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posted: 10/15/2012 11:41 AM

Wheaton College celebrates connections to women Christian leaders

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  • Philip Graham RykenWheaton College

    Philip Graham RykenWheaton College

By Philip Graham Ryken
Wheaton College president

"Great heavens, what remarkable women are to be found among these Christians!" Thus said learned Libanios as he addressed his rhetoric students at Antioch sometime during the fourth century.

Libanios was referring specifically to the piety and courage of Anthousa, the mother of John Chrysostom, who later became the world's most famous preacher. But the words of Libanios express nearly the same sentiment as Christianity Today magazine in its recent cover story about women who are shaping the contemporary church and the surrounding culture.

"50 Women You Should Know" the article called them; 50 remarkable evangelicals who set the standard for excellence in science, business, writing, speaking, family, education, sports, entertainment and the arts.

And as I skimmed through the article, I realized that I did know many of them -- roughly one third.

Upon further reflection, I realized that one of the main reasons I know so many of the leading women in the evangelical church is because so many of them have a connection to Wheaton College. As a crossroads for evangelical faith and action, Wheaton is a connecting point for Christian leaders, including women who serve the church and society.

Dorothy Chappell is on Christianity Today's list. Dr. Chappell serves Wheaton College as dean of natural and social sciences. Her influence is often felt on other campuses through her work with the Higher Learning Commission, and also through her book on science and the Christian faith: "Not Just Science: Questions Where Christian Faith and Natural Science Intersect."

The name right next to Chappell's is Wheaton alumna Bonnie Wurzbacher. I know Bonnie, too, through our years of service together on Wheaton's Board of Visitors. Wurzbacher's work as a senior vice president with Coca-Cola was dedicated, in part, to helping women in Third-World countries to start thriving businesses.

Now retired, she is busy serving on the boards of various Christian organizations, including the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy at Wheaton College.

As a former English major, I am heartened to see poet Luci Shaw on the list. Shaw is another Wheaton alumna -- a woman who uses words in beautiful and masterful ways, like these lines from one of her poems on the incarnation of Jesus Christ: "Because eternity/was closeted in time/he is my open door/to forever."

Equally encouraging to see are colleagues I admire for their presidential leadership at other Christian colleges, including Kim Phipps. In addition to her service at Pennsylvania's Messiah College, Phipps is the mother of a Wheaton College junior.

Then, of course, there are all the women who have lectured at Wheaton or spoken in one of our chapel services. Last year our students heard from authors Ann Voskamp and Margaret Feinberg. This year they will hear from Lynne Hybels and Carolyn Custis James.

But this is only the beginning. In recent years our students have listened to Nancy Sleeth on the environment, Katharine Hayhoe on climate change, Amy Sherman on social justice, Joyce Meyer on evangelism, Brenda Salter McNeil on racial reconciliation, Lauren Winner on singleness and sexuality, Jean Bethke Elshtain on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sara Groves on music and the Christian life, and so on.

They have heard, too, from Anne Graham Lotz, who is the daughter of Wheaton's most famous alumnus (Billy Graham), but also an evangelist in her own right.

Joni Eareckson Tada has visited campus more than once, most notably in 2005 as our commencement speaker. Following a diving accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down, she has exercised an international ministry to people with disabilities.

As she challenged Wheaton's graduates to serve Christ wholeheartedly, Eareckson Tada recounted a recent visit to a residential facility for disabled young people.

As she struggled to meet the needs of each person she encountered, she pictured Jesus there with her, delighting in each smile, touching every need, and ministering to every hurt.

This gave her the strength to serve. "And the wonderful thing is," she said, "you don't have to break your neck to serve the same way."

Another distinguished servant who has spoken frequently on campus is Elisabeth Howard Elliot, who graduated from Wheaton in 1948. Elliot's husband, Jim, was one of five evangelists killed by Waodani tribesmen in the jungles of Ecuador. Elliot went on to write a best-selling account of her husband's martyrdom, and the successful missionary work that followed: "Through Gates of Splendor."

As I review the list from Christianity Today, I am impressed by the range of gifts these remarkable women possess, and the many ways they are using those gifts to build the church and improve society worldwide.

I also am grateful for the unique and significant role Wheaton College has played in developing and encouraging these gifts. Sooner or later, the "women you should know" are likely to show up on Wheaton's campus.

• Philip Graham Ryken is president of Wheaton College. His column appears quarterly during the school year in Neighbor.

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