I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist home in rural Alabama. At church I was emphatically taught God cannot and would not call a woman to vocational ministry. The reason offered for this belief was “It’s a violation of scripture. Women can’t teach men or be in authority over them in the church.” I must confess I arrived at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1980 espousing this cultural myth!
Soon I met and attended theology classes with women. Women taught at the seminary and preached in chapel worship. My limited understanding slammed into the reality of God-called/God-gifted women. My theological studies demanded I bring my limited perspective and narrow experience into conversation with the whole of scripture and the history of the church.
Allow me to illustrate. Early in our Southern Seminary years, my wife Joan and I attended a Presbyterian worship service as part of a class assignment. We walked into the sanctuary and much to my surprise the pastor was female! I would love to report I was totally comfortable with that arrangement, but I was not. Not only did the woman preach, she served communion! Sadly, back then I was even conflicted about whether or not to receive the elements . . . from a female pastor! I share this story so you understand my theological roots, the inner conflict I felt, and can comprehend how far I have traveled on my women in ministry theological journey. The simplistic and incomplete rationale I was given in childhood did not help me understand my current reality. Something had to give!
Seminary was an incredible (and sometimes difficult) journey of discovery. Aiding my formal theological education was my new wife and fellow SBTS student. Joan’s father was a Northern Baptist educated pastor, so her theological training and experiences were broader and much more open-minded than mine. We teasingly say the only heated discussions we had during our first five years of marriage were about theology. Yes, Joan has been my best teacher in so many areas of life. Slowly but surely, my long-held beliefs and practices were appropriately and lovingly challenged–by my wife and by my professors–as preconceived ideas about women in ministry came into conversation with my experiences and new understandings of biblical revelation (for my informing theology of women in ministry, read Part 2 of this blog).
At some level I always knew women were gifted for ministry even when my church insisted their roles were limited. Growing up I witnessed the significant ministry of women who taught me, encouraged my faith, and guided the mission efforts of the church. Honestly, what local church could survive without the love, compassion, faithful leadership, and ministry of women?
Fortunately I have had opportunity to serve with women ministers, lay and clergy, in many contexts in 27 years of vocational congregational ministry. Most recently, I served Huguenot Road Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. While there, I was privileged to serve on staff with three gifted women: Susan Price (student minister), Melissa Fallen (missions and senior adults, proclaimer), and Amanda Lott (children and families). If time and space permitted, I could relay story after story about how God worked through these women to change many lives. I happily acknowledge my life today is richer because I know and served alongside these women. Without reservation I believe God’s kingdom is strengthened when men and women serve as equal partners in ministry in the local church and everywhere.
I know first-hand the myriad gifts women bring to vocational ministry. They speak truth, use God-given abilities, and serve from a deep well of relational insight in ways I as a male sometimes struggle to do. Thank God for courageous women who throughout the years paved the way and paid the price to awaken the church to God’s ideal for men and women.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a fellowship of churches and individuals, values and affirms God’s call to all people. Let is be said of us that we partner with God as God calls women and men to vocational ministry. May we continue to educate our congregations, advocate for equality, call out the gifts of all, provide opportunities to minister, lift up as models women who are called to serve, and call capable women to fill vocational ministry vacancies…including senior pastor!
If you desire to help support women in your congregation, please familiarize yourself with the work of Baptist Women in Ministry at www.bwim.info. Pam Durso and her colleagues at BWIM are great resources to you. In addition, the staff at Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and I are available to help you educate, advocate, and encourage women called to vocational ministry.
I challenge your church to invite a woman to preach in the month of February. Please don’t issue the invitation to a woman simply because it’s the Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching. Invite a woman to preach because of your theological conviction God can call a woman to serve in any capacity God sees fit!
Terry Maples is field coordinator for Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.