Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Mentors, #3, Molly T. Marshall

Continuing my irregular posting of tributes to my intellectual and spiritual roots. Currently Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall is President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, KS, the first woman to head a Baptist seminary or divinity school in North America. She is also Professor of Theology, Worship, and Spiritual Formation at CBTS, an American Baptist seminary that now also has strong ties to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I first met Molly in January of 1986 when I arrived on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Molly, herself twice an alumna of SBTS, a former missionary to Israel, campus minister, youth minister, and interim pastor (one of the earliest ordained women in the SBC), had been hired in ’84 as Asst. Professor of Christian Theology. I was first introduced to her as Dr. Molly Marshall-Green. [Let me take this opportunity to quench a persistent rumor. She is STILL happily married to Douglass M. Green, M.D., a retired family doctor. They have never been divorced. But Molly’s hyphenated name had never been legally changed and was causing her considerable problems in the SBC. So, she dropped it to just use her original surname in ’88.]

I was looking forward to taking classes with Molly. I had come from a church with women deacons and was theoretically in favor of women in ministry, although at that point I had never met one. But I was also nervous. Molly was widely rumored to be an “extreme feminist theologian,” and, although I had specifically determined to take every controversial professor at SBTS to learn the truth about conservative charges, I was a bit nervous. The extent of my previous exposure to feminism had been to vote (and lose) for Florida to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

I found a gracious woman who pushed students to explore ideas fearlessly, including those of “raging liberals.” But Molly’s favorite theologian, to judge by numbers of quotations in class, was the Apostle Paul with a close second going to the Reformer Martin Luther! Yes, she had studied with the Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson, a fascinating figure who combined a conservative approach to the New Testament with a very liberal theology! But, no, Molly has never been a universalist–I read her dissertation from cover to cover in one long day in the library to check out that rumor!

Like many Baptist theologians, she is a creative eclectic–powerfully influenced by her teacher, Dale Moody, by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, by Juergen Moltmann, Letty Russell, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza, but also writing in creative dialogue with conservative evangelicals like Bernard Ramm, Clark Pinnock, and, in New Testament Theology, George Eldon Ladd. In class she assigned texts by a wide range of authors, often asking students to compare and contrast an evangelical text with another from a different tradition–and never telling them where they must “come out” at the the end. Hardly the radical others made her out to be!

I remember asking Molly once, after reading a strong feminist critique of all-masculine God-language at the same time I was reading both St. Athanasius and Juergan Moltmann on the Trinity, if it were possible to take the feminist critique of God-language seriously while remaining a thoroughgoing Trinitarian. Molly got that twinkle that all students and colleagues know portends a quip from her irreverent sense of humor, “Oh, yes, Mr. White [my name at the time], but you will forever after be doomed to very complex sentences!” And so it has proved–helped by my thoroughly Trinitarian feminist teacher.

In 1988, Molly survived a hostile trustee board and was granted tenure and promoted to Associate Professor at SBTS. But the story was not over. When Al Mohler was elected to succeed Roy Honeycutt as President of SBTS in 1994, it was with clear instructions to fire Molly Marshall. But firing a tenured professor is not easy. He accused her of violating the Abstract of Principles, the statement of faith that all faculty must teach within at SBTS. What he meant was that she violated Mohler’s supposedly infallible interpretation of the document. When Molly voluntarily wrote a long paper expositing her understanding of every article of the Abstract and offered to meet to discuss point-by-point, Mohler sent the dean to tell her that it was no good, “they already had the votes” on the trustee board. Molly had been convicted by president and trustees of heresy without any formal charges or the chance to defend herself fairly. Molly tried to follow Jesus’ directions in Matthew 18 to go to her brother and make peace, but he, the supposed inerrantist, refused to follow Jesus’ words and even meet with her. She considered suing since being fired is usually disastrous for any academic career. She agreed to resign if she were allowed to finish supervising her remaining Ph.D. students–putting others before herself even in the face of pure evil and vicious lies. (The contrast can be seen in the fact that Molly never mentions Mohler or says anything about the current SBTS, whereas he has bad-mouthed her seminary and her in articles and his blog and on his radio show.)

Fortunately, in the graceful providence of God, the story does not end there. At the end of ’95, Central BTS hired Molly as full Professor of Christian Theology, Worship, and Spiritual Formation. She and Douglass moved to Kansas, the American Baptists accepted her SBC ordination, and she has enjoyed a powerful ministry as guest preacher in many pulpits while working with a small, 100 year old seminary. She is still, as I knew her, a “midwife of grace,” to theology students and church members alike.

I owe much to this woman:

  • She introduced Kate and myself and later officiated at our wedding.
  • Our oldest daughter, Molly Katharine White (b. ’95) is named after her. (The elder Molly calls my daughter “Molly the Younger,” while my daughter calls her namesake, “Dr. Molly.”)
  • I learned to read very widely in theology and to think theologically–integrating Scripture, the traditions of the church, and input from human experience.

Conservatives who think of her as a heretic are ignorant and most have never met her. She began each class with a hymn and doubtless still does. She sight-read from her Nestle-Aland Greek NT as she lectured. She quotes large sections of the Church Fathers (and some of the newly rediscovered Church Mothers!) from memory, and can often be found volunteering time and money for the poor and marginalized, especially (for deeply personal reasons) prisoners and their families.

I like to think the student has also influenced the teacher. Although she still loves Luther, over the years I have noticed her pay more attention to the Anabaptist tradition and its impact on early Baptists. (She could, of course, gotten this from many places, but we all have our little conceits and this is mine.) Perhaps that was reflected in her stint as Bible study leader for the 2004 summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

August 27, 2006 - Posted by | Baptists, heroes, mentors


  1. Thanks for this post, Michael! For many conservatives, Molly Marshall is the Hillary Clinton of the Baptist world. She regularly gets portrayed as a flaming over-the-edge liberal feminist when in fact she’s much more moderate than what she’s given credit for. (Though, unlike Hillary, she’s certainly no closet conservative.) Following her sermon at the ABC Bienniel last year, the folks on a conservative ABC message board had a heyday parsing her sermon for liberal heresies. Of course, they also wrote off prominent ABC evangelical Tony Campolo as unrepentently (and unforgiveably) liberal as well.

    Thanks for giving us the other side of the story!

    Pastor Robert

    Comment by Anonymous | August 28, 2006

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Robert.
    Unlike Hillary, Molly would never vote for a preemptive war, refuse to repent, or have Rupert Murdoch help finance her re-election campaign against a true progressive like Tasini!

    I’ll bet those ABE-folks had to get out their dictionaries to parse anything Molly said!

    Molly can and has affirmed both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, though the exclusively male language for God doubtless made her add mental footnotes! I have watched her prove to fundamentalists in class that she was far more orthodox (i.e., in line with the historic teachings of Christianity) than they were! She has consistently rejected invitations from feminist groups that are exclusionary and anti-male.

    I do hope her chores as President of CBTS leave her enough time for writing. I am still awaiting a long promised book on the atonement from a feminist standpoint.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 28, 2006

  3. Molly was one of my role models in seminary as well, where she teased me about being a closet fundamentalist 🙂 One of my treasures is the copy of her dissertation she signed for me—in Greek. She was my teacher for Formation for Christian Ministry, the class all seminarians are doomed to take their first semester. I also took her for an elective course on the doctrine of the atonement. And you’re right, if she’s a universalist, she hid it very carefully in that class! Truth be told, if she’s a universalist, she was lying through her teeth that whole summer!

    Molly taught me a lot just by being the kind of person she was (and is) and bearing up under terrible harassment with far more Christian grace than I think I could ever manage.

    Comment by D. P. | August 28, 2006

  4. Just because she is smart does not make her correct. Liberialism is truly that with her and many others. Even you, Michael, are liberial. I truly feel though, that the cause of Christ can be carried on, if it weren’t for the side issues that stop us on the road to telling others about Him. The side issues of liberialism, abortion rights, women preachers, fighting gays, all get us off the road we are all to be on. I did nor do i know now, Dr. Molly. I know I do not agree with her. Do i think she is not going to heaven? If she trusts Christ as her savior, then she is on her way there.

    Sorry, I must credit you and your liberial friends for pushing me to consider all sides of a coin before making decisions. i am still conservative, but a loving and compassionate one.

    Comment by Anonymous | September 23, 2006

  5. Well, “Pastor,” I would say that no one who doesn’t know her personally has any right to call Dr. Marshall “Dr. Molly.” You would not treat a man with such disrespect. I call her by her first name because she is no longer just my teacher, but a close friend who officiated at my wedding, introduced me to my wife, and is my oldest daughter’s namesake.

    Dr. Molly T. Marshall is not a theological liberal in any classic sense. You show your own ignorance in claiming that she is. How “generous” of you to think she might be saved anyway.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 23, 2006

  6. I am extremely happy to hear about what God has done in and through Molly. My husband and I knew Molly and Douglas many years ago when she was single and serving our church as youth minister. She was a wonderful inspirtation to our young people then, and it sounds like that influence on people has not diminished in any degree. I know that then her greatest desire was to glorify the Lord Jesus, and from everything I read about her, that desire has only intensified through the years. Apparentaly God has truly chosen her to be His vessel of honor through similar experiences which even His only Son endured at the hands of spiritually misguided, though well-intentioned, people. May He continue to be glorifeid in her life and ministry.

    Comment by Martha James | March 31, 2007

  7. Just discovered this entry. Good to see praise for Molly. She was beginning her PhD when I was at SBTS. She had the respect of most of us then – except for the ones who wanted to date the cutest student and couldn’t handle the brains that went with the good looks 😉 Too bad SBTS no longer attracts and equips new generations of Mollys.

    Comment by Tauratinzwe | April 6, 2007

  8. […] Katharine White, named for the famous Baptist theologian who introduced (and later married) her mother and me and for her mother and grandmother, is now 13 […]

    Pingback by Father of a Teenage Girl: HELP! « Levellers | July 26, 2008

  9. […] My eldest daughter’s namesake, Baptist theologian and seminary president, Molly T. Marshall. […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on Theological Mentors « Levellers | April 2, 2009

  10. Pity I never took a class with Molly, but I was in the department of Psychology of Religion at SBTS, the very bane of conservatives like Mohler and his clan of ignorant fools. I did hear her preach on several occasions. No doubt she is an exceptional person, teacher and preacher, and I have absolutely no problem with her theology!

    Comment by Wilhelm | September 14, 2009

  11. Thanks for the testimony, Wilhelm.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 14, 2009

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