Mary Jo Sharp is equipping more and more women to defend their faith – and finding an increasingly enthusiastic response.
A professor of apologetics and founder of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry, Mary Jo Sharp is passionate about enlisting more women in defending the faith. In this interview, she describes how she’s finding a very receptive audience as she speaks at women’s ministries around the country:
• Why has there traditionally been a shortage of women in the field of apologetics?
I don’t have any statistical research on why women are not as publicly involved with apologetics. However, from my interaction with women at conferences, I have found a few repeating thoughts on the issue:
1) They’ve never been introduced to the field of apologetics before and/or they are not sure of its relevance to their life. Women in the church need to understand the importance of apologetics and its potential impact. I’ve found that once women’s groups are aptly introduced to the subject, they have some of the most impassioned responses to the material. It’s not so much of a lack of desire as a lack of proper introduction.
2) One reason that shocked me was the concern women shared with me of appearing to be unintelligent. I’ve heard women say they don’t want to come across as the one who asks the “stupid question.” They feel like they should know more of the content of their faith at this point in their spiritual life, and so they don’t want fellow church members to know that they really don’t have answers yet.
3) Women have told me that their churches are not a safe place to discuss their doubts. So those who have potential for great learning in apologetics may have no outlet within their church family to explore and learn about their questions.
4) As for why we don’t see women in leadership in apologetics: As with any issue, there are many reasons that contribute. Instead of tackling all of them, I will focus on a couple personal reasons with which I’ve struggled.
First, there is the issue of putting yourself in a position where people are going to heavily criticize and attack your character and ideas. To publicly defend the faith, you have to be prepared for slander and character defamation. You have to find a way to handle these attacks that is not an all-consuming fire. You especially cannot allow apologetics discussions to beat your family down. Finding a balance can pose a bit of a hurdle to women in leadership.
Second, women must be encouraged within the church to develop their minds and to know theology and doctrine. There must be an educational environment in the church that encourages great thinkers and develops doctrinally sound Christians to inspire greater numbers of apologists, in general, which would include Christian women.
I have found that once women are introduced to apologetics and they see the amazing transformative power of building a solid foundation for belief in God, they are excited and want to study more. I have found this to be true regardless of age, race, marital status, work commitments, or family commitments.
• Does being a woman add something to your approach to apologetics? In other words, does the female perspective contribute a different angle in looking at the evidence for the faith?
I was talking with a friend about this very issue the other day! I think sometimes I am overly cautious with regard to generalizing about women, since we’re not all going to think or learn in the same ways. That said, I can say that women tend to value the relationship with the person as primary over the winning of an argument. I tend to enter a conversation with the intention of connecting with the person, not with the overt intention of proving them wrong. In the course of the conversation, I want to uncover truth with them – not in spite of them.
From my experience with women’s ministries, I have found that many get involved with apologetics because of their concern for their family and friends. They desire to answer the questions of their skeptical children and spouses. They are not just investigating the evidence for faith with a disconnected, cold approach to facts. They are looking because they care greatly for others. I realize that some people might reject that statement with an accusation of biased motives. However, I see that women generally do this out of great compassion for those they love. I have also seen that many women are concerned that they do not understand why they believe in God. They realize that in order to offer answers, they have to have the answers for themselves first.
• Do you see more and more women getting into apologetics ministry? What can we do to attract more women into the field?
I do see more and more women getting into apologetics ministry! We can encourage women to get involved in apologetics by encouraging great thinkers in the church, in general. To attract more women, we need to be purposeful about encouraging and including women in discussions of theology and philosophy.
• I know you recently videotaped an apologetics course aimed at female audiences. Do women tend to gravitate toward different apologetic interests than men?
I did recently film a video-based apologetics course with LifeWay Christian Resources entitled, “Why Do You Believe That: A Faith Conversation.” I think the interest in apologetics is reflective of the time and culture in which we live. We currently have more access to bad information than ever before. As C. S. Lewis stated, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
I haven’t noticed gravitation toward certain topics. Women’s interests seem to be as diverse as the field of topics. I have found that, just like men, individual women seem drawn to a particular argument or style of apologetics. However, women, as a ministry group, haven’t been aptly introduced to apologetics through women’s studies. So, I think we have yet to see if there is a draw to one or another field of study. The one area of particular interest I have noticed from my speaking engagements is how to have better conversations with people who do not believe in God or in Jesus Christ.
I will make one suggestion. With the recent interest of women in books like Twilight, I think there is opportunity to tap into the idea of romance. The ultimate romance is a love affair with God, the lover of our soul. If we can somehow weave a Chesterton-type call to the romance of orthodoxy into our apologetic arguments—perhaps through the argument from desire or from objective beauty—I think we will catch some attention.
• Sounds like a great plan – but I don’t think I’ll be the one to write it. Maybe you? I’m curious: what sparked your interest in apologetics?
I was drawn to apologetics after I became a Christian by a two-part problem in my life. First, I noticed that the people who professed that the Scriptures were true were not making a largely concerted effort to live as though they were true. In other words, I encountered a lot of “ugliness” in the people who said they had God’s truth in their lives. I saw a contradiction between what they were saying and how they were living. So I began to question whether or not there were any real believers in God (myself included).
Second, I was not getting deep enough in my understanding of Christianity in order to handle the depth of the human experience. I was an “every time the church door is open” kind of Christian, going to church Wednesdays, Sunday mornings and evenings, teaching youth, and helping in music ministry. So on the outside, I looked the part of the devoted worship/youth pastor’s wife and committed Christian, but on the inside I knew I didn’t have answers to difficult questions about the Christian faith. I call this combination the perfect storm for doubt.
I went looking for answers to my questions. How did I know Jesus rose from the dead? Why do I believe in God, or do I? As I was looking for answers to my questions, I didn’t realize I had stumbled into the field of apologetics. Once I found great answers to my questions, I figured other people probably had the same questions as well. So I began to teach apologetics in the church.
• You got pushed into doing a formal debate with a Muslim. How did that happen and what was that experience like?
I love the phrasing “pushed into doing a formal debate.” Ha! A couple of my early ministry friends, David Wood and Nabeel Qureshi, encouraged me to get involved in debate. I met the guys while in school at Biola University. I began to write reviews of their debates. They later involved me in organizing debates, then moderating debates, and finally challenged me to do my first debate with a Muslim gentleman. Actually, there was a sort of “push” in that they posted an indirect challenge on their blog. So, it was clearly a public throw-down!
They organized the debate and helped me prepare for it. The experience was nerve-wracking at first. I could barely eat or sleep in the weeks prior. I coined a new phrase “the Debate Diet,” since I lost weight from not being able to stomach food. Yet, I actually enjoyed the debate once I was in the middle of it.
Later on, David and Nabeel were instrumental in my obtaining a second debate, which was with a female Muslim debater in a mosque in Toronto in 2010. I can confidently say I would not have done a public debate without the nudge of these two ministry friends.
Debates are a powerful medium for sharing the Gospel. At the mosque in Toronto, we ran out of chairs due to the number of people who flooded the event. Being that the audience was at least 85% Muslim, this proved to be a great opportunity to share about belief in Jesus Christ! There were too many questions to answer during Q&A and many Muslims stayed afterwards to engage me one-on-one. I see debate as an under-utilized method, with great potential, for communicating the truth about God.
• Who are some apologists that you particularly like to track or who you’ve especially learned from?
So many people have influenced me with their work. However, I’m going to say that William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, J. P. Moreland, Paul Copan, and Michael Licona have been instrumental in my learning. When I searched for answers to questions like “Does God exist?”, William Lane Craig’s debates were crucial resources for me. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona gave me a solid foundation for believing in the resurrection of Jesus. J. P. Moreland’s philosophy of science approach helped me to understand the basis for the scientific endeavor. Paul Copan took me on as a mentor and helped me to shape my ministry. And of course, you introduced me to most of them through The Case for Christ!
• How did you come to faith in Christ?
As a teenager, I was not a Christian, nor a person who really thought about God. I was raised in a relativistic home in the Portland, Oregon area, and I was taught to respect people of different backgrounds and beliefs. Generally, I believed church was for those who needed it. I had a distrust of the church due to my Hollywood-influenced perception of Christianity.
However, in my senior year of high school, the head band director gave me a One Year NIV Bible and told me, “Mary Jo, when you go off to college, you are going to have a lot of tough questions. I would like for you to turn to this for answers.” I respected my director and became curious as to what the Bible actually said. I read that Bible all the way through, which brought me to belief in God. Yet, I still did not trust in Jesus as my Savior. It wasn’t until I attended a Southern Baptist Church in Oklahoma during college that I understood my status as a sinful human being and my need for a savior. At age 20, I committed my life to Jesus as my Lord.
• What’s next for you and your ministry?
I have a book coming in October with Kregel Publications entitled, Defending the Faith: Apologetics in Women’s Ministry, designed to help ministry leaders introduce apologetics into their churches and into women’s groups. I also have the video-based study, “Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation” that will be released at the same time.
A new step for me is a position as a professor of apologetics this fall at Houston Baptist University, where I’ll not only be teaching but also helping to develop a new cultural apologetics program. We are bringing on board several great apologists, philosophers, and theologians, including Michael Licona, John Mark Reynolds, Nancy Pearcey, Holly Ordway, Michael Ward, Jerry Walls, Louis Markos, and more!
I’m excited for this new endeavor, because I love to teach and because the university provides a medium by which I can help students find answers to their tough questions. I can also assist them in the creation of their own ministries, just as Biola University’s apologetics program did for me (shout out to Craig Hazen). I will also continue to speak and train in the defense of the faith through my ministry, Confident Christianity. These are definitely exciting times!
Mary Jo Sharp (MA, Christian Apologetics, Biola University) is the founder of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry (www.confidentchristianity.com). She is a professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, a visiting professor with Oklahoma Baptist University, a debater (on Islam and Christianity), and an experienced speaker in apologetics. She is a member of the Evangelical Philosophical and Theological Societies and a Certified Apologetics Instructor with the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Also, Christianity Today recently published an article on the role of women in apologetics.