Across history, Christianity has largely been led by men, as with other world religions and with most societal institutions in most times and places, Protestants have been changing that.
In the U.S., a few U.S. Protestant women were ordained beginning in the 19th Century, including by evangelical churches. In the decades after World War Two, major “mainline” Protestant denominations ended their gender barriers. Women now make up 35% of the students at campuses in the Association of Theological Schools.
Though the SBC now anchors the men-only side in the ongoing debate among evangelicals, this was not always the case. Susan Shaw of Oregon State University says the SBC’s first female pastor, ordained in 1964, was Addie Davis of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, followed by others in the 1970s and 1980s, Shaw herself among them.
A female clergy organization, founded in 1983, reported by 1987 that the SBC had 460 ordained women, though only 18 led congregations, alongside associate pastors, educational pastors, missionaries and chaplains.
But beginning in 1979, hardline conservatives (called “fundamentalists” by their foes) consolidated control of the SBC. By 1984, the annual meeting approved a resolution that affirmed “the autonomy of the local church” but said the New Testament (1) teaches that “women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign” and (2) ”excludes women from pastoral leadership to preserve a submission God requires.”
Important Southern Baptists became leaders in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, formed in 1987 to promote the “complementarian” outlook, which emphasizes distinct male and female roles, over against rising evangelical “egalitarians.” Among other things, the council says though men and women are spiritually equal the Bible teaches that “some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men.”
Then came a 2000 revision of the SBC’s statement of beliefs from 1925, the Baptist Faith and Message. A new insert declared that “while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” There’s ambiguity whether that applies only to preachers who lead a congregation, as opposed to clergy ordained for other forms of ministry. Some want to also add the men-only tenet to the SBC’s Constitution.
What does the Bible say? Sharp-eyed readers will note that a 1984 resolution footnote claimed support from biblical I Timothy 2:12ff and I Corinthians 14:33ff. Yet the 2000 statement does not cite the Corinthians passage, which says that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
Does the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Corinth apply to all churches in all eras? Many conservatives think that would create a biblical contradiction because the Apostle Paul’s letter reports without criticism (in 11:5) that Christian women did in fact speak in prayers and prophecies during worship. By this interpretation, Paul’s concern here was limited to situations where women had become disruptive or were ill-informed.
That leaves the I Timothy passage, which is pivotal in this complex debate. [The Guy sidesteps liberal claims that Paul himself did not write this letter, which can be deemed authoritative Scripture regardless of the author.] The text says “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman. …”
Evangelicals’ competing views on this passage are typified by two of their favorite commentaries.
CONTINUE READING: “Why do Southern Baptists and like-minded Protestants bar women pastors?”, by Richard Ostling.
FIRST IMAGE: A pro-ordination of women t-shirt for sale at Amazon.com
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