Casual chatter filled the Walvoord Student Center as new and returning seminarians inched their way toward the front of the registration line. It was the start of the 1975 summer term at Dallas Seminary, and nothing seemed unusual about the long line of students until the registrar looked up from his desk and saw a young woman with dark hair standing there. “You’re the first woman to register at DTS,” he said.
Carolyn Custis James (MA[BS], 1977) wasn’t setting out to make history that day. She was following what seemed to be a natural path in her family. Her father, Dwight Custis (ThM, 1951) was on the ground floor of Young Life when its founder, the late Jim Rayburn (ThM, 1940), suggested he take a class at Dallas Seminary. Hungry for a deeper study of God’s Word, Carolyn’s father enrolled and found his life changed as he sat under the teaching of Lewis Sperry Chafer. As Carolyn says, “My three brothers and I grew up hearing our parents’ stories of those incredible seminary years, of all they were learning, of the lifelong friendships they forged there.” Those years continue to shape her father’s life as a pastor at Trinity Bible Church in Portland, Oregon, and her brother’s life, Gary (ThM, 1977), as he too followed in his father’s footsteps, both as a Dallas Seminary graduate and a pastor.
With a steady diet of her dad’s teaching, along with numerous Bible conferences featuring Dallas Seminary faculty, Carolyn’s own hunger for God grew. So when the Seminary’s doors opened to embrace women students for the first time, Carolyn was one of five women who enrolled. While not everyone was comfortable with the dawning of this new day, Carolyn will never forget the warm reception she and the four other women students received from one professor. Dr. Duane Litfin (ThM, 1970), now president of Wheaton College, walked out of his office, spread his arms, and said, “It’s about time!”
For Carolyn, it was God’s perfect time. “The opportunity to attend seminary came during a period of my life when I was asking lots of questions about God,” she says, and when she was struggling with disappointment. Carolyn found herself as “an unintentional single” and was wondering if somehow she’d missed God’s “Plan A” for her life. “As one year turned to ten,” Carolyn says, “I never felt so lost. This wasn’t the life I expected. I felt lost as a woman and bewildered about God”—words she shares in the introduction to her latest book, Lost Women of the Bible. And so she turned to seminary to learn more about God’s mysterious ways.
Meanwhile Carolyn often traveled the path between seminary and the home of the late professor S. Lewis Johnson Jr. (ThM, 1946; ThD, 1949) and his wife, Mary, who were longtime friends of Carolyn’s family.
“Their friendship to me was life-changing. Mary was suffering from terminal cancer. From the pulpit Dr. Johnson was preaching the theology I watched them cling to as his wife fought a losing battle against death. I saw with my own two eyes the difference knowing God made for them. Those struggles—the Johnsons’ and my own—seeped into my seminary studies, causing me to ask different questions and to wrestle with God in new ways. I began to understand theology, not merely as an academic discipline, but as a relationship with God.”
For Carolyn, this understanding of theology would take center stage in the ministry God would show her. After graduation Carolyn took a job teaching and ministering to young women at Believer’s Chapel, a prelude to her life’s ongoing ministry to women. While there, Carolyn met Frank James, who was also studying at Dallas Seminary (1976–1979). Two years later the couple married, while Frank was completing a doctoral degree in theology in Philadelphia. They then moved to Oxford, where Frank earned a Ph.D. degree in history. In 1993 Frank was appointed professor of historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary’s campus in Orlando. Little did Carolyn know that it would also open the door to the next stage in her own ministry to women.
That first fall Carolyn and two other faculty wives spoke at a retreat for seminary students’ wives. “They’d come to seminary so their husbands could learn theology. I challenged them with their own need for theology.” She told them, “Even if your husband has great theology, the theology you will turn to when you’re struggling is your own. Besides, who’s supposed to pastor the pastor when he’s discouraged? The only one around is his wife.” The response of the women was overwhelming. This group of women hungered to go deeper with God.
So when Stanley Gundry, the editor-in-chief of Zondervan Publishing House, came knocking on Frank’s door one day looking for new authors, Frank pointed Stan to his wife’s work. And Carolyn proposed the very thing that God had placed on her heart: why women need theology.
“You’re going to have to sell the idea first,” warned Stan, who enthusiastically supported the project, but knew too well the hurdles she’d face.
The proposal passed into the hands of the acquisition editor and the next thing Carolyn knew, a rejection letter awaited her in the mailbox. In the letter the editor referred to theology as “the dreaded T-word” and questioned the wisdom of “waving a red flag” over a subject a lot of women tend to avoid. Just when Carolyn felt like giving up, Frank, her strongest ally, encouraged her not to take the rejection as final; “Fight for what you believe is important.”
Carolyn rallied the women she knew to write letters expressing their desire for such a book, and ultimately, with the backing of Stanley Gundry and Jack Kuhatschek (ThM, 1977), Zondervan issued a contract for When Life and Beliefs Collide, which is required reading in the Dallas Seminary’s Role of Women in Ministry class. Now five years and another book later, the success of her work is showing what Carolyn knew all along: women are hungry to go deeper with God.
But not only is Carolyn having an impact in the lives of women through the written word, she is also encouraging them through WhitbyForum, a ministry she designed to foster women’s relationships with God and to promote stronger relationships between men and women as they serve God together. WhitbyForum (along with Campus Crusade for Christ and Reformed Theological Seminary/Orlando) sponsors Synergy conferences for women seminarians and women in vocational ministry as an opportunity to network, to address common challenges women face in ministry, and to minister to one another.
Thirty years since the day Carolyn first registered at Dallas Seminary, she is still learning the benefits of such an education. “At first I thought the benefits were mainly personal. I was going deeper, learning more, gaining reliable tools for study. But now I’m seeing more and more how seminary-trained women are assets to the church. Seminary equips us to offer deeper teaching for other women, but we also bring a new point of view to ministry and to biblical and theological studies that is yielding fresh insights and enriching our understanding of God’s Word.” To echo the words of Dr. Litfin, “It’s about time.”
Catherine Claire is a senior writer and assistant editor for Prison Fellowship. Her poem about Mary, the mother of Jesus, which appeared in Kindred Spirit’s Winter 2005 issue, recently earned an Award of Merit from the Evangelical Press Association.