By Susan Sparks
One third of the U.S. Supreme Court justices are women; more than 50 female astronauts have traveled into space; and 41 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize. But place a woman in a pulpit and blood pressure and eyebrows immediately begin to rise; rise, that is, within the religious tradition of my upbringing: the Southern Baptists.
The current position statement on women by the Southern Baptist Convention states that “Scripture teaches that a woman’s role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men.”
Today — in 2011 — the road to ordination in Southern Baptist churches remains strewn with women who have been turned down or, worse, who have been ordained only to be ousted from the denomination.
Consider the case of 28-year-old Rev. Bailey Nelson who was recently called as the senior pastor of Flat Rock Baptist Church in Mount Airy, N.C. Within two weeks, her church was summarily kicked out of the local Baptist association for violating scriptural guidelines that they believe reserve the role of pastor to male. “We’re getting letters from all over the world voicing concern and support,” Nelson said. “The outpouring has been overwhelming.”
Rev. Nelson is not alone. I remember at an early age telling a vacation Bible school teacher that “I was trying to decide between being a minister or a jet pilot.” She smiled and said, “Well, girls can be jet pilots, but God only calls men to preach.”
Eventually I decided against the jet pilot career and became a lawyer (same job as a minister — just different clients). Yet the call to ordination became too strong to ignore. In the end, I was forced to leave the Southern Baptists and join the American Baptists, a more moderate denomination within the Baptist family — and one that ordains women.
But I’ll give the Southern Baptists one thing: they are nothing if not consistent. To this day, after 10 years as a trial lawyer, two graduate degrees, an honors thesis in seminary and my own pulpit in New York City, I am still not welcome to preach in my home church in Charlotte, N.C., where I grew up.
As a lawyer, I can’t help but scratch my head at the circular nature of this situation: the SBC interprets Scripture to exclude women from ordination; yet all those who interpret Scripture within the SBC are men?
Their position hangs on a literal interpretation of passages like 1 Cor. 14:34-35 in which the Apostle Paul writes, “Let the women keep silent in church.” Of course, a literal interpretation of this passage would mean women may not sing or verbally praise God in worship. For anyone who has attended a Baptist service, you know that is a manifest impossibility.
In another similar scripture (1 Tim. 2:11-12) Paul writes: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Not even addressing the historical context of this scripture which demonstrates these words were directed at marital issues and not ministry, there is a larger problem of selective enforcement. For example, that same passage also forbids women to wear gold jewelry or pearls. We don’t hear much about that section. I guess the SBC decided that would be too much to enforce on us bling-lovin’ southern sisters.
We also don’t hear much about Rom. 16:7 where Paul speaks of Andronicus and Junia (a woman), describing them as “outstanding among the apostles.” (Not surprisingly, some later translations changed the female name “Junia” to the male “Junias.”)
If you want to take a literal interpretation of the Bible, then how about using Acts 2:17-18: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” As I used to say in my prior career, “I rest my case.”
Numerous theologians and prominent members of the Baptist family have publicly disagreed with the SBC, most notably former President Jimmy Carter who broke with the Southern Baptists due to their position on women in the ministry. He explained : “The truth is that male religious leaders have had — and still have — an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women…. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”
The reality is this: we live in a world in great need of healing. And there are people across the globe offering to dedicate their lives towards this healing; yet they are denied simply because they are women.
In one of his most famous parables, Jesus said that the Kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who entrusted his three workers with certain talents (money). Two invested the talents, doubled their value and were rewarded. The third worker, however, was punished, because he buried the money and barely returned what was given.
The SBC is burying the divine gifts borne by over 50 percent of God’s children. It is wasting these talents. We can no longer afford this unjust denial of vocation. We can no longer afford to stifle God’s call. Given the broken nature of our world today, I say we need all the help we can get — Supreme Court justices, jet pilots, preachers, and all.