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FIRST-PERSON: Virginia WMU & women in ministry

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–How intriguing to see that the leaders of Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia have adopted a declaration endorsing the “diverse and unlimited” Christian vocations of women. Does Scripture offer any unlimited choices other than God’s grace?

In the Old Testament, God appointed Aaron and his sons to the priesthood. Not even all men were candidates for this special spiritual office (Exodus 29; Leviticus 8). In Israel, members of the tribe of Levi were assigned responsibility for the priestly role, yet some were rejected because of their age or physical blemishes (Numbers 8:23-26; Leviticus 21:17-23).

Throughout Scripture God states clearly the requirements for those who serve in positions of leadership in Kingdom ministries, and some of those requirements are gender-based (1 Timothy 2:8-15).

God does not need any group of women or men to declare the dignity of His creation. He does that quite well Himself (Genesis 1:26-28). Southern Baptists certainly affirmed this principle in their updated confessional statement adopted in 2000:

“God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood, or adoption….

“The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation” (excerpt from Article 28 of the BF&M 2000).”

No woman or man can understand the mind of God (Isaiah 55:8-9). Yet, many want to use their own reasoning to make decisions. For example, in the human mind, to be the pastor in a local church is the highest honor. Therefore, that position is considered the prize and a coveted role for influence and service.

Yet the psalmist said, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord” (Psalm 86:10). Jesus Himself extolled the value of a little child (Matthew 18:2-5, 10). I welcome into my home scores of esteemed pastors and religious leaders throughout the year, but not one of them is more valuable to me than my adorable granddaughters.

No one could help but see that throughout history women have obtained many distinctions and been used very effectively in the Kingdom of Christ. Miriam was noted as a leader among the children of Israel and as a musician and prophetess (Exodus 15:20), but the only blight on her life was her effort to supplant her brother Moses (Numbers 12:1-16), who had been anointed by God as the spiritual leader of Israel.

Deborah used her gifts of leadership as a judge in counseling people with problems and in participating in their deliverance in time of war (Judges 4-5), but she is identified as the “wife of Lapidoth” and a “mother in Israel.” She did her counseling under a palm tree in her own yard, not sitting at the city gate with the elders. She chose to encourage Barak instead of assuming leadership of the troops in the time of battle.

Huldah, a prophetess in Israel during a time of spiritual backsliding, played an important role during the nation’s subsequent revival. However, she didn’t accomplish this by preaching in the temple or assuming the role of a priest; rather, she personally delivered God’s message to King Josiah through the High Priest Hilkiah (2 Kings 22:14-20).

Anna was indeed the first to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah and the redemption for Israel, but she did not deliver this Good News as a priest but as a lay evangelist, simply proclaiming the Good News to all whom she encountered (Luke 2:36-38).

Mary Magdalene was the first to arrive at the empty tomb and took advantage of proclaiming the resurrection to everyone she met. She did not need the office of priest or pastor nor the platform of a public arena but simply a grateful heart and willing spirit (John 20:1-18). Her enthusiasm for proclaiming the Gospel and her commitment to follow Christ have certainly characterized many women in every succeeding generation as well.

The question has never been whether or not women are valued in the Kingdom of Christ, nor has it been whether or not women are to be involved in ministry. Both are affirmed in Scripture; both have been acknowledged in confessional statements; both are clear in the many opportunities offered to women for service to Christ.

As in every aspect of following Christ, the task before women and men is to determine the biblical boundaries that surround every decision of life. Pragmatic guidelines, such as proper qualifications, whether educational preparation, availability for service, personal interests, feelings, etc., simply are not part of the biblical criteria for making choices.

Feelings can be subjective, varying with mood and circumstances and without biblical authority. God-given boundaries are not manipulated by culture or society, nor do they disappear with the changing of generations. Jesus, of course, is part of the culture, but He is above and quite often against culture, and never is He bound by culture.

In the debate prompting the Virginia WMU declaration envisioning for women “diverse and unlimited” Christian vocations, women dare not be emotionally stirred up to disregard clear directives in the recognized canon of Holy Scripture. Rather, they must be determined to look to Scripture as the ultimate standard providing a worthy authority over life and practice as well as a sure and certain measure against which one may test personal feelings and desires (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Scripture then must endure culture throughout the passing of generations and appropriate itself anew in each generation, whatever the cultural setting, with vitality and relevance.

Certainly women should be called to share the Gospel with all who cross their paths (Matthew 28:19-20); yes, your guide better be the Holy Spirit of God, and you can rest in knowing that the Holy Spirit within will NEVER contradict His written Word without.

That Word is found on a printed page for you to read and embrace as the boundary to every decision. And what a heritage women have — women who have been leaders in the Kingdom, women who have borne sons and daughters and nurtured them in the faith to produce the succeeding generations, women who have served their families and their neighbors and their congregations.

Finally, indeed the prophet Joel did announce that the Holy Spirit would be poured out on ALL God’s people regardless of gender, social class or age. In fact, he mentions women twice in these verses (Joel 2:28-29). Peter quoted the passage from Joel at Pentecost to emphasize that God’s Spirit would be given to all believers so that they could all speak forth the Good News (Acts 2:17-18). Paul picked up this emphasis when he reinforced that IN CHRIST there is no difference in race, legal status or gender — Christ died for all, and all come to Him in the same way (Galatians 3:28).

How interesting to hear that God “discriminated” against women, and, if viewed in this way, against many men, by setting forth boundaries on what women and men could do in the Kingdom. Paul followed the leading of the Spirit who inspired his epistles to set forth guidelines in the same “discriminating” way, yet consistent with the creation order and with the whole of Scripture.

The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, in regard to the commissioning of chaplains, also is accused of what is alleged to be “discrimination.” However, perhaps you need a closer look at exactly what action has been taken. First, the action confirms that Southern Baptists still want to be known as “people of the Book.” Whatever the cost in stinging criticism, discouraging misunderstanding or judgment of motives, Southern Baptists still want to go on record as following the dictates of Holy Scripture as best they can understand its clear message.

Are Southern Baptist women still being approved for the chaplaincy? Yes, indeed. Women are preparing for the chaplaincy here at Southwestern Seminary, and a professor who will be devoting his full energies to prepare men and women for that important service has just been added to the faculty.

I just enjoyed a personal visit with a Southern Baptist woman, a graduate of Southwestern Seminary, who is a chaplain in St. Louis. She affirmed the excellent support she had from NAMB. Her home church commissioned her (not through ordination but through a special setting apart in appropriate ways); NAMB issued a letter of endorsement according to the confessional guidelines of Southern Baptists; she is having a fruitful ministry.

Do you think for one minute that a Jewish rabbi or Moslem imam would be forced to perform pastoral responsibilities such as administering the Lord’s Supper or baptism in contradistinction to his faith? Absolutely not! Southern Baptists have the same religious freedom to guard what they hold to be divine guidelines in configuring the responsibilities of their chaplains as well.

There are many needed ministries to women and children for chaplains in the military and in prisons, as well as in hospitals or industrial settings, which do not demand assuming the office and responsibilities of a pastor. In fact, there are many ministries that are like those of a pastor, such as offering counsel and comfort, which are not assigned exclusively to a pastor per New Testament guidelines. And in those New Testament guidelines, there are only two prohibitions for women.

Perhaps Southern Baptist women who serve as chaplains will open new arenas of ministry to the families of those in the military or in prisons just as they have ministered to families in hospitals or industrial settings. Paul reminds us not to be “squeezed into the mold of the world” (Romans 12:2). It follows then that we must be bound by Scripture but unleashed to use creativity and energy in effective ways within its boundaries.

Perhaps I could make my own declaration, and there may well be Southern Baptist women who would join me:

— I am going to study and learn God’s Word (1 Timothy 2:11).

— I am going to use every opportunity to instruct women who are new or young in the faith, beginning with the curriculum stated in Scripture (Titus 2:3-5).

— I am going to use lifestyle teaching to model God’s truth to my children and grandchildren and to all who cross my path (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).

— I am going to share the Gospel with every woman or man or girl or boy as I have opportunity (1 Peter 3:15), and I will delight in woman-to-woman ministries (Titus 2:3-5).

— If I am asked to do so, I will pray or give my testimony within the congregation of believers (1 Corinthians 11:5).

— I will preside over my household and make it a place of comfort and nurture (Proverbs 31:10-31).

— I will offer my service to Christ according to the guidelines in His Word (1 Timothy 2:11-15). What an assignment this admonition may turn out to be with many opportunities and only two prohibitions (i.e., teaching men or ruling over men) within two spheres (i.e., the home and the church).
Dorothy Kelley Patterson is professor of women’s studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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  • Dorothy Kelley Patterson