

This is an excellent path for many men and women. And I appreciate the encouragement. I’ve thought about it. I learn so much from the work of academics. I am thankful not only for the access that I have to their published work, but to the many relationships I’ve built with them and the ways they have shaped me. But I’ve always seen my own work to represent the regular thinking women who also want to be discipled conversation partners in both the local and broader church. Lay contributions are valuable. And I am thankful that many academics have shown me this too.

There seems to be a gap, especially for women who want to exercise theological vigor and growth in discipleship, between the pew and the academy. And this is where I feel like I’ve been given some opportunity in my writing and speaking. Just as men and women need one another’s insight, so do academics, pastors, and laypeople. Christian academia doesn’t exist merely to form a higher class of thinkers who talk amongst themselves. The whole point is for it to trickle down to the pews, right? In some ways, pastors are bridges to this gap. But we also need feet-on-the-ground lay disciples—ones who aren’t insulated in Christian culture bubbles—to speak from their experiences. After all, we make up most of the church!

I don’t think anyone wants the church to be outsourcing discipleship to the academy. In Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood I ask what happens in the church when it is no longer viewed by its members as the place and context in which they are discipled. It takes me back to my basic questions I was asking as a young adult. When churches do not reintroduce Christ’s teaching in light of the challenges of the secular culture, the challenges within the church itself, and the many questions of application that its men, women, and children have, then congregants look elsewhere for answers. Rather than church as the primary interpretive community, the whole approach to discipleship and Scripture reading can easily become untethered from the means God has given to his people.

Multiple parachurch organizations have stepped in to fill in this gap. But parachurch organizations don’t make disciples. Individual mentors do not make disciples. Christian celebrities certainly don’t make disciples. And PhD’s don’t make disciples. God makes disciples through the ministry and, as a fruit of that, through the men and women tradents in his church. I’m thankful for the academics in the bunch. Maybe I will even go that route one day. But, as my academic friends would agree, the academy is not the primary place of fellowship for Jesus’s students/disciples. The church is.

And as an informed laywoman, I want to encourage others that we aren’t meant to look outside the church when we don’t feel invested in as disciples, when we aren’t being trained well to mature in the faith, and when we are stifled in contributing as active traditioners and reciprocal voices. Something’s not right if we have to do this. We need churches without yellow wallpaper. We need true community with freedom in belonging to Christ. In that, we need to recover the theological meaning of our sexes, better understand our sexuality as gift, and grasp the eschatological story our bodies tell of Christ’s love for his church. Which is why I am calling for sexual reformation in the church.

13 thoughts on “Do Women Have to Go to Seminary to be Discipled?

  1. A. R. Stroud says:

    I graduated from a small conservative seminary last year. Their MDiv program is explicitly closed off to women. We have a mutual friend who received an MA from there and is now doing PhD work. A couple days ago a mutual friend recounted an anecdote of a conversation *about* her (not with her) between male faculty genuinely wondering why God would gift her so abundantly (i.e., intelligence, theological acumen, etc.). Tragic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. arstroud1992 says:

    We just heard an anecdote of faculty at the seminary I graduated from discussing the giftedness of a woman former student (not in the MDiv program, of course) with bewilderment. As in, “Why would God gift a woman this way?”

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  3. Mark Schaefer says:

    This isn’t just women. The church outsourced discipleship and pastoral training to seminaries. I find it ironic how strongly the Reformed churches defend the seminary system and the requirement that pastors have an MDiv despite the utter lack of any Biblical support.

    I think of it like an MBA. I wouldn’t discount someone as a company leader if they don’t have an MBA, and MBA is definitely a good way to learn basics about business. The idea that I can take a new college grad who’s never had a leadership role, pay for an MBA and make him CEO of a 200-person company pending a rigorous interview process of business basics is, however, ludicrous.

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  4. Guest27 says:

    I see three means of discipleship presented for women in the scriptures:
    1. The teaching and personal discipleship of the local church and its leaders
    2. A husband’s influence, if the woman is married and her husband is a believer (1 Corinthians 14:35a; Ephesians 5:26)
    3. Godly older women within the local church who disciple younger women in their Christian walk (Titus 2:4-5)

    I believe that the first one is the most important. I also believe that all of these must be supplemented with the woman’s own personal devotional life and commitment to studying and meditating on the scriptures.

    Unfortunately most, if not all three, of these means are neglected in many churches today. You are right, Aimee, when you warn people away from drifting to parachurch organizations to fill the gap in their discipleship. The local church needs to reclaim it’s responsibility to make disciples.

    I’m afraid that sometimes people make discipling into a “one size fits all” approach and expect it to work for all Christians. We are all at different points in our understanding of the gospel, and have unique gifts to use in the body of Christ. Praise God for the faithful shepherds who do see this need and are investing in all of their people to the glory of God. I have been blessed to have these types of leaders in my own life and Christian walk.

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  5. sloganwrf says:

    OF COURSE NOT!! NO ONE has “to go seminary to be discipled.” 

    Sam

    Sent from the all new AOL app for Android

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  6. Paul K says:

    I really connected with this. It’s not just women who have to write to find a place to think – I did the same thing when the topics I was thinking about were met with blank stares when I brought them up. I just wrote essays and posted them to Medium (not a book), but even that was incredibly helpful for me.

    The “invisible fences” you talk about remind me of Lewis’ “Inner Ring” essay. I had heard the idea summarized but the essay itself must be read – it’s remarkable. Another way of looking at these “fences” is through the idea of “information control” – pertinent and important information (unwritten rules) is deliberately withheld from members of a group in order to secure their loyalty – after that, then they get to find out how things really operate.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Bill says:

    Your questions are very important, and your ask them with great clarity and relevance! Press on, sister!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Cynthia W. says:

    It has never occurred to me in all my life, 55 years, that anything was preventing my “being discipled” as a Christian woman or that I need to go to a seminary for any reason. I don’t even get the locution “being discipled” as if I am the object of someone else’s action and agency. I think of “being a disciple,” the basic state of existence of any Christian person.

    I get the idea that some people find themselves in some peculiar milieux, and that getting out of it, like getting out of the La Brea Tar Pits, can be difficult to impossible. Best wishes, Aimee.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mark Schaefer says:

      Jesus spent about three years with his disciples, where he taught and modeled the Christian life for them. At the end, he said, “Go and make disciples”, not without context, but within the context of what they had experienced the prior three years. So, yes, in one sense, they actively attached themselves to Jesus and emulated him, but in another, they were the recipients of Jesus’s “action and agency”, since he knew best what they needed to grow.

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      1. Cynthia W. says:

        Good point. Maybe it’s just the jargon that seems so strange to me. We never read in the Bible that Jesus “discipled” people. Jesus told the apostles to “make disciples.” “Disciple” is a noun.

        “Being discipled” also seems to remove Jesus from the picture. If I am the object of the transitive verb “to disciple,” who is the subject, the person doing the action? If Jesus is the subject, then why is a pastor, author, or seminary necessary?

        In summary, I think this is a confusing or even misleading turn of phrase.

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  9. Yes. That’s the answer. At least ultimately. When we were in the non-denominational church, there was discipleship opportunities for women. When we joined the ARP church, I ended up going to BSF and being discipled there. When I wanted more, I ended up in seminary. I am on a slightly different path than you, Aimee, but it has been almost weird how closely aligned our paths are! I almost always connect deeply with what you are saying. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Zapped by the invisible fences tangled in cultural mores…yes. Aimee, there’s so much about your journey that resonates with me. I’ve read your last two books, listened to interviews, read the blogs… I continually well up with tears when things I’ve felt deep down are being articulated. This is a gift to me, thank you.

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  11. janelle marx says:

    I spent years yearning for a spiritual mentor to “disciple” me, an example of my subculture’s advocacy of experts teaching novices in all areas. The church seems to mirror the culture in forming structures to achieve strategic goals, and I felt that my needs were not being met since a program was not in place.
    God revealed my errant approach through scripture and prayer. His promise has always been that wholehearted seeking results in finding. Jesus removed all barriers and asked for union with the Father as he had, giving his Spirit to lead into all truth, equating abiding with love and obedience, assuring us that his sheep recognize. his voice and respond, living in abundant joy, extending his love and peace to others.
    “Making disciples” is a co-laboring with Christ, an invitation to a family of listeners who follow and remind each other to listen and follow.
    I find it inconsistent that the reformed church claims God’s sovereignty and grace and then limits or usurps his position at so many junctures.

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