A slow, but sure shift

The number of female pastors in the U.S. has doubled over the past 10 years according to research by the Barna Group. A Religion News Service story on the report is posted at Baptists Today.

As expected, the growth has occurred primarily in mainline Protestant churches.

While many paint this issue in strict terms of a conservative/liberal divide, there are more factors at work. Pentecostals, for example, who hold a high view of biblical authority and embrace conservative ethical positions, have long been comfortable with women preachers.

In fact, one of the stronger and clearer conservative voices on that position is my fellow Berry College grad Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, who penned the book “10 Lies the Church Tells Women.”

My anecdotal-based conclusion is that this shift toward women in all areas of church leadership is slow but sure. For example, more than a decade ago, while working for The Christian Index, I saw more and more names of women among deacons at Southern Baptist churches in Georgia.

Most Baptist churches — unless the pastor is one who puts a strong emphasis on gender restrictions — have seen women move into various leadership roles once filled by men only. It is hard to argue against culture being a major factor in much of this, unless you can make a biblical case that being an usher is a position of spiritual authority rather than an excuse to hang out in the narthex (vestibule) during the sermon.

However, in Baptist life, the role of women in ministry is often seen as a major identification mark between fundamentalist and more moderate congregations. ( Baptist Women in Ministry commissioned a study that takes a closer look at the growth of female pastors among Baptists.)

Personally, this issue is as resolved for me as older debates over racial equality. In fact, the arguments against both racial and gender equality seem remarkably similar and insufficient.

Yet my “baptistness” grants freedom to others — individuals and congregations — to reach their own conclusions. (However, I would never subject my own daughters to pulpit-endorsed claims that God’s call on their lives carries limitations that don’t apply to the boys in the pews.)

The February 2009 issue of Baptists Today carried my interview with Oregon State professor Susan Shaw (also a Berry College grad, by the way) who authored the deeply researched book, God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society. She noted that the strongest opponents to women pastors (and often other roles that are seen as having authority) tend to affirm the ontological equality of women.

While women are seen as having equal value, their roles are different, according to those holding this position. But as Shaw told me: “For me, those ‘different roles’ always end up with men in power.”

Southern Baptist leaders better hope their case for excluding women from equal leadership in the church and home is lasting. For they have codified that position as biblical truth and treated the issue as doctrinally essential.

I believe they are wrong. But it will be the next generation of Southern Baptists that will likely have to say so.


  1. Amen. As a life-long, formerly Southern, Baptist male, I was raised to be an egalitarian on racial, gender, and economic distinctions.

    Without SBC women, in the form of the WMU and SS and VBS teachers, there would have been many fewer church plants, and many churches would never have survived. And, having had to sit through some of those WMU conventions, I can say that they were preaching — really well — about missions and our need to witness.

    This restriction on women in leadership will soon pass. It is based on a mistaken exegesis of the Biblical message. Patriarchy is of the fall and not of the new covenant.

  2. John,

    You said,

    "Pentecostals, for example, who hold a high view of biblical authority and embrace conservative ethical positions, have long been comfortable with women preachers."

    Yes, and Pentecostals, while professing a high view of Scripture authority, are also comfortable with the bogus practice of "speaking in tongues". Presbyterians, Lutherans and Methodists, even fundamentalists ones, sprinkle babies and call it baptism. Many, if not most, Baptists preach a doctrine of the "tithe" which is foreign to anything mentioned in the Scripture.

    So what else is new? There have always been people who professed faith in the Bible and yet foisted grossly ignorant and erroneous interpretations on it.

    All of that notwithstanding, and even if the whole world capitulates to the feminist movement, the word of God will still be crystal clear:

    "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.

    What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant."

    Mark Osgatharp
    Wynne, Arkansas

  3. Mark-
    The reality is that Southern Baptist churches led by big-time fundamentalist pastors who claim to be biblical "inerrantists" and who consider opposition to female pastors to be a high doctrine do not apply the verses you quote in a literal way.
    The reason, of course, is another reality: it's impractical for them to restrict women to the point called for in this particular verse — and because the Bible says more than one clear thing about women.
    These people are disingenuous in claiming that the Bible is clear on this matter — and that their less-restrictive-than-some-texts and more-restrictive-than-some-texts position is the only valid biblical one.
    [BTW, Paul, who wrote the more restrictive biblical stuff about women also admitted to the "bogus practice" of tongues.]

  4. John,

    I still call for Baptists who support women in ministry (which includes me) to articulate our position by providing readings of scripture which would support our conclusion.

    Though there will always be those who will hold to their position regardless of what the evidence says, and have their KJV Bible Verses to back up their claims, and call everyone who disagrees "liberal", there are those who are honestly trying to follow the Bible, but the best they can do is quote verses.

    We need to provide scriptural arguments to support our position. And, I believe that we need to remember Romans 14. As a pastor of a dually aligned church, I don't think those in my congregation who are against women in ministry are so because they are close-minded. They read 1 Tim. 2:9-15 and they don't know how to "get around these verses."

    Unfortunately for many, things like women in ministry take generations to change. Things are changing, all though slowly (as you indicate) and sometimes painfully.

    Thanks for this post as well as all the time you put into your blog. Blessings!

  5. It is a slow but sure shift because it is Biblical. Christians will follow culture more readily than Jesus. But in places here and there people are listening to the Spirit and doing the right thing.

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