With permission from the original author, I am reproducing here a paper sent to me by my father and written by a 2007 graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The paper will be presented on this blog throughout this Passion Week in seven parts. Proponents from both sides of the women in ministry issue are often guilty of using it as a “litmus test” of conservative Christianity. Differences of interpretation in this matter ought never be a cause for separation in Christian fellowship as some have sought to make it. The author of this paper believes that "Southern Baptist individuals or groups have perfect freedom, under the lordship of Christ and their liberty to interpret Scripture, to favor or oppose the ordination of women as they feel the Scipture warrants. However, such individuals and groups have no freedom to impose their views and practices upon all Southern Baptists or to announce their preference as “the” Southern Baptist position." Ordainers and nonordainers can and should be in full fellowship." History may not treat the SBC in a favorable light if we do not come to terms with the fact that Scripture does not outright prohibit women in ministry just as Scripture did not outright prohibit slavery. One must infer in order to arrive at a position, as this paper will illustrate. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message states that a 'woman' may not serve as a 'Senior Pastor,' but the 2000 BFM committee made it clear they were not opposing the ordination of women, nor women serving in other ministry vocations. Even then, a confession of faith is not an official creed. In no way does it replace the authority of the Bible, nor was it intended to do so. The seventh and final segment of this paper will contain information about the author.
A Biblical and Historical Primer on Women in Southern Baptist Ministry Based On a Conservative View of Holy Scripture - Part 1.
It must first be stated that there is no uniform doctrine of ordination in Scripture. The word, cheirotonein, “to appoint,” is used in Acts 14:23 of the choice of elders. In 2 Cor. 8:19, Titus is appointed by the churches to travel with Paul and others. The original meaning of cheirotonein, “to choose, to elect by raising hands,” is seldom seen in the literature of the first few centuries. Cheirotovein is used of election in Josephus, but it is divine election: Saul is said to be king by the appointment of God.
Josephus also employs it in speaking of appointments to the priesthood. Philo uses cheirotonein of the election of jurymen, and of Pharaoh’s appointment of Joseph as a governor. The religious use of Cheirotobein prepared the word for its use in Christianity; the association with the divine choice was an important factor in the gradual replacement in ecclesiastical literature of xathistemi with cheirotoneo. Thus we read in the Didache: “Appoint [cheirotone] therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons. …” Ignatius used the cheirotoneio of the selection of officials to go on a mission to Antioch. There is no suggestion in any of these texts that the laying on of hands occurred in connection with these appointments.
Epititheio tas cheiras, to lay hands on, occurs five times in Acts in constructions that might be construed as indicating induction into ecclesiastical office through the laying on of hands: 6:1-6 (the Seven); 8:14-25 (the Samaritans); 9:10-18 (the conversion of Saul); 13:1-3 (Paul and Barnabas); and 19:1-7 (the Ephesian Twelve).”
When taken as proof-texts for formulating theological positions on baptism, confirmation, ordination, or the reception of spiritual gifts, these verses have proved to be manageable only if treated selectively, that is, only if some are ignored completely or are dismissed as not pertinent to the doctrine in question. Confusion over the teaching of Acts 19:1-7 is evident in the writings of Tertullian. By the third century, baptism and confirmation were becoming separate rights based on the interpretation of Acts 8:14-25; 9:10-18; and 19:1-7, as teaching two phases to Christian initiation. Acts 8:17 and 19:1-7 are still cited in support of confirmation, ordination, and the “second blessing” doctrine of Pentecostalism.
In defending or explaining their ordination rites, denominations generally quote one or two texts at the most. Baptists generally cite Acts 13:1-3, ignoring other texts in which the laying on of hands occurs. Those who favor a Presbyterian form of church government stress 1 Tim. 4:14; they may acknowledge Acts 6:6; 13:3; and 1 Tim. 5:22, but usually ignore 1 Tim. 1:6 or conflate it with 1 Tim. 4:14.
In traditional ecclesiastical thought, the ordained ministry serves a representative role within the church, summing up and presenting that ministry which comes from Christ through the church by the gift and power of the Spirit. It consists of “leaders” of the people of God who have received a special call and who have been given a special gift from the Holy Spirit to help the rest carry on the work of the Church more effectively.
It must be noted that the Bible gives no specific instructions as to whether women should or should not be ordained. Indeed, there is no clear mandate in the New Testament for the ordination of anyone. The writers of the New Testament simply did not view ordination as we do today. Basically what we see in the Bible is the recognition that a person possessed certain spiritual gifts that were necessary to do a specific needed job. The church then commissioned that person by the laying on of hands, at that time, for that specific task. A specific task could be anything from distributing food to widows to accompaniment on a missionary journey to a life time of service in a church office. In its simplest form, ordination could be defined as the church’s symbolic recognition of what the Holy Spirit has done or is doing. More on this later.
History and Confessions
At this time it is appropriate that we delve into the history of ordination as it specifically concerns Baptists in general and women in particular. It is helpful to understand our current positions in light of our past positions. The bulk of the material covered comes from McBeth’s Women in Baptist Life and Lumpkin’s Baptist Confessions of Faith.
The contrast between Baptist life today and in our past is striking. In 1885 women were excluded from the Southern Baptist Convention. For nearly a hundred years, women were not permitted to serve as messengers to the meetings of the conventions. For many more years they were not allowed to serve as trustees of the agencies or officers of the convention. In 1963 a woman was elected vice-president of the SBC, and in 1978 women composed 42 percent of its messengers. In 1901 a few women were allowed to sit in the back of the classroom at Southern Baptists’ only seminary, but they could not raise questions or write exams, and they could not receive degrees. In 1977 our six seminaries had more than sixteen hundred women students, plus women trustees, and women faculty, including at least two ordained ministers. It has been reported that about 1,300 Southern Baptist women today are ordained ministers.
From our earliest history Baptists had women deacons and deaconesses. Perhaps the earliest recorded comment on the role of Baptist women was by John Smyth, founder of the first identifiable Baptist church of modern history. In a 1609 work entitled Parallels, Censures, Observations, Smyth wrote that “the Church hath powre to Elect, approve & ordeyne her owne Elders, also: to elect, approve, & ordeine her owne Deacons both men & woemen.” The context shows that Smyth’s emphasis was on the power of a local congregation to ordain elders (pastors) and deacons. Ordination did not require the authority of a bishop. However, he clearly acknowledged the place of women deacons as well as men deacons. As early as 1607, before he led his church to adopt believer’s baptism, Smyth has expressed similar views. In a work entitled Principles and Inferences Concerning the Visible Church, he described the officers of a church and their duties: “The Deacons are officers occupied about works of mercy respecting the body or outward man … The Deacons are 1. men 2. women deacons or widowes. Act. 6, 2. Rom. 16,1 … Weomen deacons or widowes are of 60 yeeres of age, qualified according to the Apostles rule. 1 Tim. 5.9, releeving the bodily infirmities of the Saints with cheerfulness.” In The Short Confession of Faith In XX Articles By John Smyth, we see, interestingly, that the document was signed by forty-two individuals, 18 of which were women.
The earliest Baptists accepted women deacons. Apparently these women deacons were equal with the men deacons, with the same election, ordination, and duties. The respected Presbyterian minister Thomas Edwards described Baptist growth in England as a form of “spiritual gangrene.” One of his major accusations is that Baptists allow women to preach.
From this evidence, it is clear that Baptist women did preach in England in the early days of the denomination. It is also clear that most English churchmen found the practice appalling (along with Believer’s Baptism). Nevertheless Baptists opened the way for women preaching. For their views on the ministry, the English Baptists went directly to the Bible for their authority. Those women who preached and those men who allowed it thought they found adequate scriptural teaching and precedent.
In the earliest Baptist confessions, women were recognized as deacons, not deaconesses. For some people these were apparently convenient designations for men and women who performed the same task. This designation is entirely appropriate, as we shall see later. The Anabaptist Waterland Confession of 1580 is the first “Baptist” Confession to refer to ordination. The Confession speaks of the ministries to be exercised in the church, the order which is to be observed in the church about ministries, how the election to those ministries is accomplished, and the confirmation to the ministries. But the document does not take gender into consideration when assigning roles. Likewise the Baptist True Gospel-Faith of 1654 and the Baptist Standard Confession of 1660. Interestingly, 40 signatures are assigned to The Standard Confession, none of which were women. Likewise with the Second London Confession of 1677. The Mennonite Dordredcht Confession of 1632 gives a similar statement of belief but acknowledges the ministries of deaconesses and widows. Likewise with the English Declaration At Amsterdam of 1611. The Pioneer English Separatist-Baptist True Confession of 1596 is interesting in that it holds the 1 Timothy prohibition of “usurping authority” as applying to all but those called by the Church for ministry. Similarly, the ability to minister is given both to men and women.
Dan Taylor of the New Connection churches said:
“When a church undertakes anything of peculiar importance or difficulty in which the women may have occasion to be concerned; or to the expense of which the women may have occasion to be concerned; or to the expense of which they may have a call to contribute; or in the good, or bad effects of which they may be, at least, as much interested as the men are; it is right they should give their voice in it, and their advice concerning it; and it appears to be intolerant not to allow them this privilege.”
In early America some Baptist churches had deaconesses and elderesses. Morgan Edwards, who in the 1760’s served as pastor of First Baptist, Philadelphia, made several tours of the American colonies and reported on the progress and customs of Baptist churches. His book, Customs of Primitive Churches in 1774, shows that many of the Baptist churches had both deaconesses and elderesses; he also sought to defend the practice from the Bible. The work of elderesses he says: “consists in praying, and teaching in their separate assemblies … consulting with sisters about matters of the church which concern them, and representing their sense thereof to the elders; attending at the unction of sick sisters, and at the baptism of women, that all may be done orderly.” Apparently some of the American churches made the distinction between elderesses (“elder women” of 1 Tim. 5:2) and deaconesses (Rom. 16:1) and widows (1 Tim. 5:9). Edwards went to great lengths to defend the biblical authority for elderesses and deaconesses. Their election and ordination, he says, is much like that of deacons and elders. “The office of deaconess,” he said, “is of divine original and perpetual continuance in the church. It is the same in general with the office of deacon.
The Separate Baptists of the South, who formed the spiritual, theological, evangelical, and organizational basis for the Southern Baptist Convention. However, in one area Southern Baptists have generally not followed the Separates, and that is in the role of women in church. Separate Baptist women assumed a larger church role. The Separate churches regularly ordained deaconesses and elderesses. The most notorious aspect of Separate life, however, was not the deaconesses but the popularity of women preachers among them.
The Regular Baptists of the South allowed none of these privileges to women and looked askance at the Separates for doing so. Robert A. Baker in his The Southern Baptist Convention and its People 1672-1972 cites as major obstacle to the union of Baptists in the South, “the extensive ministry of women in the services” of Separates.
After the merger of Regular and Separates, certain traits of each survived. Unfortunately, Separate Baptist tradition concerning the role of women did not survive in the new group. After about 1800, one reads no more about Baptist women preachers in the South, though more often of deaconesses .Women generally did not speak out or testify in church, and in some churches women were not allowed to vote.
Yet, in 1846, one year after the Southern Baptist Convention was formed, R. B. C. Howell published an important book on The Deaconship, Its Nature, Qualifications, Relations, and Duties. Howell was a leading Southern Baptist, an architect of the Convention, and a writer of note whose influence among Southern Baptists was vast. Howell shows from the New Testament that early churches had deaconesses, citing Scripture from Romans 16:1, 1 Timothy 5:9-10, 1 Timothy 3:11, and others. Howell concludes: “Take all these passages together, and I think it will be difficult for us to resist the conclusion that the word of God authorizes, and in some sense, certainly by implication, enjoins the appointment of deaconesses in churches of Christ. …. Deaconesses, therefore, are everywhere, as necessary as they were in the days of the apostles.” As to the role of deaconesses, Howell argued that they were “female assistants to the deacons. … and their duty required them to minister to females, under circumstances in which it would have been manifestly improper that the other sex should have been employed.” While their moral qualifications were the same as for deacons, the deaconesses did have a different status in Howell’s mind, for “deaconesses were not, as deacons are, formally ordained.”
J. R, Graves, sometimes called “the most influential Southern Baptist who ever lived” was the primary founder of the Landmark movement, an ultraconservative movement among Southern Baptists in the nineteenth century. In an article on “Woman’s Work in the Church,” Graves said: “There is no doubt in the minds of Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars, that in the apostolic churches women occupied the office of the deaconship … Phoebe was a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea.” Graves concludes that “There is no good reason why saintly women should not fill the office of deaconess to-day in most churches. In fact, they often perform the duties of the office without the name.
B.H. Carroll was the long-time pastor of the First Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, where he had women deacons. In his discussion of 1 Timothy 2:8 to 3:13, he questioned that the word we usually translate “wives” (meaning wives of deacons) meant that at all. The context, according to Carroll, “required the rendering: ‘women deacons’.” He also said, “The Waco church of which I was pastor for so many years, had, by my suggestion and approval, a corps of spiritually minded, judicious female deacons who were very helpful, and in some delicate cases indispensable.
The evidence suggests that while women did not officially serve as minsisters in the nineteenth century, many Southern Baptists approved of deaconesses and regarded the offices as biblical.
Charles DeWeese points out that in the early years of Baptist life the deacon and deaconess ministered directly to people’s needs, but with the coming of the industrial revolution, gradually the work of the Baptist deacon shifted from ministry to management. He says “the diaconal function began to be viewed more and more in administrative, business, and management categories to the neglect of the more caring and supporting ministries.” Since women in America were not generally involved in secular business management, the churches were unwilling to put them into this role. The office of deaconess declined therefore because the office of deacon changed from ministry to management. MacBeth argues that part of the recent revival of deaconesses and women deacons may be “a result of a shift back toward the ministering concept of deacons.”
There are many reasons for the shift toward women ministers. Many Southern Baptists are unaware that women once exercised more church roles that they have in the past hundred years. Today’s resurgence of women to places of leadership in Southern Baptist churches and in the SBC may look more radical than actually is. It is one thing to discuss theoretically the leadership roles of the women in ministry when few women are prepared for the roles and fewer still desire them. However, when churches have an abundance of women eager and able to effectively serve, the question ceases to be theoretical.
McBeth makes the brilliant observation that the other reason for the increased role of Southern Baptist women is our expanded concept of ministry. There was a time when in Southern Baptist life “ministry” meant either becoming a preacher or a missionary. Those were the only roles available for a minister. Today roles for ministry have vastly expanded. Our churches today have ministers of education, ministers of music, ministers to youth, ministers to the aged, ministers of administration and finance. Other ministers serve as counselors or chaplains in hospitals, industry, retirement homes, the military, or schools. Most Southern Baptist women who are now engaged in the ministry are in nonpreaching and nonpastoral roles. Without the expansion in our concept of ministry, it is doubtful whether there would be as many Southern Baptist women in the ministry.
That the expansion of ministry roles has led to the expansion of roles for women has not gone unnoticed by those unaware of the history of Baptists. Many “traditionalists” (though not complementarians) have attempted to push back the recent work of women in the ministry. On January 16, 1983, the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City voted 232 to 167 to allow women to become deacons. According to Baptist tradition, which had always gloried in the local church autonomy, the decision should have been nobody’s business but that of First Baptist Church. That was not the case, for its actions set off a controversy in the Capital Baptist Association. Bailey Smith, immediate past president of the SBC, was among those who condemned First Baptist Church for ordaining women as deacons. In 1994, the First Baptist Church of West Jefferson, North Carolina, was expelled from the Ashe Baptist Association for ordaining a woman deacon. In 2001, the ordination of a woman minister of education and students at Parkview Baptist Church in Gainsville, FL sparked a dispute within the Santa Fe River Baptist Association. Three churches alleged that the Gainesville congregation is out of fellowship with the Association and called for its removal. The churches say that the ordination goes against the new Baptist Faith and Message statement adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention the year before. The faith statement reads in part, "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." While members of the committee drafting the new language said it was intended to address only women as senior pastors, some are reading it as applying to all ordained ministers.
Regardless of our confessions and creeds, we must first understand what the Scriptures teach before we begin to break fellowship.