Book Review: “Defending The Faith: Apologetics in Women’s Ministry”

I have to be honest and admit that I came to Mary Jo Sharp’s Defending the Faith: Apologetics in Women’s Ministry predisposed to disagree with it. For good or for ill, I have some foundational and philosophical disagreements with the assumption that there must be separate ministries for men and women other than for certain delicate gender-specific issues. I have found no place in the New Testament that implies that men and women should be discipled differently or that they have different needs when it comes to spiritual formation or studying the Bible.

In addition, my personality is such that I have never found any of the traditional activities associated with women’s ministry remotely interesting (although I’m not criticizing women who do) and I am deeply offended when publishers assume that all they need to do is slap some flowers on the front of a Bible to make it more appealing to female buyers.

(And in the interest of full-disclosure, I was traumatized several years ago by a women’s ministry meeting at my church where they made us get up and “do the Locomotion” in order to force us to talk to perfect strangers. I walked out and never went back.

I have also always had the nagging feeling that offering women a ministry of their own allows some churches to claim that they have provided them a venue for service and fellowship without really allowing them to be involved in the larger life of the church. In business circles, this is what used to be called “the pink ghetto.”

For all these reasons, I do not, as a rule, join exclusively female Christian groups.

The purpose of this seemingly useless background information is to demonstrate the fact that Sharp had a lot of work to do in order to gain my trust. Her book, after all, was written with a very specific goal: to convince churches to include apologetics training in their women’s ministries.

After reading it, however, my biggest frustration is that it should be read by everyone, but probably won’t be because it’s targeted specifically at women.

Defending the Faith is a well-written, extremely persuasive argument for apologetics. Regardless of whether the reader is trying to convince their pastor to integrate apologetics into women’s ministry, men’s ministry, or the weekly handbell choir rehearsal, this book argues eloquently for the importance of Christians knowing their stuff—and being able to articulate it well.

Although the content of the two books is significantly different, I can unashamedly put Defending the Faith on my bookshelf beside J.P. Moreland’s Loving God with All Your Mind as two books that will convince most any Christian of the importance of apologetics.

As someone not predisposed toward tea parties and scrapbooking, I was immediately disarmed by Sharp’s admission that she, herself, didn’t understand the value of women’s ministry until she started teaching apologetics. Her confession regarding the southern belle atmosphere of many women’s groups made me like her right from the start.

One of Sharp’s first arguments for integrating apologetics into ministry is that a women (or a man for that matter) who doesn’t have a solid basis for her belief will live just like the non-believer down the street. A person’s actions, says Sharp, flow from what she really believes deep down in her bones. And a faith based only on that warm, fuzzy feeling a person gets from worship isn’t powerful enough to kick-start an inside-out transformation.

Next, Sharp makes the startlingly obvious observation that in no other area of study is it acceptable to assume that a person will know everything they’ll ever need by the time they’re a teenager. Millions of Christians, however, believe just that. The list of excuses that people offer for being satisfied with a shallow faith is sadly familiar, but Sharp’s response provides no wiggle room:

Please understand that we create a shallow view of the Christian faith if we do not deal with difficult passages and tough questions. Look at the dilemma presented by the author of Hebrews who wants to teach in greater depth on the difficult concept of Jesus as the High Priest, but he cannot because the people have become dull of hearing…If ladies in your church are using the idea of a “simple child-like faith” as a reason not to learn hard Christian concepts, you need to help them see that childish thinking is not to be confused with the heart that trusts God with childlike faith.

Defending The Faith is, at its core, a very practical book. It’s designed to give women who want to convince their church to incorporate apologetics into their women’s ministry specific strategies for approaching the pastor, finding quality material, and integrating it into the existing ministry structure. The author even goes into detail on how to create an apologetics curriculum from scratch.

But my favorite part of the book is Sharp’s responses to the most common objections she hears to apologetics itself. “Apologists just want to win arguments,” says one woman. “We should just give people the gospel,” says another. The author’s response is at once spiritual and practical:

The gospel of Jesus entails knowledge of certain propositions that another person may or may not believe. When we proclaim the gospel, we assume the historical reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the existence of God, the problem of a sinful human nature. Finally, we assume the reliability and authority of the Bible. If people have never been exposed to some of these ideas, these principles may sound foreign or confusing to them. When our message seems hard for our listeners to understand, instead of just walking away from the conversation and telling ourselves that they just were not ready to receive the gospel, we can help them with questions they may have on these issues.

One thing Sharp does not spend much time on are the reasons why women avoid apologetics. She acknowledges the problem to be sure, but unlike Toni Allen in Come Let Us Reason Together (another great book), Sharp doesn’t dive too deeply into why so many women seem to have an aversion to it. For my part, this is not a criticism. While Allen did us a great service in identifying the problem—that women, as a group, rely more heavily on their emotional experiences as proof of God—the last thing I want to read is another book talking about women’s deficiencies. Sharp wisely avoids the giant black hole of “what’s wrong with women” and concentrates instead on why apologetics is important and what we can do to convince people of it.

My criticisms of Defending the Faith are minor compared to its value to the church. First, the fact that it is specifically targeted at women will no doubt significantly reduce the number of people who could be reading it and benefiting from it. Nothing in the arguments the author makes is unique to the way women think, but focusing exclusively on women’s ministry almost assures that most men won’t read it.

Are men’s ministries actually more focused on apologetics than women’s? I suspect not. This book has the potential for impacting countless men’s ministries, but unless the pastor stands up and tells his entire congregation to read it, they probably won’t.

So maybe it’s not such a minor point after all.

My second criticism is more about marketing than content. Couldn’t they have come up with a better title than Defending the Faith? So much of this book is truly inspirational; so much of it makes the reader want to go out and change the way people approach their faith and live their lives. Couldn’t they have come up with something more representative of what’s inside? How about Women into Warriors: How Apologetics can Xenafy Your Women’s Ministry? Now there’s a book a man would read!

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Comments

  1. says

    Xenafy – a word our language’s lexicon has sorely needed!

    Your personal reasons for avoiding women’s ministry and its events mirrors my own reasons for the same when it comes to men’s ministry. I don’t want to spend a day golfing with a bunch of men, and I don’t want to play on a men’s only softball team, or sit and watch Courageous and then spend ten weeks talking about it, or any of the other typical men’s ministry opportunities. Sorry, didn’t mean to go off no such a tangent!

    The book sounds great, Leslie. I agree about the marketing and focus being a bit narrow. Then again, there are plenty of apologetics books that men will probably pick up. If it takes a specific marketing plan to bring this to the attention of those who teach women, then I suppose it’s what we need right now.

    But, as you get at so well, what we really need is to get to the point where women and men are teaching men and women about these concepts together, along with all sort of other subjects of the faith.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. I notice in one of the excerpts that the author uses the phrase “ladies in the church” when discussing what to do about self-imposed limitations. That’s a bugaboo of mine that I wrote on recently: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/ladies-vs-women-a-distinction-a-difference-a-dialog/

  2. Loraine Branan says

    We are working as a group in our church, not as men and women seperately although we do have seperate events at times. We have a great series right now using Ronald Coopers How to Win in Life in a Greater Way, and it’s a life success type book. Through his Christian teachings, man or woman can apply the same techniques to achieve the same success. As it should be in amy role you are in! ronaldacooper.com is his site if anyone is interested! This was a great review, worth taking a look of her book for sure! Thanks for this post!

    • Leslie Keeney says

      Loraine, thanks for commenting. Although I do think there’s a place for separate ministries for men and women, in general I think it’s better if they’re together for topics dealing with spiritual formation and general discipleship. Yes, pick up the book if you get a chance.

  3. says

    I so appreciate the comments made. For years I thought I must be wired wrong because I’m not the “tea and crumpet’s” sorta gal. Now, at last, I feel at home. Judy Sheppard, Paducah, KY.

What do you think?