Women and the Southern Baptist Convention
By William E. Hull, Research Professor, Samford University

This sermon was prompted by two converging emphases. First, media reports during the past week have focused on actions taken at the recent meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) declaring “the office of pastor is limited to men.” This follows a 1998 action directing the wife “to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” Second, the observance of Father’s Day invites us to reflect on the role of men and women in relation to each other both in the family and in the church. Since the SBC has lifted the model of male headship and female subordination to the level of a core belief in its officially sanctioned statement of “The Baptist Faith and Message” (BFM), it behooves us to consider carefully what this development may mean for our congregation as a cooperating church.

I can already anticipate your negative reaction to a consideration of this agenda. Many in the pew are tired of hearing about another outbreak of that seemingly endless struggle called the SBC Controversy which they interpret primarily as a preacher fight for control and power. To judge from comments heard all week, most of our members are either embarrassed or angry over what has happened and would prefer to hear nothing more in the hope that it will somehow go away. In any case, just as Roman Catholic laity are not willing to let the hierarchy in Rome tell them whether to practice birth control, so Baptist laity are not about to let a few thousand messengers gathered in Orlando determine how they relate to members of the opposite sex. The prevailing response thus far in our congregation seems to be either to complain about, or to joke about, this action and then to hide behind the cherished doctrine of congregational autonomy. I am not convinced that this dismissive attitude represents an adequate response to what the SBC has done.

I. The Implications of SBC Action

First we need to understand that Baptists have long been cautious about adopting any confession of faith at all, since such statements carry the danger of creedalism against which we reacted strongly from the very beginning of our movement nearly four hundred years ago. The SBC had no such statement from its founding in 1845 until 1925 when a bitter controversy over evolution prompted the first such effort. This document served unchanged until 1963 when another bitter controversy over the interpretation of Genesis triggered its revision. From 1845 to 1998, during the first 153 years of its existence, the SBC managed to need only two statements of faith, each prompted by a severe internal crisis. But now, in just the last two years, we have had two more revisions at a time when the current leadership of the Convention is claiming that things could not be going better.

The mystery of why the SBC needs this sudden rash of revisions deepens when we consider that both changes comment on the role of women in relation to men, first in the family (1998) and now in the church (2000). Not a word on this subject appeared in either of our previous statements of 1925 and 1963 or in any other declarations used earlier by Baptists, such as the New Hampshire Confession of 1853. Nor was this matter addressed in any of the classic creeds of Christendom, such as those of Nicea (324) and Chalcedon (451), which have guided the church for almost 2000 years. Here we have a daring new departure in the construction and content of a confession of faith, ironically being pushed by those who like to style themselves as “conservative!”

The plot thickens when we realize that these novel amendments so recently enacted have long been controversial and even divisive within our Baptist fellowship. Indeed, the framers of these additions, which included two seminary presidents, were well aware that their key contentions regarding the place of women in the Christian faith are vigorously contested, not just by so-called “moderates,” but by those of their own theological persuasion called “inerrantists.”[i]  In cases of deep division within the Baptist ranks, the standard practice has long been to exclude such debated points from a statement of faith. For example, we have never agreed on one view of the millennium and so this doctrine has been omitted from all of our confessions, even though for Dispensationalists a pre-millennial view is crucial to their whole understanding of Scripture. By inserting one hotly debated viewpoint into the latest version of its statement of faith, the SBC has changed the very character of the BFM from a unifying to a polarizing document.

But why should the current SBC leadership want to inject a note of controversy into a document intended to strengthen consensus at a time when even its proponents acknowledge that there is no urgent problem in need of correction? The drafting committee itself released a study which showed that “no more than 35 women are senior pastors in more that 41,000 Southern Baptist churches nationwide,”[ii] scarcely a threat to the status quo of male dominance in the ministry. But while practices have hardly begun to change, the underlying attitudes toward gender relations do differ significantly within our Baptist family. An emphasis upon the complete equality of women to exercise their spiritual gifts within both the home and the church is characteristic of such diverse groups as: the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Alliance of Baptists, the dozen or so seminaries founded recently under Baptist sponsorship, most of the fifty-plus Baptist colleges and universities including Samford and its Beeson Divinity School, the Baptist Center for Ethics, Smyth and Helwys publishers of “Formations” literature, Woman’s Missionary Union national organization and many of its state organizations, the Baptist Joint Committee, and, of course, Baptist Women in Ministry.

It is in an effort to reject this viewpoint, to stifle this dissent, to eliminate these differences that the additions regarding women have been made to the BFM. We may assume that these changes reflect the sincere faith of their supporters but, in choosing this means to express their faith, the architects of BFM 2000 made its adoption an exercise in the politics of exclusion. Rather than both sides studying the issue together and seeking to resolve our differences by patient investigation and friendly dialogue, a decision was made to cut off discussion and settle the matter decisively, not by deeper study of the Biblical evidence or by weighing the merits of divergent viewpoints, but by majority vote of assembled messengers. If that sounds at first like the democratic thing to do, I would observe that, if Baptists could have handled the abolition question that way, we would still have slaves in the South! The plain fact is that equal rights are seldom if ever extended to an excluded group until after they have first been denied again and again by an overwhelming majority of those in power wishing to maintain the status quo.

Faced with the finality of SBC action and the futility of trying to overturn it, some might be tempted to say, “Let’s just ignore what they did and plot our own course for the future.” The freedom to do that very thing is a precious heritage, which continues to be affirmed in BFM 2000 where the church is defined as “an autonomous local congregation…[which] operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes.”[iii] But the solution is not that simple because the SBC influences the life of its member churches in a number of direct and inescapable ways. Let me offer but three illustrations of how the new SBC position on women will impact Mountain Brook Baptist Church in the days ahead.

(1)   We as a congregation could decide to stay with BFM 1963, as our largest state  convention in Texas has already done, but every professional employee of SBC agencies  will be required to subscribe to BFM 2000 as a condition of employment. This means that future pastors or ministerial staff who come to us from SBC seminaries will have been taught by faculty unanimously in support of these changes, that missionaries who visit to commend the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong offerings will henceforth be expected to endorse these changes, that Sunday School literature ordered from LifeWay Resources will be prepared by writers who accept these changes. There are upward of 15,000 employees in SBC agencies whose job it is to support and extend the work of our 40,000-plus churches. Now that they have gotten their marching orders in Orlando, we should not be surprised if changes to the BFM soon become a pervasive influence in much of Baptist life.

(2)   In our polity, not only are local churches autonomous but regional, state, national,  and international bodies are autonomous as well, which means that the SBC has no authority to superimpose its confessional views at other levels of our denominational life. This might encourage those who are unhappy with the SBC action to channel their cooperative efforts through the Birmingham Baptist Association, the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and the Baptist World Alliance, none of which has adopted the SBC position on women.[iv] But pressure will be applied on these bodies by SBC supporters to adopt BFM 2000, at least in principle, partly because the SBC is so much larger than any of these other bodies and also because they are all closely linked to the SBC through complex funding mechanisms. Even if such pressures are resisted, the effort itself will be disruptive, introducing needless dissension into our ranks, distracting us from our central mission, and giving the media another field day to ridicule the whole controversy.

(3)   Perhaps the hardest problem for those who would advocate a strategy of avoidance is the fact that Mountain Brook Baptist Church has long contributed generously through the Cooperative Program to the support of every SBC agency. But because our church has ordained women to the ministry and to the diaconate, practices that are not expressly forbidden by BFM 2000, none of our members are considered for positions of service on the board of any SBC agency. Solely on the basis of granting to women an equal rather that a subordinate role in the life of our church, we are denied any voice in the policy-making councils of those agencies that have been prime beneficiaries of our mission giving for decades. MBBC probably has more members than any other church in Alabama with the requisite experience to oversee the large business operations of SBC agencies, as has long been demonstrated by their service on the Samford Board of Trustees, yet not only are we boycotted from having any representation but so is every other church that shares our attitude toward women in church leadership.

So: if we cannot simply ignore this issue because of our deep denominational ties, then

what should we do about it? I believe that we could make any one of at least three mistakes in formulating a strategy for responding to this problem.

(1)   We could wait patiently for the government to solve our problem. After all,  time is on our side. Women are entering fully into all of the other major professions, such as law, medicine, and education. They now sit on the Supreme Court, are members of Congress, and aggressively campaign for the Presidency in both parties. In case you missed it, equal opportunity for women is now the law of the land, making discrimination by reason of gender illegal. Our seminaries are sending out a stream of talented women who have earned both standard and advanced degrees in pastoral ministry (M. Div., D. Min.). Churches will find it increasingly risky to ignore candidates for ministry positions simply because they are female, especially if they are most highly qualified applicants. My guess is that the courts will be slow to enforce equal opportunity rights for women seeking pastoral employment. Rather, the greater pressure will come from public outrage, as when George W. Bush’s recent visit to Bob Jones University resulted in a firestorm of criticism that prompted the institution to rescind its discrimination policy against interracial dating that the government had long sought to overturn by revoking its tax-exempt status.

(2)   We men could punt and wait for women to solve the problem that we created. After all, women constitute a clear majority of church members. Moreover, they are rapidly gaining leadership skills and financial clout in the workplace. At least some of them have learned hard-nosed negotiating skills from the feminist movement that they could adapt to the Byzantine world of denominational politics. But I do not look for women to unite in reversing the SBC action for a seldom-recognized reason. Many women are so afraid that their men will neglect family responsibilities---either because of intense business pressures to succeed, or because of addiction to football and fishing, or because our sexually permissive culture encourages them to dump the wife for a plaything half her age---that they will gladly let them be “head” and submit to them “graciously” if only this will apply enough religious pressure to keep them faithful and encourage them to help raise the kids.

(3)   We could complain about BFM 2000 and criticize those who engineered its changes in the hope that if we protest the problem long enough it might be corrected by a groundswell of opposition. There are two defects in this strategy. First, such constant carping makes us crabby, negative, and defensive. Nobody is attracted to a movement that is forever whining about what somebody else did. Second, we are not about to overturn this change by political action, whether it is negative or positive. Of the 11,800 messengers gathered in Orlando, “only a few dozen cast dissenting votes.”[v] The supporters of the new orthodoxy are solidly united and well disciplined, convinced that they are courageously following the literal dictates of Scripture while their detractors are bending to the trendy winds of modern culture. Of course, that is exactly what Southern preachers said 150 years ago when defending slavery, but all such arguments fall on deaf ears because the other side is not paying any attention to us. By their own admission, they would be happy if churches like ours would just leave the SBC so that they would no longer have to contend with our contrarian witness. There can be little doubt that the recent revisions of the BFM were undertaken partly in an effort to encourage just such a separation.

II. The Imperatives of the Biblical Witness[vi]

In a situation such as this, we cannot take refuge in congregational autonomy, in Baptist tradition, or in political superiority. Therefore we are driven of necessity to state everything on our best understanding of the will of God as revealed in Holy Scripture. Fortunately, this is the one point on which all sides agree. As Gardendale pastor Steve Gaines is reported to have said, “The burden of proof is on them to find it [i.e. gender equality which would permit women pastors] in the Scripture,”[vii] a challenge which we should gladly accept. If we can hammer out a clearer, wiser interpretation of the Bible than those who endorsed the views now found in BFM 2000, those Scriptural convictions will trump a majority vote every time. Instead of assuming that the issue is now settled, let us diligently search the Word and boldly proclaim the fullness of its truth in the confidence that God will vindicate our efforts in his own good time, just as he did for the opponents of slavery who urged its abolition against an overwhelming majority.

The Bible does not paint a pretty picture of the place which woman occupied in the ancient world. We need not be squeamish, however, about acknowledging her low estate even within Scripture, such as concubinage and polygamy. The issue for us is not how much progress was actually achieved during the millennium covered by Biblical literature, but whether God chose that often deplorable situation in which to disclose his ultimate intention for woman. In the Bible we find actual rather than ideal social conditions, in some respects better but in other respects worse than those which obtained elsewhere. What this means is that God did not necessarily pick out the most advanced society in which to work, but that he was willing to deal with a sometimes progressive and a sometimes regressive situation as he found it. Such a realization offers the hope that our wayward world may yet have a chance for divine help even in those cultures where women are still brutally exploited.

How may we determine the distinctive contours of Biblical faith and the center around which that faith coheres? The focal point is clearly Christ and all that He means for the life of humanity. Jesus himself recognized that without a Christocentric hermeneutic the unity of Scripture would be destroyed (Matthew 5:17-18). But the reality of Christ may be fully understood only if set in the context of a redemptive drama stretching from the creation to the consummation. These three realities, taken together, are constitutive for Biblical faith because, in them as nowhere else, divine truth from beyond history most clearly impinges upon the whole of God’s redemptive history. It is from this threefold perspective that woman may be viewed both in the light of the painful realities of this world and in the light of the perfected realities of the world to come.

Woman and Creation. The oldest and in many ways the most comprehensive Biblical witness to the place of woman as defined by creation is found in Genesis 2:4b-25. There we meet the male in his solitude as an incomplete creation: it was “not good that he should be alone” (2:18a). When no other living creature could be found to fill that void (2:19-20), God fashioned woman to be a companion “corresponding” to him (literally: “a helper according to what is in front of him;” that is, a kind of mirror image of his humanity). When man was presented with his “opposite number,” he immediately rejoiced to discover that in her he now had both otherness (i.e. community) and sameness (i.e. “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” 2:23), a relationship which he could never sustain with the animals. So necessary was each to the other that their attachment was to transcend every other loyalty, even the blood tie between parent and child (2:24). Just as a piece of paper, by its nature, has two sides, so humanity, by its created nature, has two sexes. Neither the male nor the female alone, but only the two of them together as “one flesh,” constitute and complete what it means generically to be human.

Because this account depicts woman as having been created after man, from man, and for man, some have seen in its concept of complementary companionship a theology of female subordination of which there is no hint in the text. Any doubt is dispelled by the creation account given pride of place in Genesis 1:26-31. There, “God created man in his own image” creating “male and female” concurrently (1:27). Gender differentiation was inherent in God’s design for humanity from the outset: the female was not an accident, an afterthought, or an expedient. A paradoxical singularity and plurality of being (“God created him; male and female created he them, 1:27) corresponded to or “imaged” a similar reciprocity in God’s being (“Let us make man…he created him/them,” 1:26-27). We, like God, were meant to be a fellowship within ourselves though, unlike God, our internal duality is defined by gender.

But that essential partnership of male and female was shattered by the impulse of the two genders to achieve their destiny separately (Genesis 3). At first there was no shame in their nakedness (2:25) because they saw each other in their solidarity but, once the serpent had exploited their pride to drive the wedge of alienation, they began to see each other in terms of their differences (3:11-13) and so covered their nakedness (3:7). As punishment for her effort to redefine the ultimate meaning of life in terms of what she could get rather than what she could give, woman exchanged a possible Paradise for the pain of childbirth, the burdens of raising a large family, and the domination of her husband (3:16).

So much has been made of these afflictions imposed on woman that they deserve further comment, especially the final one on subjection to the husband (“he shall rule over you”). Note the following: (a) The husband’s rule was not arbitrarily imposed like that of a conquering despot but functioned in the context of her continuing “desire” for him (3:16b). (b) The punishment was not sexually discriminatory since man was given an equal share of problems. (3:17-19). Just as fertility for the woman was found in the womb where she would toil in pain to produce, so fertility for the man was found in the soil where he likewise would toil “in the sweat of his face” to produce. (c) The terms of the sentence described conditions as they actually existed for both women and men in the ancient world; that is, the story helped to account for the darker side of human existence by attributing it to judgment for sin. The point cannot be stressed too strongly that these consequences of human folly were not divine ordinances decreed for all time; rather, “these are evils which the author feels to be contrary to the ideal of human nature, and to the intention of a good God.”[viii]

This insight is crucial to an interpretation of the place of woman in the Biblical doctrine of creation. The whole structure of the account in 2:4b-3:24  was designed to magnify the contrast between the ideal intention for woman created by God (2:18-25) and the tragic alternative which she and her mate created for themselves by flaunting the divine order. But this means, further, that it was precisely her sexual plight---because it rooted in sin rather than in God---which the whole history of salvation is working to redeem. The Bible never understood divine punishment as an eternal curse. Rather, tragedies permitted by God as the price of humanity’s freedom to fail were transformed by Him at infinite cost as a result of the divine determination to succeed. Male dominance and female subjection were very real. They belonged to the Old Age of fallen humanity that had not yet passed away. But they did not belong to God’s good creation. They were not a part of the way things were meant to be.

Jesus, of course, was the supreme interpreter of creation theology within the Bible (Matthew 19:3-9/Mark 10:2-12). In response to a question regarding the rights of a man to divorce his wife, he identified the Mosaic legislation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as an effort to deal with “hardness of heart” but, over against that, set the “beginning of creation” (Mark 10:6) when “it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). It is significant that Jesus attributed to sin the male dominance seen so clearly in the unfair divorce laws of his day. Bt contrast, he based his positive understanding of gender differences on a fusion of the key elements in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, thereby acknowledging both the unity and the primacy of these passages. For him, God had “joined together” two equal partners as “one,” thereby ruling out not only the male prerogative of divorce by any other form of unfaithfulness by either partner which would weaken the marriage bond (Mark 10:11-12).

Unlike Jesus, Paul did have occasion to refer to the subordination of woman rooted in Genesis 3:16 (cf. I Corinthians 11:3-9; 14:34; Ephesians 5:22-24; I Timothy 2:11-15). In so doing, however, he was careful to maintain the unity and equality of the sexes in the creative purpose of God (I Corinthians 11:11-12; Ephesians 5:28-33; and, by implication, I Corinthians 6:16). The clue to this apparent dichotomy of status is to found in Paul’s understanding of God’s unfolding salvation. As Romans 5-8 makes clear, he saw Christians living where the Old Age and the New Age impinged or “overlapped” (I Corinthians 10-11). Insofar as they still lived “in the world,” in a fallen creation subjected to futility and bondage (Romans 8:20-21), male dominance and female subjection were ever-present realities which could not be ignored lest social chaos erupt and Christianity be branded as a libertine escapist movement. But insofar as they now lived “in the Lord,” in a creation destined to “obtain the glorious liberty” which already belonged to the children of God (Romans 8:21), these cultural restrictions were already transcended. In the eyes of the world, women at worship could be completely misunderstood if they did not keep silent (I Corinthians 14:34; I Timothy 2:11), whereas the eyes of faith these same women were free to pray and prophesy or even to teach (I Corinthians 11:5; Titus 2:3).

Woman and Christ. For the Bible, the meaning of the Christ was uniquely incarnated in the historical ministry of Jesus. It is striking that his message nowhere included references to circumcision, that distinctively male rite of initiation from which Jewish women and female proselytes were excluded. In place of this ancient practice that had assumed such importance in first century Judaism (Ephesians 2:11), Jesus focused on faith as the basis of one’s standing before God. This immediately put women, as well as foreigners, on equal footing with Jewish males (Mark 5:34; Matthew 8:10). Moreover, he demanded that women make their own personal commitment to him even if it shattered the solidarity of the family (Matthew 10:34-36; Luke 12:51-53). In response, women formed a special band that accompanied him from Galilee, several of whom were so prominent that their names have become a part of the gospel record (Luke 8:2-3). “The fact that women followed Jesus is without precedent in contemporary Judaism.”[ix]

Examples might be multiplied of the ways in which women became an integral part of Jesus’ ministry. In contrast to Jewish parallels, both his parables and his miracles often dealt tenderly with women. He talked to them in public (John 4:27) and made friends of them in the home (Luke 10:38-42). No wonder they were the last at the cross in courage (Matthew 27:55-56), the first at the tomb in compassion (Mark 16:1). The important point to grasp here is the theological reality underlying this remarkable pattern. Albrecht Oepke provides a clue: “Jesus is not the radical reformer who proclaims laws and seeks to enforce a transformation of relationships. He is the Savior who gives Himself especially to the lowly and oppressed and calls all without distinction to the freedom of the Kingdom of God.”[x]

That is why the Apostle Paul could affirm, in the clearest expression of his Christocentric faith: “there is no ‘male and female’; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Viewed historically, behind that claim lay the important role of women in the founding of the church (Acts 1:14; 2:17; 12:12), in the spread of the missionary movement (Acts 16:13-15; 17:4, 12, 34; 18:18, 26), and in positions of leadership and service (Romans 16:1, 3, 6, 12, 15).  But viewed theologically, here is not merely the claim that in Christ the “male and female” duality of creation has been redeemed from its corruption by sin, but also that in the life of the Body of Christ (3:27) it has actually been transcended. The children of God who live by a faith (3:26) which expresses itself in baptism (3:27a), have thereby been “clothed” with a Christ-identity (3:27b) that supersedes racial, social, and sexual identities.

Woman and the Consummation. Both Jewish and Christian thought distinguished between the Messianic Age on earth and the Age to Come in the world beyond. The basic difference was that, for Judaism, these two epochs lay beyond the final period of human history and so were sharply discontinuous with the old dispensation, whereas, for Christianity, Jesus brought the Messianic Age into the midst of history thereby fulfilling the Old Age and foreshadowing the Age to Come at the end of history. Let us see how this distinctive outlook affected the Biblical theology of woman.

During the ministry of Jesus, the Sadducees sought to snare him with a particularly offensive illustration of levirate marriage to seven successive brothers (Matthew 22:23-33/Mark 12:18-27/Luke 20:27-40) on which basis they asked, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?” (Mark 12:23), hoping thereby to justify their rejection of the future life by ridiculing its premises. In his response, “when they rise from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25), Jesus exposed a basic fallacy: his opponents had not reckoned with “the power of God” to fashion an order so completely different from earth that it need not perpetuate any of its ambiguities. Since the angels were in the heavenly court prior to creation, they must be non-fleshly creatures and therefore without gender. When the husbands and wives of earth exchange their physical bodies for spiritual bodies (I Corinthians 15:44), they obviously leave the earthly institution of marriage behind. Oepke traces the implications of this vision for Jesus’ hearers: “In holding out the prospect of sexless being like that of the angels in the consummated kingdom of God, He indirectly lifts from woman the curse of her sex and sets her at the side of man as equally a child of God.”[xi]

Paul entertained a similar view which helps to explain one of the most puzzling passages in his epistles: “The appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none….For the form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7:29-31). The Apostle was aware that, sooner than most realize, the whole order to which marriage belongs would terminate---whether at the end of world history through the return of Christ or at the end of each individual’s personal history through death---and therefore now was the time to prepare for that impending heavenly existence. This could be done neither by divorce (7:27) nor by separation or sexual restraint (7:3-5), but by practicing an “undivided devotion to the Lord” (7:35). The intensity of Paul’s commitment to the world beyond was remarkable indeed: so clearly did the Age to Come loom on his spiritual horizon that he was ready for it to reshape the most intimate relationships of earthly life.

When we put all of the relevant passages together they coalesce into a coherent perspective that sets human sexuality into a “saving history” framework. Both Jesus and Paul recognized three distinct “ages” or stages in the relationship of male and female: (1) The Old Age, in which “hardness of heart” led to male dominance, female subjection, unfaithfulness and exploitation. (2) The Messianic Age, in which Christ makes possible a realization of the original intention for man and woman in the created order, namely an equality of reciprocal loyalty, fidelity, and support. (3) The Age to Come, in which our earthly relationships will be transcended and our unity-in-reciprocity will be fulfilled, not by oneness with opposite sex, but by a perfect oneness with God-in-Christ.

This biblical way of stating its perspective on woman may be applied most relevantly in two respects. Historically, we may ask where the church in our generation wishes to be located on this salvation timetable. Shall we revert once more to the Old Age, as if woman had not been punished enough, and seek new ways to keep her in subjection? Or shall we take seriously the fact that Christ has come and liberated both male and female from their age-long strife to new possibilities of mutual respect and caring? Indeed, dare we push our spirits to the boundary where time itself shall be no more in order to go beyond a careful equality and mutuality of the sexes to a realm of pure spiritual adventure in Christ where gender matters not at all? These same questions may also be asked personally as I decide just how far I am willing to recapitulate in my own experience the age-long quest to regain Paradise Lost and see woman as she was meant to be, the indispensable “otherness” without whom my humanity is incomplete, and by truly finding her to discover beyond us both that essential humanity which lives both now and forevermore with “undivided devotion to the Lord.”

III. Gender Equality in the Life of the Church

The Biblical convictions which we have just surveyed can be as much of a liberating force in the twenty-first century church as they were in the first century church. All over the world, Christians are finding new vitality by offering unlimited spiritual fulfillment to both halves of the human race. Interesting enough, much of this activity is found on the conservative side of the theological spectrum where the SBC claims to be positioning itself. Gary Parker has cited three examples: (1) Promise Keepers has opened its clergy meetings to women because, as founder Bill McCartney explained, “We have learned that thirteen percent of our churches are pastored by ladies.” (2) Willow Creek Church, known internationally for its “seeker services,” does not, according to pastor Bill Hybels, “restrict any office or position in the church on the basis of gender.” (3) Billy Graham, when asked by David Frost about women’s ordination, said: “Women preach all over the world. It doesn’t bother me at all from my study of the Scriptures.”[xii]

At bottom, it really does not matter if we are “for” gender equality in our church unless it makes a difference in the effectiveness with which we minister. Let us prove by the health of our congregation that we can do God’s work better when we utilize the contribution of male and female alike without restriction. There is not opportunity here even to list, much less to discuss, the many ways that the life of our congregation can be enriched by encouraging the full participation of women on the same basis as men. Let me select three areas to illustrate how men and women can work together in a partnership of equals as servants of Christ.

The Initiative of God. Baptists have always based the authorization for ministry, not on apostolic succession, but on the call of God. Therefore it is only logical that some who support BFM 2000 would claim that God does not call women to be pastors. The theology behind this assumption is not unlike that of an early Christian group called Judaizers who insisted that one must follow their ancient traditions---that is, embrace circumcision, Sabbath observance, and Temple sacrifice---in order to become a Christian. But God kept running ahead of this restrictive theology and saving Gentiles before they embraced these Jewish practices. When, for example, Peter was criticized for baptizing the uncircumcised Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), his defense was that God had validated the centurion’s conversion by filling him with the Holy Spirit quite apart from meeting any of the conditions imposed by the Judaizers (Acts 11:1-18).

Note carefully the key principle that Peter learned from this experience: “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17). Here is a situation in which theology was being challenged to catch up with experience. For centuries, pious Jews had believed that Scripture was telling them to circumcise every convert, a practice which became urgently important to them in the first century when they felt threatened with extinction through cultural assimilation. But now a new day had dawned when their understanding of what God had said was being reinterpreted by what God had actually done! This explains why circumcision, a dominant practice throughout the Old Testament, was dropped almost immediately in the New Testament, never again to become a restriction limiting Gentile participation in the Christian movement.

Baptists today face the same situation in regard to women as Peter did in regard to Gentiles. For generations we were rooted in the soil on farms or as laborers and shopkeepers in the cities. In that social system, men did the “public” work while women stayed at home, thus it was only natural for men to exercise leadership in the churches. But now all of that has changed. Most of our Baptist women are in the workplace where equal employment opportunities are taken for granted. Years ago, very few women indeed heard God’s call to minister, except perhaps in a very different culture on some foreign field. After all, back then they could not even gain admission to an SBC seminary to receive the training needed for such service. Today, when all of the educational opportunities available to men are also open to women, when women are assuming leadership roles in every other vocation, when there is a chronic shortage of qualified male candidates for ministry, is it any wonder that many more women are hearing and heeding God’s call to ministry?

Baptists place a high priority on personal religious experience. If a young man steps forward and declares with clarity and conviction that God has called him to the ministry, we are almost certain to ordain him after examination by a council of mature church leaders. How, then, can we do otherwise if a young woman steps forward, if her testimony is radiant with an impelling sense of God’s call, if her understanding of Baptist faith and practice is sound and sensible, if she is willing to prove the sincerity of her dedication through years of sacrificial preparation, if her abilities are equal or superior to those of many male ministers? With Peter we must ask, Who are we to hinder the freedom of God to call whom he will? Dare we limit his grace by our inherited traditions? Let us learn to rejoice rather than to resist when God is ready to do a new thing in our midst.

A Representative Ministry. Turning now from the divine to the human side of the equation, Baptists began as a lay movement and that of necessity because ordination was controlled by the state church. For this reason we emphasize the priesthood of every believer rather than viewing the ministry as some “official” group with a special status denied to other members. We take seriously the promise of Acts 2:17-18 that God’s Spirit is now available to all, whether they be male or female, young or old, master or servant. It is in the power of the Spirit that every Christian ministers, whether it be to prophesy, to see visions, or to dream dreams. As the entire Book of Acts makes clear, it is not by ordination but by spiritual empowerment that God’s work is done in our world.

Then why do Baptists set apart ministers and deacons by ordination? Clearly they are meant to be leaders who are representative of the entire ministering membership rather that to be what BFM 2000 calls “scriptural officers” of the church. The requirements of the democratic process demand some such arrangement. Obviously a congregation of several thousand members, as was the case from the beginning at Pentecost, cannot conduct its business as a committee of the whole. And so manageable groups, such as the Twelve and the Seven, soon began to function on behalf of the larger body (Acts 6:1-6). In the first century, it was customary for such leadership groups to be exclusively male, since women had virtually no legal rights or public role in society, being cared for by their fathers if single, by their husbands if married, or by their eldest son if widowed. But it may be noted that female leadership groups did emerge with qualifications comparable to those for bishops and deacons (I Timothy 3:1, 8, 11), possibly to care for the large number of widows who had no immediate family to provide support (I Timothy 5:3-16).

Today, however, the situation is totally different. Not only are women totally enfranchised in society but many of them function as heads of household. For years the argument was made that women could have influence in a male-led church through their husbands, but this assumption ignores not only the rising number of women who have no husband because they are single, divorced, or widowed, but also those women whose husbands are either not Christian, inactive, or in another church. Let us be both honest and practical: is there an all-male clergy or diaconate anywhere that can claim to understand and minister to the deepest needs of half or more of the members who are female? Of equal seriousness: what does it say about all Christians being a priesthood of believers if there are no women serving as priests in the leadership of the church?

It is neither candid nor consistent for Baptists to give women utterly crucial spiritual responsibilities on the one hand but deny them any status and recognition on the other hand. For example, women have long done more than their share of Bible teaching in the Sunday School, have supported our vast missionary enterprise with almost no help from the men, and have provided virtually all of the leadership for our children and youth during the most formative years of their spiritual development. Functionally, women have been performing many of the most important ministries of the church while, formally, most of the status implied by ordination has been handed out to men. To refuse to correct this imbalance is to perpetuate a “put down,” as if women were somehow inferior to men, and to risk making the “glass ceiling” more cramped in the church than it is in the world.

The Sharing of Gifts. In addition to our emphasis on grace, by which we affirm our willingness to let God give what he will even before we are ready to receive it, Baptists have placed equal stress on the importance of faith, by which we mean that our response is also a crucial component in the divine-human encounter. The sovereign grace of God does not leave us passive but rather frees us to participate gladly in the new thing that God is doing. To limit or exclude women from leadership roles in the church or in the home strike at the heart of this understanding of faith. For we do not decide whether to be male or female; rather, we find ourselves fashioned into one or the other by the reproductive process which God has established for human procreation. The ultimate danger here is to assign a negative value to something that God has done in which we have no choice. Even if we could by scientific means control the gender of our offspring, would we wish to tamper with the approximately equal distribution of males and females?

In place of arbitrary restrictions that would deny women some opportunity for service simply because of their gender, let us magnify the freedom of each person to share fully such spiritual gifts as he or she has been given. Women obviously have a special sensitivity to the needs of other women, particularly in such areas of pregnancy, child-care, and homemaking. What male, whether he be minister or deacon, could possibly be as effective as a female in helping women deal with such intimate crises as infertility, miscarriage, or menopause? Women also need a spiritual sisterhood to see them through such traumas as divorce or widowhood or their own approaching death. But this ministry of women is not limited to other women. Precisely because of their gender, women have their own distinctive expectations of worship, ways of witnessing, theological agenda, ethical concerns, and styles of leadership. Their approaches are not necessarily better than those more typical of men. But they are different because of their rootage in feminine experience and thereby likely to be both relevant to the female half of the church and broadening to the male half of the church.

As the twenty-first century dawns, Christianity finds itself facing awesome challenges which will require the most courageous and creative leadership of which we are capable. To put it plainly, we are going to need all of the help we can get, whether from clergy or laity. If so, then why respond with one hand tied behind our back by limiting women with spiritual gifts from serving in any leadership position? If, in Christ and in his body, there really is “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28), can we not work toward the kind of church in which each of us would just as soon be a man or a woman in terms of the potential which that gender offers for spiritual fulfillment?

Such a goal will not be easy to attain simply because Baptists have accepted gender restrictions for centuries. The dilemma is that when we change the way things have been done for hundreds of years our detractors can accuse us of being “liberal” when in actuality we are bring “conservative” to champion realities that have been true for two thousand years. Traditions die hard in the Deep South, none more so that stereotypes regarding the role of women. But remember that women such as Lydia and Priscilla and Phoebe came into their own and furnished crucial leadership to the early church in ways that would have been impossible in the Jewish, Greek, or Roman religions of that day. How ironic! The first century church, despite all of the limitations placed on women by its culture, was ahead of its time whereas the twenty-first century church, despite all of the opportunities offered to women by its culture, is in danger of falling behind its time. Let us resolve to change provincial Southern traditions at least as much as the early church changed provincial Palestinian traditions in the spirit of the Christ who offers spiritual freedom and equality to all who follow him.

[i] See, for example, the statement on “Men, Women and Biblical Equality” issued by Christians for Biblical Equality  which is appended to this sermon. A typical book is Stanley J. Grenz with Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995). Several inerrantists who affirm women in church leadership are listed in Ruth Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).

[ii] Greg Garrison, The Birmingham News, June 15, 2000, p 2-A.

[iii] Article VI, “The Church.”

[iv] When the Alabama Baptist State Convention met on November 17,1998, a resolution was offered “in support of the Southern Baptist Convention’s amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message related to the family” which had been adopted by the SBC in Salt Lake City on June 9, 1998. But the State Board of Missions, not the Resolutions Committee, offered instead “A Position Statement on the Family” which omitted entirely the notions of headship and submission in the marital relationship. This splendid statement was duly adopted by the messengers. See the 1998 Annual: Alabama Baptist State Convention, pp. 71, 105-6. When asked about the omission of SBC language, Convention President Leon Ballarad replied, “It was a conscious effort to be sensitive. It’s the role of the husband and wife to be individuals. They each bring their individuality to the marriage.” Commenting that the word  “submit” has been misunderstood and misused, Ballard continued: “I would be careful with that word. Some men have used that against their wives.” Greg Garrison, The Birmingham News, November 18, 1998, p. 1-A

[v] Greg Garrison, The Birmingham News, June 15, 2000, p. 1-A.

[vi] This entire treatment in Part II is abridged from a longer study, “Woman in Her Place,” Review & Expositor, vol. 72, no. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 5-17.

[vii] Cited by Greg Garrison, The Birmingham News, June 18, 2000, p. 17-A.

[viii] John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930), p. 95 (cf.p.83).

[ix] Werner Foerster, Palestinian Judaism in New Testament Times (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964), p. 127.

[x] Albrecht Oepke, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1964), vol. 1, 784.

[xi] Oepke, 1, 785.

[xii] Gary E. Parker, “Women in the Pulpit?,” Religious Herald, June 15, 2000, pp. 8-9. Our Gardendale friend, Steve Gaines, allowed himself to claim that this view of gender equality is “not in the New Testament, it’s in feminist thought,” but McCartney, Hybels, and Graham are as far from what Gaines means by “feminist thought” as one could imagine. The Birmingham News, June 18,2000, p. 17-A.

[This article is an expanded version of a sermon delivered in the  Mountain Brook Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama, on June 18, 2000,  one week following the adoption of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message .