In 1964, Addie Davis was ordained to the gospel ministry by Watts Street Baptist Church, Durham, N.C., becoming the first female ordained by a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. A new generation of female ordinands soon followed, not without controversy.
Twenty years later, messengers to the 1984 SBC annual meeting approved a resolution asserting:
WHEREAS, The Scriptures attest to God’s delegated order of authority (God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, man the head of woman, man and woman dependent one upon the other to the glory of God) distinguishing the roles of men and women in public prayer and prophecy (1 Corinthians 11:2-5); and
WHEREAS, The Scriptures teach that women are not in public worship to assume a role of authority over men lest confusion reign in the local church (1 Corinthians 14:33-36); and
WHEREAS, While Paul commends women and men alike in other roles of ministry and service (Titus 2:1-10), he excludes women from pastoral leadership (1 Timothy 2:12) to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall (1 Timothy 2:13ff) . . .
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we not decide concerns of Christian doctrine and practice by modern cultural, sociological and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors; that we remind ourselves of the dearly bought Baptist principle of the final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and conduct; and that we encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.
The resolution was considered “non-binding” on SBC churches, some of which continued to ordain females. By 2000, with the revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination’s confession of faith, that doctrinal approach became binding in one sentence: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Twenty-three years later, convention messengers determined their confessional declaration is not binding enough, voting overwhelmingly to amend Article III of the denomination’s constitution, a section comprised of five statements defining the boundaries whereby a church is deemed in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC. The new policy, necessitating a second vote next year, requires that a bona fide SBC congregation “affirms, appoints or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” Any churches that do, most recently Saddleback Church with its 57,000 members, and Fern Creek Baptist with its female pastor’s 33-year tenure, are cast out of the numerically declining SBC.
“Once orthodoxy becomes obsessive in any Christian community, there always seems yet another dogma that must be affirmed in order to escape excommunication.”
No woman as pastor of any kind. Is that a biblical tie that binds Southern Baptist churches into “friendly cooperation?” Perhaps, but others may follow. Once orthodoxy becomes obsessive in any Christian community, there always seems yet another dogma that must be affirmed in order to escape excommunication.
A variety of Baptist-related schools illustrate the point, many requiring faculties to sign documents including the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, as well as the Abstract of Principles 1859; the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy; the Nashville Statement on Biblical Sexuality; and the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood/Womanhood.
And not only schools. First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., is among those SBC churches that recently required members to sign a statement rejecting LGBTQ identities or be removed from membership.
Why are Southern Baptists implicitly singing, “Red and yellow, Black and white, women pastors are NOT precious in our sight?”
Reasons abound. A website titled “Will the SBC Compromise God’s Word?” declares:
There are over 170 female pastors currently serving in the SBC in direct contradiction to both God’s Word (i.e. 1 Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Timothy 3:107; Titus 1:6-9) and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. … This is only a small sampling, and there are likely hundreds more. These churches are confused in thinking that embracing God’s word on this issue will lead to institutional decline. Many of these churches don’t understand that the same interpretive method that leads to female pastors also leads to practicing homosexual pastors.
Another portal on the website warns this happening because “we have ignored God’s order of a male-only pastorate. There are many churches who desire to be faithful, but who have not been applying the title and role of pastor as the Bible tells us. There are many other churches who simply do not want to follow God’s order for pastors. But how to tell these two kinds of churches apart? The answer is, as it always has been in Christian history, the drawing and guarding of a clear line.”
The 2023 reference to “God’s order” parallels a similar phrase from the 1984 SBC resolution, “God’s delegated order of authority” and the idea that an inerrant Bible dictates a divinely mandated system of religio-social hierarchy from Genesis to Revelation. Where women are concerned, 1 Timothy 2:12-13 draws that “clear line”:
But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
And there it is in all its inerrantist hermeneutic. There can be no woman pastor of any kind, because Eve was “in the transgression.” Thus, in God’s delegated order of authority from creation, women must perpetually remain outside the pastoral office.
After 17 years as professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I departed the SBC for membership in two historic African American congregations, Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and First Baptist Church, Highland Avenue in Winston-Salem, N.C. — communions that re-formed my soul. Yet as a student of Baptist history, I continue to research the saga of the SBC. My assessment of the SBC’s deepening dismissal of females as any kind of pastor follows:
First, in 2023, the SBC is both America’s largest Protestant denomination and, according to Baptist sociologist Ryan Burge, declining “at a scope and scale” not seen “in any other Protestant denomination in American history.” Those purging “the libs” in the 1980s promised if their brand of biblical inerrancy prevailed, the SBC would continue to grow while the “egalitarian” denominations declined. It didn’t happen.
“Their inerrant biblical hermeneutic seems strangely parallel to that promoted by the denomination’s slavery-supporting founders.”
Second, their inerrant biblical hermeneutic seems strangely parallel to that promoted by the denomination’s slavery-supporting founders, evidenced in the infamous essay by Richard Furman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C., addressed to the governor of that state. This passage captures Furman’s hermeneutic:
Had the holding of slaves been a moral evil, it cannot be supposed, that the inspired Apostles, who feared not the faces of men, and were ready to lay down their lives in the cause of their God, would have tolerated it, for a moment, in the Christian Church. If they had done so on a principle of accommodation, in cases where the masters remained heathen, to avoid offences and civil commotion; yet, surely, where both master and servant were Christian, as in the case before us, they would have enforced the law of Christ, and required, that the master should liberate his slave in the first instance. But, instead of this, they let the relationship remain untouched, as being lawful and right, and insist on the relative duties (of master and slave). In proving this subject justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proved; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral action. The Christian golden rule, of doing to others, as we would they should do to us, has been urged as an unanswerable argument against holding slaves. But surely this rule is never to be urged against that order of things, which the Divine government has established.
Furman’s early “biblical defense of slavery” set the pattern for a particular hermeneutic (method of interpretation) that was accepted and promoted among Southern Protestants across the denominational spectrum and foundational in the birth of the SBC in 1845. The SBC began with a hermeneutic that undergirded the owning and keeping of human beings as supported by the authority of the word of God.
Later “defenses” were expanded from Genesis to Revelation, conjuring up punitive “marks on Cain” (blackness) and curses on Ham (perpetual servanthood), all infallibly confirming Paul’s apostolic dictum, “Slaves, be subject to your masters as unto the Lord.”
Thus slavery was part of the “created order,” an ever-binding social structure of divine intent. Paul accepted slavery as a first-century social given, but post-Civil War, Americans do not, a complicating factor in the hermeneutics of male/female complementarity, especially since texts defining both slaves and females to masters and males sometimes huddle together in certain passages.
“Once orthodoxy trumps gospel, faith is less celebrated than protected, not explored but enforced.”
Is Christian doctrine important? Certainly. But once orthodoxy trumps gospel, faith is less celebrated than protected, not explored but enforced. When dogma trumps gospel, churches may discover one can never be orthodox enough; there is always a new test, one more purity test requiring assent or expulsion.
In both 1984 and 2023, Southern Baptists declared a female cannot be “a pastor of any kind” since Eve, “the mother of all who live,” “was in the transgression,” a perpetual curse that, according to 1 Timothy 2: 12-13, negates the pastoral office for all Eve’s daughters forever.
If women are too cursed to be called, they may be too cursed to be saved. If there is not enough grace for Eve, there may not be enough for the rest of us. To hear Jesus and Paul tell it, the gospel is more than a check list of correct belief; it is a transformation of the heart. Why? Because of Jesus, as described by Paul in Romans 8:1-2:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
And in those words, all curses die.
So go on and preach, sisters. Preach your hearts out.
We hear you.
Our claims to believing the Bible do not immunize us from ignoring the gospel.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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