Prairie Bible Institute
by Ruth Dearling and James Enns
On October 30th, 1998 Ruth Dearing celebrated her ninetieth birthday as well as fifty-nine years of active service on the campus of Prairie Bible Institute (PBI). Although she did not teach full time after 1985, Ms. Dearing continued to work in the Bible and Theology department as an examiner, tutor and mentor to college students. To this day she retains an office the college faculty building as Professor Emerita (she never has been officially retired). Ruth Dearing’s career is unique not only for its longevity, but also for the fact that much of it was spent in various positions of leadership. Leadership in evangelical Christian education this century was dominated by men, so Dearing had few women counter-parts. There were times when objections were raised to her occupying the position of Principal of Prairie High School, or to her preaching the occasional sermon at the Prairie Tabernacle Church on Sunday mornings; however, as Dearing recounts, she performed these tasks at the request of PBI’s President, L. E. Maxwell. That she was a woman never seemed to be an issue with him. His concern was, “I am teaching women to minister; I want them to be free to minister.”1 With Maxwell’s blessing, Dearing exercised that freedom, frequently carrying out tasks traditionally undertaken by men.
Ruth Dearing was born in Southern California but her family moved to eastern Washington when she was still very young. After attending the University of Washington for three years, she transferred to Seattle Pacific College (now Seattle Pacific University), where she earned a Bachelors degree in Religious Studies. Dearing first learned about PBI when she met the founder and President, L. E. Maxwell, in 1934.
Maxwell came to Washington to speak at a Bible camp where she was working that summer. However, it was not until Maxwell’s second visit to the camp four years later that Dearing seriously considered attending PBI. Believing that Maxwell’s encouragement was also Divine leading, she enrolled in an intense one-year program of studies which qualified her to graduate in April of 1939. During that year of studies Maxwell asked her to consider joining staff for the coming year as a teacher in PBI’s newly opened high school. Thus began a career of service and ministry at Prairie Bible Institute which continues to this day.
Recognizing her gift for leadership, Maxwell asked PBI’s Board of Directors to appoint Dearing Vice-Principal of the high school in 1943. The Board agreed to Maxwell’s proposal. Dearing recorded her response to the news in the following words: “I never dreamed of such an appointment and had no aspirations to be an administrator. However, with his encouragement I accepted the position as from the Lord and trusted Him for His wisdom and grace.”2 Three years later she was asked to become Principal, and went on to hold that position for eighteen years.
Leadership responsibilities of a formal, positional nature were not the only kind which were passed on to Dearing at PBI, although she had these in abundance. During one period in the early 1950s Dearing was not only Principal of the High School (her duties there also included teaching a number of courses), but she simultaneously served on PBI’s Board of Directors, and held the position of Women’s Dean for both the Bible College and High School resident students. With typical understatement Dearing remarked: “It was just about too much to do anything really well, but I tried to do it all.”3 Maxwell also acknowledged her ability to lead by allowing her fill roles in the school which were traditionally understood (and, some would argue theologically ordained) to be the purvue of men. The first of these roles was teaching theology in the Bible College. In 1950 Maxwell asked Dearing to teach an introductory Bible course to the first year students. Eventually this led to her becoming a full time instructor in the Bible College after she resigned from the high school principalship in 1963. On different occasions male students would challenge her about her role as a Bible teacher, asking for a biblical justification. Dearing’s measured response was that she had not placed herself in that position, but was put there by her administrative superior, Mr. Maxwell. Trusting that those over her were guided by God when asking her to take on these responsibilities gave her the freedom to teach without any sense that she was violating a biblical commandment. On a more personal level, Dearing also stated that, based on careful interpretation of certain Bible verses –“ there are only two or three that are used to suggest that women should not teach – that they have been misinterpreted in their absolute ban on women teaching.”4 If that explanation did not satisfy, she would refer the student to either Maxwell, or Dr. Ted Rendall, who later succeeded Maxwell as Principal of the Bible College.
A second traditionally male leadership-role which Dearing assumed at Maxwell’s request, was preaching on occasion in Sunday services at the campus church, The Prairie Tabernacle. In the early 50s Maxwell approached Dearing about giving the Sunday morning sermon. Dearing’s first thought was, “I am not a preacher.” When she voiced this misgiving to Maxwell, his reply was, “Oh, I know you’re not, but I think you should do it.” From then on Dearing preached frequently at either the Sunday morning or evening services over the next several decades.
Maxwell’s decisions were not without precedent. In the earlier years of the school’s history he gave similar responsibilities to another woman staff member. Ms. Dorothy Ruth Miller joined PBI staff in 1928 and taught Bible courses in the college until illness forced her to retire in 1943. During that time she also preached frequently during Sunday services in the Prairie Tabernacle. In addition to these responsibilities Miller was also co-editor of, The Prairie Pastor, the School’s flagship publication in the 1930s. According to Dearing someone suggested Miller’s responsibilities at PBI were so extensive that her portrait should have hung in the Prairie Tabernacle along with all of the other Presidents of the school.
In addition to the leadership role women played on the staff of PBI, they were featured prominently as keynote speakers at the annual Missionary Conferences held on campus. Women missionaries such as Gladys Aylward, Dr. Helen Roseveare, and Elizabeth Elliot were specifically invited by Maxwell to come and speak at these large missionary rallies. Over the years it seems that Maxwell’s position on the place of women in leadership was remarkably consistent, and a good deal more liberal minded than was the norm for the evangelical Christian community of his day. Although Maxwell never went so far as to promote the ordination of women as clergy, he certainly endorsed a position which encouraged them to use their leadership abilities in para-church organizations, such as schools and mission agencies.
Perhaps it was fitting that Maxwell’s last published work was on this very issue, and that Ruth Dearing, who had been in leadership the longest of any woman on staff, helped with the final stages of writing and editing the work. Entitled Women in Ministry, the book was published in 1987, three years after Maxwell’s death. When questioned about how much of the book was actually her own work, Dearing modestly declined to take credit as an author, only mentioning that Maxwell’s position on the role of women in the Christian community reflected her own views.5
In 1963 Dearing submitted her resignation as High School Principal to the Board of Directors, sensing once more that some Board members were opposed to her being in the position because she was a women. When the Board accepted her resignation Maxwell offered her the position of Registrar of the Bible College, which she accepted. From then until 1985 she remained a full-time faculty member of the Bible College. During those years she continued to teach a range of Bible/theology courses, but like any good teacher, she was also committed to expanding her own educational horizons. In the later part of the 1960s, already in her late 50s, she began to study Greek for her personal enrichment. By the early part of the next decade when the resident Greek professor left, Dearing was asked to take over his classes as part of her duties. She continued to practice this habit of life-long learning well into her 70s when she began to study Hebrew at the Graduate School which PBI had recently started.
Her approach to learning, specifically to biblical education, has been an extension of her belief in what Bible College education should be. Although Bible Schools, such as PBI, traditionally did not seek official recognition from post-secondary accrediting agencies for their program of studies Dearing never considered that to indicate academic deficiency. “We do not magnify ignorance, neither do we defy higher education,” was her response to such criticisms. What was important for Dearing, though, was not the degree, but an honest, rigorous approach to studying the Bible as God’s inspired revelation of Himself. She observed: “I have found in my teaching that some very average students, and even some fairly new Christians, can get more out of God’s Word, and can discern spiritual truths better than those with a college education.”6
Ruth Dearing continues to work at PBI using the same principles which guided her early years. Fueled by a deep personal faith in God, and deferring to those people she believed were divinely placed in authority over her, she accepted the responsibilities and opportunities given to her. It resulted in a sense of personal freedom, the freedom to serve and to lead, but above all the freedom to minister to others.