Affirming and supporting women in all local church ministry positions is a distinctive of the moderate Baptist movement.
Sometimes, it takes instances like the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s removal of First Baptist of Jefferson City, Tennessee, from its fellowship for calling Ellen Di Giosia as pastor to remind us of this distinctive.
Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) has promoted and affirmed females in the pulpit and all ministry positions since its inception, launching Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching in 2007 as one means of doing so.
Fifty-four churches participated that first year, growing to more than 200 participating churches over the next decade.
BWIM’s “State of Women in Baptist Life” 2015 report noted that since 2005 “the total number of women pastors and co-pastors had grown to 174, which is a 71 percent increase over the last 10 years.”
Yet, only 6.5 percent of congregations affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and 13.4 percent of American Baptist congregations are currently led by female pastors.
By comparison, in 2015 only 0.47 percent of Baptist General Convention of Texas congregations had female pastors, 2.7 percent of Baptist General Association of Virginia churches, and 8.9 percent affiliated with the District of Columbia Baptist Convention.
Alliance of Baptists was the glaring exception with 42 percent of congregations led by women.
Clearly, moderate Baptists have significant work to do to expand the opportunities for women who feel called by God to pastoral leadership.
To encourage congregational leaders to preach and teach about the biblical basis for women serving in all ministry positions, I asked several Baptist leaders to share a few biblical texts and an explanation of how they could be used in sermons and mid-week Bible studies.
Mack Dennis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina, suggested the original ending of Mark’s Gospel (16:1-8) as a means to engage this topic during the Lent and Easter seasons.
“Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome must have been the very first preachers of the resurrection, and are, therefore, the standard-bearers for all Christian preaching,” he observed. “Continuing this logic, we should expect to find the church’s witness diminished wherever it has prevented women from preaching. … Go wherever the heirs of Mary, Mary Magdalene and Salome are preaching today, and you will very likely see a church doing the hard, good work of original, beautiful ministry. Having waited for so long at the foot of the cross – literally and figuratively – women are now (and always have been) the ones with the most authority to preach.”
Starlette Thomas, interim pastor of Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland, and minister to empower congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention, lamented, “Women of the Bible, known mostly for their sins, associated with their relationship to others, we barely hear her voice in sacred writ. And we rarely see her.”
“So, when a woman is called to ministry, she will need to prove that God speaks to her, that God sees her, that she has a name and God calls her by it,” she added, noting that she finds affirmation for her ministry in Galatians 3:27-28 and Colossians 3:11.
“Preached and taught, this Scripture reminds readers of the cultural boundaries crossed by Christ, the restrictions of the flesh that have no effect on him, the conditions of social roles that he has never agreed to,” Thomas observed. “Jesus came to set the captives free (Luke 4:18). Preacher and teacher alike are encouraged to show believers how God sees them. In the body of Christ, we are not known by our flesh but what he did with his. And his ministry began where persons would least expect it – in the belly of a woman.”
Bill Shiell, president and professor of pastoral theology and preaching at Northern Seminary, observed that “women with the gift of prophecy routinely spoke and preached in Baptist congregations until the 1920s and now since 2000” and offered a variety of texts for constructing a biblical understanding of women’s roles in local congregations.
Acts and Romans provide several examples of women engaged in various ministry roles: women preaching in Acts 2:17 and Acts 21:8-9, women teaching in Acts 18:18-28, Phoebe listed as a deacon in Romans 16:1-2, and Junia called an apostle in Romans 16:7.
Shiell also noted that the “criteria for New Testament church leadership are based on gifts given by the Spirit (Ephesians 4, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12), not pedigree, education, gender or experience” and that “in Corinth women prophesied, spoke in church and did not remain silent in front of men (1 Corinthians 11:5).”
He also addressed the (mis)use of 1 Timothy as a means to exclude women from pastoral roles, explaining, “Some younger widows in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 and 5:13-16 had fallen prey to the ‘health and wealth’ prosperity gospel in Ephesus. Paul does not permit them to teach men not because they are women but because they need correction like others in this situation. His statements apply only to this situation because Priscilla was clearly allowed to teach men in Ephesus and anywhere else.”
While serving as a CBF ministerial resident, I noted the disparity between the number of young ministers enrolling in moderate seminaries and divinity schools and those able to find pastoral positions upon graduation.
“I fear the future of the church looks rather bleak because if young ministers cannot find places to serve in pastoral roles, they may have to consider other vocations,” I wrote in 2011.
Replace “young” with “female” and I fear you have an accurate description of the current state of moderate Baptist life in 2018 – the good and indispensable work of organizations, churches, seminaries and individuals to promote, encourage and affirm women in ministry notwithstanding.
What can we do?
We move forward by an honest facing up to our reality – that a significant gap remains in the number of churches who affirm women in all ministry roles and those who have called women as pastors.
We move forward by an intentional effort to preach and teach a biblical understanding of women in ministry – that females were the first proclaimers of the resurrection, that females were among the earliest apostles and that taking one passage out of context and making it a definitive statement on gender roles is a misuse, an abuse, of Scripture.
We move forward by “being biblical.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on women in ministry. Previous articles in the series are:
3 Keys for Your Church Calling Women to Lead Ministry by Eileen Campbell-Reed
The Uphill Battle Women in Ministry Must Still Fight by Merianna Harrelson
How Churches Can Stop Stunting Women Called to Ministry by Tambi Swiney
2 Women – Different Centuries – Aid Women Preachers by Pam Durso