At Wheaton, Female Bible Profs Carry on a Long and Controversial Tradition

A look into Wheaton’s past acceptance of female Bible professors and the career and spiritual journey of three women who teach in the BITH department.

By Kaitlin Liebling | Staff Writer
April 17, 2021
A bug's eye view of Billy Graham Hall. Photo: Ruth Wu.

In 1860, Wheaton became one of the first colleges in America to offer a fully co-educational curriculum: every course and program was open to both male and female students. Wheaton hired women as faculty members within its first decade, and the college’s first full-time Bible teacher was Edith Torrey, who taught at the college from 1919 to 1958. More than a century after Torrey began teaching Wheaton students, the “proper” role of women in academic theology and church ministry remains heavily debated among Christian denominations. 

Wheaton professor Timothy Larsen explored the history of this much-discussed topic in a 2007 book called Women, Ministry, and the Gospel. Though from its founding in the 1730s the evangelical tradition has historically welcomed women in ministerial positions, Larsen argues that since the 1970s evangelical Christians have largely forgotten this history. Larsen highlights two cultural trends — the baby boom of the 1950s and the sexual revolution of the 1970s — as the key instigators behind this collective historical amnesia. 

In the book, Larsen writes that the post-WWII baby boom created a cultural expectation in which women left work and “belonged in the private sphere” and churches were likewise “subjected to this social pressure.” According to Larsen, the feminist wave of the 1970s contributed to an evangelical backlash against women in ministry, as many Christians, having conflated feminism and sexual freedom, rejected both.

Larsen argues that these cultural events prompted the current “amnesia about the historic ways that evangelicalism itself has championed the rights of women.” Wheaton itself was a part of this tradition. Although the first female priest in the Church of England was not ordained until 1994, female Wheaton graduate Frances Townsley was ordained as a Baptist minister in the 1860s.

And yet women still represent a significant minority in positions of theological leadership. Female theology professors comprise about 24.8% of total professors in the field, only a slight increase from about 20% in 1998. In that same period, the number of women who pursued a masters of divinity remained roughly the same. Today, women represent about 20.7% of U.S. clergy.

This trend is reflected at Wheaton. The Biblical and Theological Studies department (BITH) is composed of 24 men and six women. Because the college does not express a particular stance on the topic of women in ministry, students and professors with both complementarian and egalitarian convictions study and teach at Wheaton. 

Interim Chaplain Greg Waybright explained that Wheaton’s indecision on the topic is fully intentional, and meant to foster open and respectful dialogue between faculty and students with different viewpoints.

“This is one of the many areas in which Wheaton can be Wheaton at its best: letting us in the community study the Bible together so that faculty and students can form our own convictions about matters outside the parameters of our Statement of Faith,” he said. “Then, in keeping with our understanding of what Scripture is saying, we can have a lot of good and energetic discussion.”

Three of these female theology professors — Amy Peeler, Emily McGowin and Lindsey Hankins — spoke to the Record about their experiences working within a traditionally male-dominated field. Their personal stories involve their initial decision to pursue a career in theology, how they wrestled with specific biblical texts surrounding the subject of women in ministry, and their many discussions with students and colleagues about the topic. 

Their insights speak to both the unique challenges and opportunities that await women hoping to pursue a theological vocation in the academy and the church.

Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is a professor in the theology department at Wheaton College. Photo: Kellie Mitchell.

Amy Peeler distinctly remembers sitting in her Life of Christ class at Oklahoma Baptist University when Bobby Kelly, her professor, plopped the first graded exam of the semester on her desk. “I’ve never seen an exam as strong as this one from Amy,” he said. 

 

After a conversation with Kelly confirmed Peeler’s newfound love for Biblical studies, she  decided to switch from a psychology major to a biblical languages major in her junior year. What had begun as a last minute decision to take a course “just for fun” started Peeler’s journey toward her current job as an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton. 

 

But as a junior in college, Peeler was not yet convinced the Bible permitted a woman to pursue a career in theology. “I knew I wanted to be a college professor and teach Bible and theology,” Peeler said. “But my very first question was, ‘Is it okay for a woman to teach [these subjects] to men?’”

 

Peeler wrestled with the issue in an essay for her Biblical Hermeneutics class, focusing her research on 1 Timothy 2 and especially verses 11-12, which say that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission” and should not “teach or assume authority over a man.” After a semester spent researching and writing about the text, Peeler concluded that the historical differences between women’s education in the first century and women’s education now meant that Paul’s teachings about female submissiveness do not necessarily apply to modern-day women.

 

“Paul admonishes the women to learn in verse 11,” Peeler said. “Those first-century women did not have equal access to education as men, whereas I did. That truly is a cultural and historical difference. I have been able to do what Paul tells the women to do — I’ve learned. And so as a junior I came to the conclusion that today women can teach men.”

 

After receiving her Ph.D. in Biblical Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and briefly working as a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana Wesleyan University, Peeler joined the School of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton. She currently teaches a New Testament Literature course and a New Testament and Gender course, alongside conducting academic research. Her area of expertise is in the book of Hebrews.

 

Peeler’s conviction that women can participate in theology applies not only to her work in academia but also to her work in ministry. After years of studying this particular topic in seminary, Peeler came to the conclusion that the Bible permits women to preach in churches in addition to working in academia.

 

Today, Peeler is an associate rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Geneva. Ordained as a deacon in 2015 and then as a priest in April 2016, Peeler preaches once a month, leads Bible studies and helps with the Eucharist. 

 

Because the Episcopalian church decided in favor of women’s ordination in 1976, Peeler said that she has encountered little resistance to her presence at the pulpit. Still, certain members hold personal reservations about women’s roles in the church.

 

“There is a family who attends the church that doesn’t believe women should be pastors, and they have spoken to the Rector about their belief,” Peeler said. “Only one member of that family interacts with me in odd ways. Other than that, I have experienced only total support at my church.”

 

Despite her support of women in ministry, Peeler says she fully respects Christians who think differently. Over the years, she has discussed the topic of women in the church with numerous students and department colleagues who disagree with her perspective.

 

“We can agree to disagree on these topics,” she said. “Some of the students that I’m closest to don’t agree with me on this issue. And I can attest that I have been supported by all of my colleagues, even those that would not attend my church or those that would disagree with my reading of Scripture.” 

 

Though Peeler emphasized that her discussions with students and department colleagues on the role of women in the church have always been respectful, she noted that there are other challenges involved in working within a traditionally male-dominated field. As a female theology professor, Peeler cannot easily keep her own opinions about women in theology private. 

 

“For some, the ideal [teaching method] at Wheaton College is that professors keep their position on debated topics to themselves,” she said. “But when the women in my department talk about topics like women teaching theology, people already know what we think. I can’t keep my ideas hidden.”

 

This reality can be emotionally draining for Peeler, especially since her class on New Testament and Gender revolves entirely around the historical representation of women in Christianity, examining the topic in light of both first century and modern-day cultural contexts.

 

“Teaching that subject is very personal,” she said. “I’m always talking about my own being and identity and vocation, and it feels very vulnerable.” 

 

Despite these challenges, Peeler describes her discussions with students who are curious about women in ministry as one of her “greatest gifts.” She says she places little emphasis on what students ultimately conclude about the topic. 

 

“My greatest desire is that people settle on a deep affirmation that our God values men and women,” she said. “I think that’s something offered in the Christian story that sometimes gets forgotten, and I think it’s my particular calling to bring that out.”

 

Rev. Dr. Emily McGowin. Photo: Emily McGowin

The concerns that Peeler faced as a young woman going into pastoral ministry are similar to those faced by her colleague Emily McGowin. Though she’s now an assistant professor of theology and an Anglican priest, McGowin remembers a time when she believed women could not hold such roles in ministry. 

 

“As a teenager, I fell in love with theology,” she said. “When I was 18, I told my youth pastor that I wanted to be a pastor. But I was in a Southern Baptist church, and his response was that women could not do that. You can marry a pastor if you want, but you can’t be a pastor.” 

 

The youth pastor’s belief reflects conservative Southern Baptist doctrine. Though local Southern Baptist congregations are free to follow or ignore the statements of Baptist conventions, a 1984 Southern Baptist Convention resolution states, “We encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”

 

“I was upset by that,” McGowin admits. “But I really thought that if this is what the Bible says, if this is what pleases Christ, then I’m going to submit to that. I assumed that was the truth and that I needed to pursue theology in an academic way and not in a pastoring way.” 

 

It wasn’t until she entered Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist university, that McGowin began to wrestle with her personal conclusions about women in ministry. Although she had intended to focus her studies on the academic side of theology based upon her beliefs, Baylor’s required courses on preaching and ministry sparked a keen interest for pastoral ministry. 

 

“I spent the next six or seven years at Baylor and in my Ph.D. program at the University of Dayton studying the Scriptures and reading various interpretations of the New Testament to discover its teachings on gender and women in the church,” McGowin said. “Eventually, I came to the conclusion that it was not as clear cut as I’d been taught. In fact, I believe the intention of God is that women would be free to serve in leadership in the church in all areas.”

 

A year and a half ago, McGowin was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church, a denomination of predominantly complementarian churches. She currently serves at the Church of the Savior in Wheaton, preaching regularly and presiding over the sacraments during services. The Church of the Savior’s website highlights its egalitarian stance, noting that the congregation “welcome[s] leadership and teaching from both men and women” because “God created men and women in his image and poured out his Holy Spirit on both.” 

 

Though McGowin feels confident in her position and calling as a woman in theology, she understands that not all students agree with her perspective. 

 

“Sometimes I’m the first woman students have ever encountered who teaches theology, let alone preaches in a church,” she said. “And so I want to explain why I’ve come to the conclusions that I have and provide a safe space for them to ask questions, even if they come to a different conclusion than I do.”

 

One aspect of her interactions with students that McGowin enjoys above all else is mentorship. In past years, McGowin would regularly meet with three to four female students every month or two, offering them life and career advice over a cup of coffee in her office. These relationships usually developed organically out of interactions with specific students in class and during office hours. Though most meetings these days are over Zoom instead, McGowin still treasures the opportunity to mentor students.  

 

“My favorite part of being a professor is getting to mentor students as they are discerning their vocations, particularly when they are interested in theology or ministry,” she said. “I find it especially significant as a woman to be able to encourage young women that I see giftedness and calling in, especially since that’s something I didn’t have in my undergrad and graduate programs.”

 

The advice McGowin usually offers young women considering a theological vocation involves one simple idea. “I encourage women to find a seminary or graduate school program where they don’t have to fight for the right to be there,” she said. “They should find places where they are welcomed and supported.”

Dr. Lindsey Hankins. Photo: Lindsey Hankins.

Reflecting McGowin and Peeler’s experiences, their departmental colleague Lindsey Hankins also fell in love with theology during her early adulthood. Similar to Peeler’s story, Hankins’s decision to pursue theology involved a sudden shift in major. Though her current position is a visiting assistant professor of theology at Wheaton, her original college major at the University of Minnesota was pre-medicine. 

 

“I am a nerd, through and through,” Hankins said, laughing.  “I’m a very social nerd, I’m a fun person, but at the University of Minnesota I really liked my calculus, chemistry, biology and physics classes. That was my life freshmen and sophomore year.”

 

For Hankins, the decision to switch majors her junior year can be traced back to one moment of “epiphany.” While listening to a sermon at a campus ministry retreat, Hankins believes she heard God whisper to her a call to pursue a career in ministry. 

 

After discussing the event with her “supportive though confused” family, Hankins transferred to  Bethel University, an evangelical college located in Minnesota and affiliated with the Missionary Church. Hankins’s love for her theology classes at Bethel quickly confirmed she had made the right decision. 

 

“I remember sitting in my Western Civilization class and being transfixed as I listened to the professor talk about the Didache [an early Christian text],” she said. “It dawned on me that you can make a life out of having these theological questions and thinking deeply.”

 

After graduating from Bethel in 2004, Hankins decided to get practical job experience by working at Young Life, a Christian youth ministry. Though she is glad she worked at Young Life — especially since she met her husband Rob through the ministry’s vast network of employees — the experience helped her realize a desire to return to academia. 

 

Hankins went to graduate school at Wheaton, the college her husband had recommended to her after he attended the school for his undergraduate degree. She graduated in 2009 with a master’s in historical and systematic theology and again in 2012 with a master’s in the history of Christianity.

 

“I went back to grad school at Wheaton because I wanted to go to a school that held its faith in as much esteem as its scholarship,” she said. “[I] quickly got to know the faculty there. They encouraged me, they made it clear that there was no question that was off limits for the God who really said he was the God of the universe.”

 

The support and encouragement Hankins received from female faculty mentors in particular helped to confirm her love for theology and her determination to pursue a career in the field.

 

“There is something really important about seeing someone who looks like you doing what it is that you hope to do,” Hankins said. “Mentors like Beth Jones and Jennifer McNutt made it concretely feasible to imagine that I could do this thing I was fairly certain the Lord was calling me to do.”

 

Though Hankins welcomes the opportunity to mentor female Wheaton students in a similar way, she pointed out that the limited number of women in the BITH department means she often mentors a disproportionate number of students in comparison to her male colleagues. Of the 98 students who have currently declared a BITH major, 43 are women.

 

“There’s an emotional and social burden on female BITH professors that is inequitable if the faculty group itself is not reflective of the student body it serves,” she said.

 

Hankins said that beyond these modern-day challenges for women in theology lies a more foundational issue: a historical tradition within Christianity marked by reluctance to include women in ministry roles. 

 

“What I came to see after years of study was that our tradition has manifestly mistreated women,” Hankins said. “We’ve inherited some really disastrous, really rotten ideas of what it means to be a woman and it is only relatively recently that we have become willing to identify women as truly equal image bearers. That ought to give us pause, both in our personal encounters with Scripture, but certainly when we read it alongside the otherwise best and brightest in our tradition.”

Despite the challenges they have faced as women in theology, Peeler, McGowin and Hankins all affirmed their deep love for their chosen profession.

 

“I love teaching,” said Peeler. “I love the preaching, the moment of looking at the text and proclaiming it. I love the office hours. I love mentoring. The Lord has been so good to say, ‘This is your heart’s desire and I’m going to let you do it.’”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is an associate rector at St. Mark's in Glen Ellyn, but she is in fact associate rector at St. Mark's in Geneva, not St. Mark's in Glen Ellyn.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that there are six women teaching in Wheaton’s BITH department, but there are actually seven, not six.

Wheaton College, IL