One of my biggest passions in ministry is helping others in their journey to accept and express God’s calling. Why is that? Because I believe that God has a purpose for all of us, and the sooner we know that, the sooner we can begin doing that which God has called us to do. I hold the belief that “all are called,” and that belief continues to take root as I encounter many different and wonderful people doing what they were created to do.
My experience in divinity school was formative in shaping this belief. At Wake Forest Divinity School, I belonged to a cohort of students. Each week we would decompress and engage one another about the challenges in ministry that we had faced. Never once did the women in our cohort stop to wonder if their ministry with God’s people needed to be validated, or if they should apologize for who they were. And, why would they? For them, and anyone who had been touched by their ministry, the “proof was in the pudding.”
But for me, I had little past experience with women being recognized as ministers. I grew up in a very conservative home, and our family attended what some would call a fundamentalist Baptist church. The women were allowed to teach children, sing in the choir, play the piano, and cook the many meals that we ate there, but the church drew the line at allowing women to preach, teach men, or belong to deacon ministry. The congregation believed that God only calls men to ministry. I will never forget telling my friend, Debra, that she was going against scripture when she said that she wanted to preach—we were twelve years old, and already I had been indoctrinated.
My childhood church based their biblical hermeneutic on scriptures such as 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and on years of stone-cold tradition. The congregation also tended to believe that if the Bible said it that was the end of the discussion. There was no room made for the historical or social context in which the words were written. Yet, context is precisely what is needed to reframe this archaic belief that only men have a say or that God calls only men. I do not mean to sound as if every teaching of my childhood church was malignant or in error. On the contrary, that church taught me other great things that I carry with me today. Even in respect to women in ministry, they were faithful to live out their interpretation of scripture, which as a Baptist I must honor even if I vehemently disagree.
Thankfully, as I grew up, I was introduced to other views and met several influential female ministers along the way, and I began to ask questions. I wanted to know the “why” behind Paul’s words concerning women in the church. I wanted to know whether those words were for the independent receiver of his letter, Timothy, or for us, the corporate church of modern times so I began to study scriptures.
In the Old Testament, several female leaders caught my attention: Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who played such a central part in the survival of the Hebrew people, and Deborah, the prophetess and judge of Israel who marched into battle with God on her side. Women were everywhere in the New Testament. Thus, to presume that the gospel story only included twelve men preaching in the Galilean hillside was misleading (Matthew 27:55). Mary Magdalene was an important follower of Christ. Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, had a close bond with Jesus, and of course, we cannot forget Mary whose selflessness ushered in our hope, Jesus Christ. The book of Acts tells us about Lydia, a seller of dyes, who helped financed the church’s ministry. In Paul’s letters, before he penned those subjugating words in Timothy, he instructed his young reader that his faith had been passed down to him through his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice.
After my study, it was official; I was now convinced that women possessed every right to proclaim the gospel proudly. The irony of my new understanding is that because I was still in a “traditional” church, I had to be silent in the church about my discovery. I was not free to talk about women ministers. But I soon found other like-minded Baptists. The first person to welcome me when I enrolled at Wake Forest was Bill Leonard, who taught me that being Baptist could indeed be something different than what I experienced in my narrow upbringing. I was finally able to be true to myself and true to my newly held beliefs.
After divinity school, as I began my pastoral ministry, I made a commitment to myself, to God, and to all Baptist women in ministry. I promised that I would do everything in my power to educate the churches I served and to help them affirm and celebrate women gifted for and called to ministry. Baptist Women in Ministry’s Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching offers me a perfect opportunity to make good on my promise in my first pastorate. I am proud to say that my church, Ross Grove Baptist Church, has invited four wonderful women in the month of February to preach, exhort, and inspire. These women have varied backgrounds and have served in different areas of ministry. My hope is that our young girls, all of our women members, and yes, our male members too, will see, through each speaker that God calls all people to ministry and that ministry can present many different opportunities. If you are in Shelby, North Carolina, in February, you are welcome to join us!
Marcus McGill is pastor of Ross Grove Baptist Church, Shelby, North Carolina.