Three weeks ago, I sat at my desk, looking over my lecture notes. My Baptist History class at McAfee begins at 1:30, and it was THE day we were scheduled to discuss twentieth-century developments. That class day always includes watching a 1987 PBS video, featuring Bill Moyers. The video is titled “Battle for the Bible,” and it is an overview of the controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1980s. About half-way through the video, Moyers interviews Nancy Sehested, who in 1983 helped found Baptist Women in Ministry.
I have met Nancy several times, and we email occasionally. She is one of my heroes of the faith. As I scanned my class notes that morning, my Inbox chirped, and I looked up to see that an email had come in from Nancy. I responded and told Nancy that my students on that very day were reading the sermon she preached at the first BWIM worship service in 1983 and then they would hear would be hearing her words from 1987 interview with Moyers. And Nancy responded, “Spirit mischief!” I love that thought. The Spirit is at work–with joy!
Attached to the email from Nancy were the remarks she had made in 1987 to the Shelby Count Baptist Association. Her words were powerful and need to be heard in 2017–thirty years later. Thanks, my friend, Nancy, for your prophetic voice, your courage in speaking truth, and your legacy of faithfulness!
On October 19, 1987, the Shelby County Baptist Association held its annual meeting at Audobon Park Baptist Church. Some weeks earlier a group of pastors meeting at Bellevue Baptist Church had assigned the Credentials Committee to investigate the “doctrinal soundness” of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church for having called a female pastor, Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested. The Committee reported to the annual meeting that its investigation revealed that Prescott had been able to give both historical and Scriptural bases for its decision, and that in view of varying practices among member churches it would be unfair to single out one church for action. The messengers rejected the Committee’s report, and a motion was made to withdraw fellowship from Prescott for “irregularities that may threaten the fellowship of the Association.” The motion carried. While the motion was being debated, Rev. Sehested rose to speak, and a motion was made to cut off debate. After some confusion she was permitted to speak. She walked to the pulpit so she could face the audience, which was largely hostile, and made the following extemporaneous remarks:
I am Nancy Hastings Sehested, messenger from Prescott Memorial Church, pastor of Prescott Memorial Church, and servant of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am a full-blooded Southern Baptist. My mother is a Southern Baptist deacon. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister for 70 of his 93 years. My dad is a retired Southern Baptist minister for 50 years of ordained ministry. My four siblings were the creative ones in our family, choosing creative careers. But me? No. I decided to follow in my dad’s and granddad’s footsteps and become a pastor.
By what authority do I preach? That question you ask of me. It is not a new question. It is a question that was asked of our Lord Jesus Christ on a number of occasions. He had not the authority of the religious establishment, not the authority of the state. By what authority did he minister? By the authority of none other than the Holy Spirit that moved in his midst. And so by what authority do I preach and bear witness to my faith? By the authority of the Southern Baptist Convention? By the authority of the Shelby County Baptist Association? By the authority of Prescott Memorial Baptist Church? No. No, my brothers and sister. By the authority of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, becoming a servant. And following in his footsteps, as a servant of Jesus Christ, who took the towel and basin of water and exemplified the kind of servanthood that each one of us is called to live under, I found a towel with my name on it. And each one of us has a towel with our name on it.
And who was it that taught me this wonderful freedom of the spirit? My Sunday School teachers. My pastor. My Southern Baptist church, who nurtured me and said, “God calls each one of us, so listen! Listen, Nancy!” And so I listened. They never said, “God calls each of you and with God everything is possible, remember, except to be able to stand behind a pulpit. Women can’t do that.” They never said that. They said, “With all things—God is able to do all things.” The winds of the Spirit blow where they will. And we do not know whither they come and whither they go. No, you’re right. It is not the autonomy of the local church that is under question here. It is not the autonomy of the Shelby County Baptist Association that is under question here. What is facing us is whether or not we will once again say that the freedom of the Holy Spirit is acting among us to call each one of us in whatever way we can to serve our Lord and witness to his light.
And while we are in this place debating about who can or cannot stand behind a piece of wood, there’s a world out there. And the cries of that world are growing louder. There’s a world that is desperately in need of all of us, a hurting world that is desperately needing each one of us to offer a word of healing and hope and the light that we carry within us. Are we going to say to that world that not all things are possible with God? Are we going to say to that world, “No, not all things are possible. A woman cannot preach!” But as you know, all things are possible with our God. And so, what will we do tonight? How will the world hear us tonight? Peter and John were questioned—by the religious people! They wondered, “How can uncommon and ‘irregular’ people like you preach and heal?” And what did they say? You’ll remember that what they said was, “Whether it is right in the sight of God, you must judge. But I cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge. For I cannot but speak of what I have seen and heard of a loving God, of a God who reaches out to each one of us, of a God who calls all kinds of “irregular” people like a murderer like Moses; to be a leader of people; and a persecutor like Paul, to be a leader of the early church; and women and men of all kinds of backgrounds: He transformed their hearts.
Are we going to say no to this incredible God who calls each of us? You’ll remember that Jesus was questioned about his Biblical interpretation—in his own home town by his people at his church, who wondered if he was reading Scripture right by his interpretation of Isaiah 61. And you’ll remember that they did not like his interpretation because he included people who they thought needed to be excluded. So I leave you with my testimony.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because God has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Pam Durso is executive director, Baptsit Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.