A lifer shared his conversion experience during the sharing of joys and concerns in the worship service at the maximum-security prison where I served as chaplain. “I got a prayer concern,” he said. “I was talking to some guys out on the yard this morning. They said they wouldn’t come to the service because women can’t preach. I told ’em I used to think the same way. Then I was studyin’ on a story in the Bible and I decided if God can speak through Balaam’s ass then God can speak through Chaplain Sehested.”
The news that God can speak through donkeys, burning bushes, rocks and women ministers is still making the rounds in the yard. Recently the Tennessee Baptist Convention severed the 140-year-old ties with First Baptist Church of Jefferson City for calling the Rev. Ellen Di Giosia as pastor. The story is a repeat of one that happened 30 years ago. Prescott Memorial Baptist Church in Memphis was “disfellowshipped” from the Shelby County Baptist Association for calling me as their pastor. The same justifications were used for the rupture. We were considered heretical, unbiblical and violators of the word of God.
The executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board said that the recent vote to bar the church from voting in the annual state meeting showed that “the convention is committed to scripture … and is firm in its position that only men can serve as senior pastors.” That position has certainly been firm, but is it a commitment to scripture or a commitment to power over women?
The Bible continues to be used for good and for ill. An Alabama state auditor used the Mary and Joseph story to condone adult male predatory behavior on teenage girls. The Bible is bruised and battered from its misuse as a weapon for abuse, hatred and prejudice.
There was a time when I enjoyed volleying Bible verses back and forth with those who differed from me. In my growing up Baptist church I was a champion of “sword drills” and the memorization of scripture. I was prepared for the debates. I had the idea that I could toss a Bible verse into an opposing camp and see it explode with new converts. I stopped the practice when the casualty count rose with increased hostility and division.
Instead I found myself wanting to have a conversation about our common fears, about how the world is changing too fast and it can make us afraid enough to think people different from us are enemies. I wanted to talk about our fears for our children in an unsafe world awash in endless cruelty and violence. I wanted to talk about the scripture as a source for bringing us together, not tearing us apart. But we never found a way to have that conversation. Here we are 30 years later with the same divisions in our religious yards. And once again it is not women ministers who are to be feared.
There will always be daring churches like First Baptist of Jefferson City who will not be afraid to live into God’s vision of the full partnership of women and men in ministry. Women pastors will continue to seek and find denominational homes in hospitable places.
Yet I still fear the perpetuation of the belief in our second-class status. Dismissing women pastors in particular reflects a dangerous belief about women in general. The damaging denigration is being revealed in the daily news reports of assaults, intimidation, and violence against females of every age. A religion that justifies the subjugation of women and the superiority of men through sacred texts is a religion that creates the dynamic for the abuse of power. It teaches men that they have the divine right of sovereignty over our bodies and our destinies. It cultivates an image of inferiority in women that is internalized. It is perilous to the welfare of women and undermines the trust essential for mutual relationships of respect.
Let’s be studyin’ on that story in the Bible about everyone living in peace and unafraid.