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Worldwide, the challenges for Baptist women continue to be immense. That reality was addressed in profound ways during the recent Baptist International Conference on Theological Education in Nassau, The Bahamas. Baptist scholars, pastors and other leaders from around the world met to explore ways to re-imagine and re-read “HERstory in the Church.”
I was invited to respond to a keynote address that dealt with the spirituality and actions of an important Japanese Baptist leader, Akiko Matsumura. Born in 1917, Matsumura encountered a great deal of sexism and racism. She was in her late 50s by the time she found her real place in ministry, which caused me to wonder:
- How much more could she have done if she had been able to find her real place when she was 20, 25 or 30?
- Even though she lived in the previous century, how many Baptist women around the world today still struggle to overcome the same obstacles that she faced?
- What can we do as theological educators and leaders to help Baptist women flourish at an early age so that they can invest their lives and energies in their calling and ministry vocations rather than in surviving adverse environments in their faith communities?
- Can we reimagine a new way of being Baptists – a more inclusive way – so that all women may be able to flourish?
Matsumuro’s experience suggests several points that I consider basic for the empowerment and equality of Baptist women around the world.
“Can we reimagine a new way of being Baptists – a more inclusive way – so that all women may be able to flourish?”
Matsumuro cultivated a strong spirituality and a deep relationship with God that became her anchor as she struggled in her faith journey. Spirituality should be a source of encouragement and empowerment for Christians. However, my experience is that many Baptist women struggle with their spirituality because of the kind of God that they have been presented.
In my work as a theology professor and as the executive director of the Christian Latina Leadership Institute, I have heard countless stories of women who feel that God is against them. I can identify with them because at one point in my life I also felt that God was against me as a female leader. How is this possible? Where do women get this idea? Who taught them this? Who made them feel that way?
One’s view of God is very powerful. What is the image of God that we are presenting to our Baptist women and men? Is it one where God cares and loves both women and men equally? Is it one where God calls and empowers both women and men equally? Is it one where God is sovereign to call anyone of God’s choosing to ministry, whether ordained or lay, male or female? Unfortunately, many times women are taught the contrary.
One of the main issues that impedes the flourishing of Baptist women around the world is patriarchal interpretations of scripture that present God as loving and favoring men more than women. It is devastating for women to hear over and over again that, according to the design of this God, they are second-class citizens and appendages to men’s lives and stories.
If these concepts are presented and affirmed using the Bible as a power tool, it is hard for women to challenge them because of the perception that in doing so they are going against God. And who wants to be against God? Under these circumstances, women remain quiet, paralyzed and disempowered.
This view of God eventually finds expressions in the practical matters of the church such as pastoring, preaching, teaching or leading in communion or baptism. Since this God seems to favor men over women, these sacred tasks are reserved only for men. Such exclusion of women is not only devastating for them and the church, it is also devastating for the future of the Gospel witness. If women are not allowed to serve in all areas of ministry, how will the next generation of women and men see and appreciate empowering models of women ministers and leaders?
“My responsibility is to serve faithfully in my circles of influence to alleviate the oppression that my Baptist sisters, and women in general, are experiencing worldwide.”
The challenge of bringing equality to Baptist women around the world continues to be immense. Indeed, I left the conference feeling overwhelmed.
However, I was thankful to remember that God is still God, and that I am only God’s helper. As such, I need to do my part, especially because I have received so much through God’s grace. Through my education and experiences, I have come to believe firmly that God is for me, not against me, and I need to share this good news.
Thus, my responsibility is to serve faithfully in my circles of influence to alleviate the oppression that my Baptist sisters, and women in general, are experiencing worldwide. This service may be through my work as a woman theologian in a historically male dominated discipline. It may be through teaching and dialoguing in a variety of settings with my students, female and male, to help them see that both women and men can equally serve God and the church. It may be to assist them in understanding that personal calls are rooted in God’s sovereignty and the Holy Spirit’s will (I Corinthians 12:11, 18) and not in one’s gender. It may be through an informal, personal conversation that I am able to bless a younger sister with a word of encouragement and liberation.
All these tasks and opportunities are part of opening the imaginations of those around me to a new way of being Baptist – a more inclusive way – so that all Baptist women and all women in all places may be able to flourish, starting as early in their lives as possible.
As we reimagine a new way of being Baptist, what can you do in your Baptist corner of the world? What practices do you need to challenge within your circles of influence? What inclusive notions and practices can you promote?
While it is true that the task is immense, our triune God is even larger. And, thankfully, for this God nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37).