c. 2000 Religion News Service

Among the changes to the Baptist Faith and Message statement to be recommended to the Southern Baptist Convention this month is the declaration that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

I respectfully but fervently disagree with this statement for several reasons.

First, I believe this statement is based on an inadequate and inconsistent interpretation of Scripture. If one interprets Scripture to forbid women as pastors, one should also interpret Scripture to instruct women to cover their heads for worship and for slaves to remain content as slaves. But I believe these biblical instructions, intended for a 1st century culture, were not meant to be normative or authoritative for the church in future generations and cultures.

"Who are we to question the freedom of an individual or church to respond to the Spirit?"

What is normative -- for the past, present and future -- is that Jesus is Lord of the Church, that he calls all believers for service, and that he "gifts" all believers with the Spirit.

The New Testament mentions several "offices" or positions of leadership in the church, including apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor/teacher, deacon, elder, bishop. Again, what is normative is that those in leadership are to be persons of impeccable integrity, wisdom and compassion. What is essential is not the gender, age, status or even title of the leader, but the character and commitment of the person who is the leader.

Second, I believe the proposed statement reflects an insensitivity to the work of the Holy Spirit. Baptists have long championed the priesthood of every believer. This means every person is able to respond to the Spirit and receive divine guidance. We have also championed the freedom of every church to follow the Spirit and choose its leadership.

This new statement asserts that if the Spirit leads a woman to the pulpit and if a church is led to call a woman as its pastor, they are wrong. Who are we to question the freedom of the Spirit to call whomever the Spirit chooses? Who are we to question the freedom of an individual or church to respond to the Spirit? I find this kind of closed-mindedness to be contrary to Scripture and to the spirit of Jesus.

Third, I believe the proposed statement reveals an unwillingness to see what God is doing in our world today. God is increasingly using women in ways that even a hundred years ago were unthinkable. Women are now surgeons, scientists, prime ministers and presidents. They are leaders in government and business, in public and in private, in the church and in culture.

Who among us would want to turn back the calendar? What is happening in Baptist life -- although not as quickly as I would desire it -- is that we are opening our eyes to see the work of God in our world. God is calling women to ministry. They are responding. Churches are recognizing it and inviting women to exercise their gifts at all levels of leadership in the congregation.

"The Convention is in the control of white, male, fundamentalist pastors imposing their definitions of orthodoxy on a diverse denomination."

Finally, I believe the proposed statement offers further evidence that the Southern Baptist Convention is firmly in the control of white, male, fundamentalist pastors bent on imposing their definitions of orthodoxy -- and their interpretations of Scripture -- on a diverse denomination.

Though churches cannot be forced to comply with the statement, its influence cannot be overestimated. Through various means, denominational employees, seminary faculty, missionary candidates and others will be required to conform to this document.

Bible study and educational literature produced for Southern Baptist churches will reflect this document. Conventions and conferences will be planned with this document in mind. The cumulative effect will have enormous impact on the local church and on the culture of Southern Baptists.

One reason I feel so poignantly about this issue is because of my own pilgrimage. I grew up in a theological and sociologically conservative environment that nurtured a simple biblicism, but also at times, a narrow provincialism. My desire to be faithful to Scripture and my lack of exposure to women in ministry contributed to a longheld belief that women shouldn't be pastors.

Then I was challenged on several fronts. First, I met some pious, humble women who not only told me they were called by God to preach and pastor, but were doing it with effectiveness. Second, I began to explore interpretations of Scripture different than my own. I found Bible scholars who loved and believed the Bible as much as I did, offering different understandings of the disputed texts. This tempered my dogmatism. Finally, a historical and global perspective challenged me. I learned of women in other cultures and countries who have been pastors -- for years.

All of this led to soul-searching, remorse and eventually a change. I asked forgiveness for my wrong-headedness and stubbornness. In return, I received grace, not only from God but also from others -- especially from women called to ministry.

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