NORMAN, Okla. (ABP) — A Southern Baptist pastor from Oklahoma compared the way his fellow conservatives treat women in ministry to treatment of African Americans by previous generations.
"History will one day look back on how we Baptists in the 21st century treated our women who were called by God to minister," Wade Burleson told the Midwest regional gathering of the New Baptist Covenant.
Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., framed his message to the closing session of the multiethnic meeting as both a personal confession and a public challenge.
"It is my prayer that conservative, Bible-believing men will not make the same mistake our Southern Baptist forefathers made when they remained quiet two centuries ago as another minority experienced abuse," he said.
Burleson is a former trustee of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention who resigned the position after controversy over his decision to discuss his dissent to majority decisions on a blog. Anthony Jordan, executive director of the SBC-affiliated Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, turned down an invitation to participate in the event.
"I now believe in my heart that Jesus is more concerned with how we Baptists treat each other than he is what we Baptists teach each other," Burleson said. "The people loved by Christ — particularly those who differ with me — are to be far more precious to me than any finer point of theology believed by me."
Burleson noted a recent address by California Baptist pastor Rick Warren to the Islamic Society of North America where Warren challenged Muslims and Christians to respect the dignity of every person by valuing, not just tolerating, people; restore civility to civilization; and protect freedom of speech and freedom of religion for all people.
Burleson said before Baptist Christians can begin to respond to Muslims in that way, they need to learn to treat their own Baptist brothers — and especially sisters — with that kind of respect.
"In other words, until I can treat all my Baptist friends with dignity, value them as people and respect their views — particularly and especially those Baptists who disagree with me — it will be impossible for me to treat Muslims in the same manner," he said.
"Likewise, until my liberal or moderate Baptist friends experience Christ's love in their hearts for me, a theologically conservative Baptist, and until they value my personhood, respect my views and work with me toward a greater common good, it will be impossible for them to do the same for Muslims," he said.
"The greatest barometer for how well we Baptists understand the importance of agape love — which the Scriptures call the distinguishing mark of followers of Jesus Christ — is our treatment of each other," Burleson said.
In particular, Burleson said Baptists who are serious about obeying Christ's command to love one another must rise to defend women in ministry when other Baptists mistreat them.
"These women profess a call from God, show real evidence of being set apart by Christ and have experienced the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified to the world, yet many of them are being subjected to abuse — and that by Baptists," Burleson said.
"When our Baptist women in ministry experience such personal mistreatment, ridicule or harm, we are commanded by Christ our Lord to bind up their wounds," he said. "And sometimes we must even take the weapon of abuse out of the hands of the perpetrators of those wounds."
He pointed to specific instances of what he considered harsh and unjust treatment of women in ministry — Sheri Klouda being dismissed as a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Julie Pennington-Russell facing protestors when she accepted the pastorate of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas; and a female seminary student whose preaching professor allowed all male students to leave the classroom when she spoke so they would not be subjected to hearing a woman deliver a message from the Bible.
Burleson, a past president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, noted a particular turning point in his own attitude toward the treatment of women. The incident occurred when he was moderating a state convention business session and a woman was elected second vice president.
"I will never forget the sight from the platform as several men throughout the auditorium stood and literally turned their backs to the platform as they voted against the first woman to be elected to general office within the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma," he recalled.
"That moment was an awakening for me," Burleson said. "I realized that any cherished principle that would ever cause a Christian to be uncivil, unkind or unloving toward a sister in Christ is a principle that should be thrown out for the sake of obedience to the command of Christ to love one another."
Not all Baptists will agree on the interpretation of Scriptures regarding the role of women in church leadership, but there is "no wiggle room" when it comes to Christ's command to love, he said.
"You may not like the fact that women are now being called by God to preach, or called by God to do missions, or called by God to teach," Burleson said. "You may even consider it a violation of your principles for a woman to teach a man, or preach Christ to a man, or baptize a man, or lead a man, but there is one thing you and I cannot — we must not — forget."
"You and I are called to love each other and every sister in Christ who feels called to ministry," he said. "We are called to affirm the dignity of every Christian woman called to minister. We are commanded to treat them with respect and civility."
"We are also called to love, respect and affirm the autonomy of local Baptist congregations and denominations that utilize these gifted women in ministry as they see fit," he said. "To censor them, reject them, abuse them or condemn their character is a sin of the first order."
Ken Camp is managing editor of the Baptist Standard. Bob Allen contributed to this story.