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Southern Baptist Women-in-Ministry Champion Dies

Roy Honeycutt, who championed women in ministry as president of Southern Baptists’ oldest seminary, died Tuesday at age 78.

Honeycutt’s inauguration as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1982 came at a time when the number of ordained women in the Southern Baptist Convention was growing rapidly.

An Old Testament scholar, Honeycutt compiled a solid record of support for women in ministry during his 11-year tenure as president of the Louisville, Ky., school. Yet it was a legacy that would not live beyond his presidency.

When he assumed office, the number of ordained Southern Baptist clergywomen had increased more than seven-fold in the previous seven years, according to the inaugural issue of Folio, newsletter of Southern Baptist Women in Ministry. The number of ordained Southern Baptist women had grown from 20 in 1975 to 150 in 1981, the 1983 the article said.

Under Honeycutt’s leadership, the seminary in 1984 hired one of those newly ordained women, Molly Marshall, to become the first female theology professor at a Southern Baptist seminary. Marshall, a doctoral graduate of Southern, had served as pastor of a rural Kentucky Baptist church. She recently became president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, the first woman to lead a Baptist seminary accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.

Also in 1984 Old Testament scholar Pamela Scalise became the seminary’s first biblical studies professor and veteran Southern professor C. Anne Davis became the first woman to head one of the seminary’s academic units. Davis was named dean of the newly-created Carver School of Church Social Work.

Also during Honeycutt’s tenure, Elisabeth Lambert was promoted from dean of students to vice president for student services. No other SBC entity, except for Woman’s Missionary Union, has employed a woman at the vice presidential level.

Strides women were beginning to make in Southern Baptist life did not go unnoticed by fundamentalists rising to power in the convention. Vehement opposition to women’s ordination surfaced in a resolution passed at the SBC annual meeting in 1984. The resolution opposed women as pastors in order to “preserve a submission that God requires because man was the first in Creation, and woman was first in the Edenic Fall.”

A month after the resolution, Honeycutt voiced his support for women in ministry in an interview published in The Tie, the seminary’s alumni magazine.

“Southern Baptist churches are free under God to call whomever the Spirit may lead them to select as ministers,” he said. “Individuals may properly serve at whatever staff positions local churches believe under God to be appropriate. Southern Baptist churches may ordain or refrain from ordaining individuals as they may determine on the basis of their interpretation of the Bible.”

The seminary’s position on women in ministry changed abruptly after Honeycutt’s retirement in 1993. In a news conference shortly after his election, Honeycutt’s successor, Al Mohler, stated opposition to women serving as pastors of congregations.

Mohler’s comments drew criticism from seminary alumni and other supporters of women in ministry. Yet the new president held firm to his position and the seminary began requiring that new professors oppose women serving in pastoral leadership.

Scalise, Davis and Lambert left the seminary just prior to Honeycutt’s retirement or shortly after Mohler’s inauguration. Marshall resigned after Mohler threatened to bring charges that she was teaching outside the seminary’s confessional statement, The Abstract of Principles.

The issue of women serving as pastors later led to the firing of the social work dean and the demise of the social work school, then the nation’s only accredited social work school housed within a theological seminary.

Diana Garland, who succeeded Davis as dean when the founding dean decided to return to full-time teaching, said Mohler’s insistence that new professors oppose women serving as pastors threatened the school’s accreditation. Mohler fired Garland for making that claim in a public forum.

After Garland’s firing, Mohler and the seminary trustees launched a study to determine whether the seminary could maintain a social work school. Eventually, the trustees and Mohler concluded that the tenets of the social work profession were incompatible with the core beliefs of the seminary.

In the 1990s, opposition to women serving as pastors became increasingly entrenched in the SBC. Most Baptist churches favoring women’s ordination aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and/or the Alliance of Baptists.

The SBC in 2000 added a section to its statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message, which opposed women serving as pastors.

After leaving the seminary presidency, Honeycutt served for a brief time as chancellor–an honorary position–but he was rarely seen on campus in retirement. He and his wife, June, bought a house not far from the seminary and remained active in their church, Crescent Hill Baptist. For many years, Crescent Hill housed the office of Baptist Women in Ministry.

Funeral services will be held at the church Thursday at 11 a.m. The family has requested that memorial contributions be made to Crescent Hill church or the Baptist World Alliance.

Pat Cole is a journalist in Louisville, Ky.