Women Theologians on the Rise

It has long been my conviction that woman are some of our best theologians. The Bible contains a strong line-up of female theologians whose contributions have been indispensable and whose legacy invites women today to follow.

In When Life and Beliefs Collide, I make the case the Mary of Bethany was “the first great New Testament theologian.” She was the first of Jesus’ followers to embrace and support his mission. While his male disciples were in denial, Mary entered his isolation and affirmed his cross. Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me . . . When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:10, 12).

The Egyptian slave girl Hagar was first to recognize and articulate the intimate side of God by naming him El Roi“the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). How often do we need to know that?!

Naomi‘s significance is wrongly obscured by Cinderella interpretations of the book of Ruth. That wrong is being remedied, for Naomi is a female Job who, through her suffering, becomes the theologian of God’s hesed.[1] At her lowest, and from a load of winnowed barley, she discovers “He has not stopped showing his hesed to the living and the dead” (Ruth 2:20). Naomi passed her theology on to Obed whose son Jesse passed it on to the shepherd boy David who wrote, “Surely your goodness and hesed will follow me all the days of my life” (Psalm 23:6a).

Hannah‘s theology was born in her battle with infertility and the painful humiliation of polygamy. Hebrew scholars recognize her as the “theologian of the monarchy” because her theology shows up in King David’s writings. Once again, the king is banking on the theology of a woman. Presumably the intermediator was her son and David’s mentor the prophet/judge Samuel. (Compare 1 Samuel 2:1-11 with 2 Samuel 22.)

The New Testament gives accounts of women who listened, learned, struggled, and proclaimed the good news of Jesus. It is worth noting that the body of biblical theology that women developed was forged in the crucible of suffering, loss, fear, and struggles with God. We need their theology in our own struggles. These women didn’t serve up platitudes. They weren’t spouting theories figured out in some ivory tower. They offer boots on the ground theology that reenforces hope in the goodness, love, and future of God, courage in the face of real life challenges, and solid purpose when everything goes dark.

So when my email contains a message like the one below from one more woman pressing forward with God’s call to pursue a graduate degree in biblical studies and theology and to walk through whatever door he opens to her on the other side, it makes my day. Doubly so when I learn my books had something to do with her decision.

I know this isn’t an easy road, and attitudes inside the church are not always what one might call “encouraging.” But we need more women to persevere despite resistance in answering God’s call. Where would we be without the female perspective of women theologians whose teachings have enriched and fortified our faith so much?

I hope the email message below will embolden others to heed the call.

I recently finished reading your books When Life and Beliefs Collide, and The Gospel of Ruth, and I just wanted to say thank you for putting a passion and conviction that I have felt into words. I just started a new ministry job in California and the HR executive graciously let me borrow your two books. We started up a conversation about my calling and dreams for the future, and she told me about your books.

Once I started each of the books, I couldn’t put them down!

For the past few years, I’ve been struggling with being a God-honoring female in ministry (I just graduated with a degree in Christian Ministries) because I’ve gotten so many conflicting messages and been treated so many different ways. I even dedicated a semester to seeking truth in Scripture to find answers of what my role should be, using a variety of commentaries and authors. I gained some clarity but ultimately walked away with more questions. 

Reading your books affirmed and convicted me. I really appreciated the examples of Mary and Martha, two great women theologians. I don’t feel belittled anymore when I read the word Helper [ezer, Gn 2:18]. I feel stronger when I face challenges because Ruth reminds me of God’s hesed.[1] Your careful and humble dissection of Scripture inspires me to be a great theologian for my own sake and for the sake of those I have the blessings of ministering to. Your wisdom also helped me feel validated as a single woman with no foreseeable marriage prospects because you helped me discover the joy and value of my relationship with God and my theology, apart from having a husband or family. 

Recently I’ve felt a draw to pursue a Masters in Theology from Oxford, and reading your books strengthens that draw. I want to understand and know God better, and though a Masters in Theology might seem like a strange choice for a women in some people’s minds, I firmly believe that I am capable of understanding God. I also believe that he has given me a calling to love others and help them to understand God, men and women. I know it is not an easy path, and I do not want to speak up from a place of insecurity, fear, or anger, but I hold fast the truth of Scripture.

All that to say, thank you for wisdom. Your words have touched me, and God used you to reveal himself and his image that I carry.

For more encouragement and support, check out Logia“an organisation within the Logos Institute which seeks to support women who are considering pursuing postgraduate Divinity education or who are already students or staff at this level” at the University of St. Andrews. I am privileged to serve on the advisory board of this incredible organization.


[1]“Hesed is a costly brand of love that involves going above and beyond what anyone has a right to ask or expect. . . . YHWH is the ultimate hesed giver. The confidence and hope of God’s people banks on the fact that YHWH is ‘abounding in love [hesed]’ (Exod 34:6).  Finding God in the Margins(49, 51).

About carolyncustisjames

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7 Responses to Women Theologians on the Rise

  1. Dana says:

    I needed to hear this today. I have just recently started a 3-year journey co-leading a cohort of seven women in ministry who are weary from the journey.

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  2. Helen Chen says:

    Thank you Carolyn for your tireless work to encourage all women of God who are called to pursue truth and righteousness together with men of God. It was so good to meet you again and hear your preaching 3 years ago at Trinity. Knowing you and your work has been a blessing to me on this never-easy journey to faithfully follow Christ and serve His church upon His calling when the church is often closed to the reality of God’s will for women. By God’s grace, I recently started my PhD study in Theology (at the age of 48), and please pray for strength, wisdom and endurance from God for me to stay on this long and hard course to accomplish His purpose. Thanks again Carolyn, and the Lord be with you and your ministry as always!

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  3. gdueker says:

    Great article Carolyn! Thanks for influencing my life as well when you have been invited to speak in Multnomah University’s Doctor of Ministry intensive (Cross-Cultural Engagement track) over the years!

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  4. @carolynezer your study/book on Ruth is why I’m in seminary now. (At @GCTSJax) I led a Bible study tonight using the book and taught about ~20 women in the 30s-80s about the Hebrew word ezer. They loved it and they love your book!

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  5. Britt Sipe says:

    Carolyn: your thoughts via your books and interviews have been so transformative for me, our staff and elders, and now our church. Thank you for pouring your gifts and passions into bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth. We are grateful.

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