What drives your beliefs and values regarding women in ministry? In Part 1 of this blog series, I shared about my spiritual journey from holding rigid views of women’s roles in the church to fully embracing God’s call to all. I recounted how my beliefs and convictions were questioned by my wife, then further challenged when I arrived at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1980. What I was taught as a child was not congruent with what I was experiencing. That incongruence compelled me to holistic study of the Bible with my eyes and heart wide open to new truth. Here are some of my discoveries:
- God created males and females as equals. Adam and Eve enjoyed a partnership of equals until the fall. Male domination evolved and led to broken relationships between men and women. So, I believe we can surmise male domination is not God’s ideal but a direct result of sin and disobedience.
- Broken male-female relationships often result in mandated roles for the sexes. Surely, this is a problem, not a goal. Domination of human beings violates God’s good creation and makes ineffectual Jesus’ command to love neighbor. We know love is action.
- The Old Testament underscores Israel’s patriarchy. Women were barred from participating in much of religious life. There are examples, however, of nontraditional roles for women: Deborah was a prophet and judge (Judges 4:4), Huldah was a prophet during the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22:14), and the woman of noble character is lifted up (Proverbs 31). Despite restricted roles in the Old Testament, we find women leading, preaching and running businesses. We certainly don’t get the idea from these Old Testament examples that women are in any way inferior to men.
- Jesus came to make us one and on the cross broke down the walls of hostility dividing people, including gender roles found in the Old Covenant. As a result, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Of course, race, class and gender remain human realities, but those categories simply don’t matter to God. The significant involvement of women in Jesus’ ministry is indisputable. The extent to which women participated in and supported Jesus’ ministry is remarkable given the social context.
- Elsewhere in the New Testament, women are often portrayed as the more exemplary disciples of Jesus (widow’s mite, Mary’s anointing of Jesus, women who stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion, etc.). It is also notable that Jesus appeared first to the women after his resurrection and trusted them to tell others.
- Women were very active in the missionary enterprise of the early church. Priscilla was a teacher (Acts 18:26), Phoebe was a deacon (Romans 16:1), Euodia and Syntyche were church workers who worked beside Paul telling the Good News (Philippians 4:2-3), Junia was an apostle (Romans 16:7), and other women were prophets (1 Corinthians 11:5).
- Finally, we must address commonly sited passages often used to exclude women from ministry. In 1 Corinthians 14:33-34, Paul offers this instruction, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak…” This instruction comes within the context of a discourse about tongues and orderliness in worship. Apparently, some women were disrupting worship with their noisy discussion about tongues. Paul tells them to remain silent. To read this as a command for the church for all time ignores the context for Paul’s instruction and is inconsistent with overt examples of women in leadership roles. In 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must remain silent.” Taken literally as an authoritative command this passage would keep women from significant leadership roles in the church, but that doesn’t jibe with other New Testament passages that clearly evidence women leading and proclaiming. Again, understanding the context is imperative. This section includes Paul’s instruction about worship. Certainly, there were cultural expectations regarding women exercising self-restraint lest they be criticized for calling attention to themselves in worship (note instructions about adornments in the same passage). Some scholars believe Paul is simply prohibiting teaching by women who are not properly instructed or trained.
As a result of my study and subsequent hands-on practical experience, I now believe scriptures historically used to keep women from clergy leadership were instructions to specific congregations and were not intended to forever define who can and cannot serve the church. To understand these passages literally severely limits the gifts God’s Spirit entrusts to the church. We say “NO” to God’s gracious outpouring of gifts to women. More importantly, we limit the church’s impact in the world! However, when we look at these “restrictive passages” in proper context and put them in conversation with the whole of biblical witness, I believe we must advocate for women in ministry.
Some Baptists over the past 30 years have made significant progress in calling out and embracing the gifts of women. This is commendable, but we have a long way to go. Many Baptist congregations continue to exclude women from serving as deacons or staff ministers. Why? I find Christian Smith’s use of the word biblicism instructive. In The Bible Made Impossible – Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, Smith defines biblicism as “a theory about the Bible that emphasizes together its exclusive authority, infallibility, perspicuity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability”. This view of the Bible results in expressions like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Unfortunately, that perspective leads to proof-texting, searching for passages that support your beliefs or practice and building a theology around them. This leaves little room for additional exploration of scripture or theological reflection (something we’re cautioned about in the preamble of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, i.e. these statements are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life). It’s disconcerting to me that biblicism can result in narrow thinking and ultimately poor interpretation and application. If we aren’t really careful, this approach results in bad theology that discourages people from faith in Christ and closes doors of opportunity for kingdom service. Ultimately, that literal approach makes God look bad!
How Baptists address the issue of women in ministry will greatly impact our future, and I believe it will likely, for some, determine our relevance. I call on my sisters and brothers to engage your congregations in conversation. Without sound theological education, I fear our churches will remain stuck with important practices unexamined. More importantly, decision-making will be driven by cultural expectations of women’s roles instead of thoughtful, informed theology.
Terry Maples is the field coordinator of Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.