Today the messengers to the annual meeting of the Tennessee Baptist Convention voted to not seat the messengers sent to the meeting by the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, Tennessee. The overwhelming majority of TBC messengers voted to not seat the messengers from Jefferson City because their church recently called a woman to serve as their pastor. My personal interest is that I could very well still be opposed to the idea of women pastors if it had not been for the life and witness of a Tennessee Baptist Convention employee.
I enrolled at Roane State Community College for my sophomore year of College. My dad had passed away that summer and staying close to home seemed like a good idea. Before classes started, I had already been introduced to Windie Wilson. She was the BSU Director at the Baptist Student Union at Roane State, a ministry of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. My home church, First Baptist Church of Rockwood, was without a pastor during this time. Somewhere between December and May of that academic year, I realized that the way I thought and felt about women being ministers had changed. I never had any sense that changing my views on women in ministry was Windie’s intention. She was just doing what God had given her to do in that season of her life. She was leading the BSU, doing Bible studies, organizing events, planning mission trips, listening to and loving students. By the time we were packing our bags to head out to our various summer mission assignments, I realized that what Windie had been doing was being my pastor. Looking back, I am really glad my mind was changed. If it had not been, I might never have married Reverend Patti Sunday-Winters.
Today, I give thanks for all the Tennessee Baptists who had a hand shaping and enriching my journey. At the same time, I pray for the day when all Tennessee Baptists come to understand that God really does mean for our “. . .sons and daughters to prophesy,” and that there really is “. . .no longer male or female: for all of (us) are one in Christ Jesus.” In the meantime, I celebrate the life and witness of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City. The Kingdom of God and all of God’s creation will be better when more of us know what you know. Yes, God does call women to preach and lead churches. Yes, women can tell the story of Jesus in a way that is edifying and formative for those seeking to follow Christ. Yes, women have a voice that ought to be heard, believed and followed. First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, for having the courage and the wisdom to demonstrate the depth, the height and breadth of God’s love, thank you.
I was wrong last week. When the young woman who is playing the role of the preacher in our youth Easter drama asked the question as to whether she should dress like a man or woman for her part, I just assumed that she was raising a theological question. She was not. Her concerns were theatrical, not theological. She was looking for comedic impact, not ecclesiastical permission. There was no question in her mind as to whether or not women could preach. She had seen them do it.
I am grateful that there are Baptist churches where boys and girls can grow up to be women and men who understand that God does gift and call women to be preachers. What troubles me is that God seems to call so many Baptist young women to be pastors in Methodists, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ churches. When I meet a woman who is pastoring a church in one of those denominations, there seems to be at least a one-in-ten chance that she used to be Baptist. The ratio may not be accurate, but nonetheless there are a good number of women who have had to seek places of service outside of Baptist life in order to fulfill their callings.
What that means is that our practice has not yet caught up with our beliefs. Yes, God does gift women; and yes, God does call women. Yet, in the context of our particular locality there are pragmatic issues that must be considered. Will she be accepted by the church, by the community, by her peers? What impact will calling a woman pastor have on the life of the church? Since most Baptist churches have not called a woman to be their pastor, these kinds of questions are answered with speculation and uncertainty. Faith is the crucial element if more Baptist young women are going to serve the Lord in the spiritual tradition that birthed them. To call a woman to be the pastor, a Baptist church has to have enough faith to believe that God will make it work.
When I look at the children and youth growing up in our church, male and female, my first thought, my first hope for each of them is that they grow up to live lives wholly and completely yielded to God. My hopes for each of them is that in their growing up years, as they experience the presence of Christ in their lives and consider the abilities and interests that God has given to them, that they would always consider first how they can best use those abilities and interests in serving the cause of Christ. What I pray for is that whatever any one of our girls or boys, young men or young women, concludes is the best way that he or she can serve the cause of Christ, that none of them would have to stop being Baptist in order to be their best for Jesus.
A hundred years from now, someone will look back at our time and be shocked at the way Southern Baptist discriminated against women. My belief in God is such that I would not be half surprised if that person looking back happened to be a Southern Baptist. I believe such a scenario is possible because the Holy Spirit is at work in the world announcing the reign of God. In the Kingdom of God, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female. Justice will prevail, eventually.
But not today, today we are reminded that fear still binds the hearts and minds of those that God would set free. Yet freedom is a risky endeavor. Sometimes the chains of prejudice and the shackles of culturally-bond misreadings of scripture are preferable to the freedom God intends for those who follow Christ. Even still, God will keep calling little girls and little boys to proclaim the good news of God’s grace whether we listen or not.