B. 1943 – D. 2022 (*photo credit 2020, Hannah Kiger)
We lost a gracious, humble, and kind man this past weekend. Dr. Robert F. Hull was a New Testament scholar who taught many of my own seminary professors. He also became a friend of ours during our years at Grandview Christian Church in Johnson City, TN. As I’ve read many other tributes to him this week, I’m impressed at how his life and scholarship impacted my own through some unexpected ways.
Dr. Hull gave me hope for women’s ordination. My first interaction with Dr. Hull was in 2006. I worked for a church in Indianapolis and our leadership team had received a young woman’s question about being ordained. I was assigned the task of research and reached out to many churches with questions about their theology and practice. One of our elders had connections to Emmanuel Christian Seminary and recommended I contact someone from there. A quick internet search led me to one of Dr. Hull’s class syllabi on the topic of Men and Women in the Church. Bingo! I reached out by phone and we shared an hour or so conversation about the topic. He shared his perspective of several relevant texts and provided encouraging news about churches (even in our conservative denomination) that had recently ordained women to ministry. The next day, he even followed up by sending a copy of the sermon he preached at one of those ordinations and asked only that I would “send [him] some reaction or response – in agreement or disagreement or whatever – to the sermon.” He was the dean of the Seminary at the time, yet open to my input on his sermon. I remembered this conversation well, years later, when I was ordained into ministry at Grandview.
Dr. Hull gave me the inspiration to seek practical ways to lean into ministry, even while I was struggling to figure out difficult texts. In 2010, I heard him speak at a North American Christian Convention on 1 Corinthians 11 called What to Do While We’re Waiting for Perfect Understanding. I mean, when a celebrated and published New Testament scholar from Princeton University humbly admits that we still don’t know what all of that text means, we should take note. One of the most memorable statements that day was that whether we restrict women’s roles are not, we are going to be taking some risks. Shouldn’t we take risks that will increase the potential for the gospel to be spread? After the session, he was willing to stay afterward and answer several of my questions, ever humble and gracious, and encouraged me to continue my own research on the topic. (I’m so thankful our seminary preserved some recent conversations with Dr. Hull regarding women in ministry.)
A year later, Dr. Hull gave me a warm welcome on my first visit to chapel at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. I was in town to help my daughter move from Milligan College to her summer internship, and we had just started praying about the possibility of my going back to school for an MDIV. I would not have expected him to remember me from our brief conversation in person, but after chapel he walked over to greet me and Harold, encouraging us to let him know if we had any questions after our visit. By that time, he was professor emeritus, but his enthusiasm for Emmanuel and the continued scholarship of another woman in ministry was very encouraging to me. (Later when I reflected on his welcome, in true Dr. Hull fashion, he confessed that the admissions office had given everyone a heads up that I was coming. That didn’t make his graciousness any less striking to me.)
After we moved to Tennessee, I had the privilege of learning from Dr. Hull through chapel sermons and hallway conversations at the seminary (he kept an office at the seminary for several years after retirement), and also during our time as members of Grandview Christian Church. He had been a leader at Grandview for decades, well respected for not only his scholarship but his Christ-like spirit. During the 80s, Dr. Hull was integral to numerous conversations about leadership in the church and the full participation of women. (He later published an article in Leaven detailing the long and arduous process.) This investment meant that by the time I was a member at Grandview, they had been fully egalitarian for more than 20 years. It was my first (and only) experience at a church where little girls had grown up seeing women preach, and where women are welcomed into all levels of leadership. My first opportunity to preach a Sunday sermon to that congregation came in the spring of 2014 – my second year of seminary – and let me tell you, there is no holy terror like being invited to preach to a sanctuary filled with seminary graduates and New Testament professors. Dr. Hull welcomed me into his office for a conversation about the text and recommended several pertinent resources that would be helpful.
What’s been notable this week in reading other tributes to Dr. Hull is that I’m not alone in my appreciation for this kind of input – many other graduates, both men and women, have spoken of Dr. Hull’s direct investment in their education, whether through casual conversation or in a classroom setting. That legacy over time is most striking to me. Dr. Hull taught many (if not all) of my own seminary professors, either through graduate classes, presentations at conferences, or his sermons and communion meditations at Grandview. I can follow the thread of his influence through Drs. Miriam Perkins, Jeff Miller, Paul Blowers, Rollin Ramsaran, Lee Magness, and many others – their classes provided a direct link to the scholarship Dr. Hull had been doing all of his life. And their personal encouragement and Christ-like examples to me have been reflections of our friend and professor Dr. Hull as well.
That sort of encouragement to me and other women in ministry has had – and will have – tremendous fruit in the decades to come. How many women might have never answered their callings if not for Dr. Hull? How many churches would have missed out on the gifts of those women? How many scholars would have accepted long-held explanations of difficult texts and never questioned status-quo practices at churches? Many, I’d say. And so, in my own way of honoring Dr. Hull, I’ll keep opening doors for other women, encouraging good scholarship, and telling my story so that younger women know they are not alone. And for those women, I’ll share this encouragement from Dr. Hull’s own words, from the ordination sermon mentioned above:
I charge you… to be patient with people whose hearts are large, but whose vision is clouded, who may not celebrate your ministry because they are not able to see it as valid. I charge you to live in hope because God has managed to sustain, sometimes through tears and sometimes through laughter, those whose service to him means more than human regard for their gifts and calling. Rejoice that you stand alongside Phoebe, and Priscilla, and Junia, who have so long had to live in the shadow of their male co-workers in ministry.
One of the last conversations I had with Dr. Hull was the day we announced our move from Grandview to teach at Nebraska Christian College. As he shared well-wishes for our upcoming transition, he smiled and said “You were born to teach.” I hope I’ve learned from him how to speak value and vision into the lives of others, with the knowledge that my words will have impact for years to come. I may have been in Tennessee a little too late to take classes with Dr. Hull, but not too late to finally know him personally for a brief season. For that, I remain eternally grateful.