News Articles

Southern Baptist leaders respond to author’s arguments for women pastors

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A Pentecostal journalist is using the occasion of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting to promote the views he espouses in a book titled, “Ten Lies the Church Tells Women.” J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, sent an open letter to SBC President James Merritt on May 29, urging reexamination of “current policies on women in ministry” based on arguments he made in the book released last fall.

In the letter that was copied to 14 leading religion editors of secular newspapers and four news services, Grady claims that Southern Baptists prohibit women from ministries that range from leading a home Bible study to preaching in a local church. Among the “lies” that Grady believes churches tell women are that they are not equipped to assume leadership roles, that those exhibiting strong leadership pose a danger to the church, that a man needs to “cover” a woman in her ministry activities, and that women must not teach or preach to men in a church setting.

Grady calls on Merritt and all Southern Baptists to release women to exercise the spiritual gifts God has given them. At a time when a national spiritual awakening is needed, Grady contends that the roadblock to women must be removed “in order to provide every available servant of Jesus Christ to be on the front lines in this crucial hour.”

He accuses the SBC of telling women “to stay behind — as if they are not called, commissioned or equipped for spiritual conflict.” Turning to Joel 2:28, he added that the SBC could do more to further the gospel around the world by reconsidering the prophesy that “in the last days … your sons and your daughters will prophesy.”

Merritt, responding to Grady’s contentions, stated, “Over the past year nothing perhaps has stirred up more controversy outside of the Southern Baptist Convention than the statement we made concerning the role of women in ministry in the revised Baptist Faith and Message. As Yogi Berra once said, ‘I didn’t say everything that I said.’ We have been caricatured as saying things by certain people outside of our Southern Baptist family that we simply have not said.”

Merritt reiterated the BFM article on the Church as stating, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

He emphasized, “That statement is extremely limited in scope as it should be. We do believe that the role of the senior pastor in a church should be filled by the male only, which is exactly what God’s Word teaches. We do, however, also strongly affirm the spiritual giftedness of women and their ability, in fact, even necessity to serve the church through various means and ministry. We will continue to both stand by the truth of God’s Word, but also affirm the strategic role that women play in our Baptist churches here and around the world.”

Grady, in his letter to Merritt, said he is appreciative of Southern Baptists because of early experiences with the denomination as a child. While he became involved in the charismatic movement in the late 1970s through the influence of charismatic Southern Baptists, Grady said he eventually was ordained in a Pentecostal denomination. He told Merritt that he was grieved over last year’s vote by an overwhelming number of messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention “to restrict the ministry of women,” calling it a “setback not only for your denomination, but also for the entire body of Christ.”

One member of the committee that drafted the language approved by messengers is Richard D. Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He responded to Grady’s criticism of the revised statement of Baptist beliefs in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, emphasizing, “This is the first time the Baptist Faith and Message explicitly affirms women in ministry.” Within the section on the Church, the revised language adds the stipulation that “both men and women are gifted for service in the church,” while also noting “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Land also disputed Grady’s contention that Southern Baptists do not believe women are equipped to assume leadership roles, stating, “If they weren’t, why would they be gifted for service?” He gave evidence of the leadership of women in the SBC, noting, “The head of our Washington office is a woman,” referring to Shannon Royce, who serves as the ERLC’s legislative counsel and director of government relations.

“That is not in contradiction with the BFM,” Land said. “The ERLC is not a church and she is not a pastor, but she is gifted for service.” Women serve in various administrative and teaching roles at Southern Baptist seminaries and agencies, he added.

Land said SBC boards typically hire those called to a pastoral office when filling top vacancies at boards and agencies. “But I don’t think there’s a theological reason why a woman could not be the head of an agency, as long as it’s not a church.”

Grady chastises Southern Baptists for revering Lottie Moon and Bertha Smith while denying women the opportunity to lead churches or church meetings. “We need thousands of Bertha Smiths today, yet many evangelical women feel they are disqualified from doing what she did simply because of their gender,” Grady wrote in the letter to Merritt. Grady calls Moon an outspoken critic of gender prejudice within the SBC in the late 1800s, asking, “Why do Southern Baptists honor her today — and yet ignore her prophetic message to the church?”

International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin retraced the steps of Moon throughout China and wrote an account of his study of her life, titled “A Journey of Faith and Sacrifice.” “It is very clear and well-referenced that as Lottie Moon went on itinerant witnessing tours to the villages, teaching the Bible and yes, probably preaching, that she would not allow any men to be present,” Rankin told the Florida Baptist Witness. That didn’t prevent men from being saved through her ministry, Rankin noted, as they listened through the window to her message. He added that Moon called upon a male Chinese evangelist to work alongside her, performing baptisms of converts and other pastoral roles.

“The SBC policy has been severely distorted and misunderstood, especially by those outside the denomination,” Rankin said of Grady’s characterization. “Nothing prohibits a woman from engaging in any kind of church-related ministry,” he said, noting the scriptural restriction against holding a church pastorate as the only limitation.

Moon’s objection to the policy of not sending single women missionaries was changed by what was then called the Foreign Mission Board before she was appointed after her single sister, Edmonia, preceded her to China. The late Baptist historian William Estep praised the way Moon and the FMB’s Henry Allen Tupper modeled the ideal working relationship of missionaries with the board. While her field director initially objected to the transition she made from educational ministry with children to evangelism and church planting, concessions were made to allow a new direction. “Whatever success the now legendary missionary may have enjoyed was due in part to the support she received from Tupper and the board,” Estep wrote in his book, “Whole Gospel, Whole World.”

Grady’s perception that the late Bertha Smith did not adhere to her own denomination’s restrictive policies about women in ministry is also skewed. For more than 40 years, she served as a Southern Baptist missionary in China and Formosa, returning to America upon her retirement to assume a new ministry of teaching the principles of revival to local churches for nearly another 30 years. Samford University professor Lewis Drummond calls Smith a “woman of revival” and credits her with touching thousands of Chinese in writing the introduction to her memoirs, “Go Home and Tell.”

While granting that Southern Baptist women missionaries may be ministering in a variety of settings apart from the pastorate, Grady responded in a telephone interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, “How much more could we see accomplished if the largest Protestant denomination in America that has many, many spiritually mature and trained women would reassess that issue.” He stated that the SBC would do well to study the example of the spread of the gospel through an underground movement in China that he said could not have been accomplished apart from women as pastors.

Grady said he believes the restriction has “a dampening influence” in other areas, citing an e-mail he received from a Southern Baptist woman who indicated she had been prevented from conducting a neighborhood outreach to children unless a man was present to supervise. “We can trace that back to what I would call a residue of gender prejudice rooted in the denomination,” Grady said. “I don’t know for certain whether it’s because of that restriction.”

Grady said he is especially concerned to not be cast as “theologically liberal,” adding that he understands the tensions within the SBC. He stated that some who “push a button here and there” end up being labeled as liberal. In reality, he said, he is appreciative of the conservative direction of the SBC and shares many common convictions on moral issues.

“I would just hope that the SBC would be open to understanding this whole, rich tradition in the body of Christ in the Third World,” Grady said, appealing to the denomination to set aside its interpretation of Scripture to consider evidence of successful church growth involving women pastors. “There is history and a proven track record of women in leadership and it has not brought apostacy,” he said. “I’d like for the SBC to show me what is the evil fruit of this view. I guess they would like for two-thirds of what is going on in China to be shut down if women were not allowed to pastor.”

Grady said prejudice often influences how the Bible is interpreted. “I appeal to Southern Baptists to please go back and examine whether you’re reading something into the text,” he said. “I will love my Southern Baptist brethren even if they don’t agree on this, but I do believe the way I view the Scriptures is right.”

Moving beyond Southern Baptist examples, Grady praises the ministry of women like faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman and healing evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. He claims that the “lies” told to women by churches would prevent the Bible teaching of Corrie ten Boom and Henrietta Mears.

Other accusations made by Grady in his book occasionally draw on illustrations from Southern Baptists. The alleged lies told to women include:

— a woman is expected to regard her husband as a “priest of the home;”

— is more easily deceived than a man;

— can’t be fulfilled or spiritually effective without a husband and children;

— shouldn’t work outside the home; and

— must obediently submit to her husband in all situations.

While the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message referred to man in a generic sense, the 2000 BFM more clearly states that the husband and wife are of equal worth before God and created in his image, in contrast to Grady’s charge that women are told they are “inferior beings.” The article titled Man states that God “created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation.” It further describes “the gift of gender as “part of the goodness of God’s creation.”

The BFM article on the Family added in 1998 states, “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.”

Land said, “The husband’s role is not one of privilege and power, but one of respect and service.”

The allegation that women are being told they can’t be fulfilled without a husband and children is challenged by the life of another BFM study committee member, Heather King, director of Woman’s Missionary Union and women’s ministry for Southern Baptists in Indiana. As a single Christian woman, King has found many opportunities for a fulfilling ministry in her present job as well as her previous work with a crisis pregnancy center in North Carolina.

King does not find herself or other women limited by marital status or gender. But she is quick to measure her sense of calling against the foundation of Scripture. “For those women who feel the call to minister, no matter what that call is, they need to measure that feeling against what Scripture says,” King said. Emotions and feelings change as women grow and mature amid changing circumstances, she said, noting, “We can’t base our whole lives on what we feel. We have to base it on what doesn’t change, and that’s the Word of God.”

Suzy Hawkins, who also served on the committee that drafted new language for the Baptist Faith and Message, disputed the criticism that the statement prohibits women from ministry. “No one has ever said those words except the people who question what we’re doing,” she told Baptist Press after passage of the revision. “Jesus never said that as far as ministering and using your gifts. But there are some very specific guidelines in the Bible about the role of pastor — his marriage, character and conduct. It is a noble task and the fact that he is to be a male is just one of those guidelines.”

That limitation occurs only in the context of a local church pastor, said Hawkins, of Dallas, who has directed women’s ministry for a local Southern Baptist church. “It isn’t a reference to service in other church staff positions, schools, para-church organizations or other institutions where women certainly can minister,” she insisted. “Our opponents have generalized this to mean something no one has ever said. If a woman — genuinely, with all her heart — desires to serve God and use her gifts, he’s going to show her a place to do it. If her heart’s desire is a position or office, that’s a different matter.”

The BFM statement does not address whether women should work outside the home, but simply encourages parents to “teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth.”

Land said Grady has failed to submit himself to the authority of Scripture, saying it is “a poor witness for a Christian since Jesus submitted himself to the authority of scripture in the garden of Gethsemene. I believe [Grady] stands convicted of having a sub-biblical view of the Bible.”

Church history professor Ergun Caner of Criswell College in Dallas pointed to the vast difference between theological beliefs of Pentecostals and Baptists, placing Grady’s analysis outside the context of biblical interpretation by Southern Baptists. “Pentecostals have always been driven by the ubiquity of the baptism of the Holy Ghost, the ubiquity of the gift of tongues and the ubiquity of exercising of gifts,” Caner said, noting that a Pentecostal leaning toward women pastors is a natural outgrowth as such teaching comes from “revealed authority” as opposed to biblical mandate.

“Personal revelation leaves us unanchored,” Caner said, “because anybody can come in and say anything and you can’t dispute it because they say God gave it to them.” As a result, he said, Christians are told of a 90-foot Jesus or a new path of salvation and expected to receive such revelations as authoritative.

“We’re not discounting personal revelation, but we’re putting it in its proper context and perspective under biblical authority,” Caner said. “Any personal revelation which a person says they may receive from God cannot contradict the Word of God,” he reminded, applying the principle to women claiming to have been told by God to pastor a church.

Grady’s dependence on the testimony that women pastors felt called of God to preach is common in Pentecostal circles. That distinctive stands in contrast to the Southern Baptist Convention’s determination to base practice on scriptural directives. “In such an emotionally starved atmosphere, experience-oriented religion has become very popular,” said Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla. In his assessment of charismatic practices in a book titled, “Spirit Works,” Vines warns, “It’s not what the culture says, not what other people believe about it, but truth is what the Bible says.”

SpiritLed Woman, one of several publications related to Grady’s Charisma magazine, empathizes with women in ministry, asking on its website, “Do you sometimes feel as if you are out there all alone, with nothing but judgment and criticism for company?” The site describes SpiritLed Woman magazine as holding to the view that “God equips women to fulfill whatever He is calling them to, whether it is pastoring a church, heading up a traveling ministry or teaching Sunday school. And we believe He wants us to help you fulfill your destiny by expanding your horizons, encouraging you in your calling and empowering you to do all He has ordained.”

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which includes several Southern Baptists, responded to Grady’s book in a March statement. The CBMW release noted that Grady references the female followers of Jesus, calling them “a vital part of His traveling ministry team…” and contends that “they were Jesus’ disciples in the fullest sense, and we have every reason to believe that He commissioned them to minister in His name.”

CBMW responded, “Sadly, the type of thinking Grady promotes really represents egalitarianism at its shallowest. Blurring obvious distinctions between the calling of Jesus’ twelve disciples and others that followed him, while also denying the stand out roles the early Church saw for the twelve disciples (cf. Acts 1:21-22), Grady fails to make distinctions the Scriptures clearly make. He therefore misinterprets what the Bible teaches.”

CBMW refers readers to Wayne Grudem’s article “Prophecy-Yes, but Teaching-No: Paul’s Consistent Advocacy of Women’s Participation Without Governing Authority” in the CBMW Foundation Series to show how interpretations like Grady’s fall short (www.cbmw.org).

Grudem, in his article, argues that “prophecies given in local New Testament churches should be considered merely human words, not God’s words, and not equal to God’s words in authority. It is certainly a mistake to equate New Testament church prophets with the divinely authoritative prophets of the Old Testament,” as Grady does in applying the passage from Joel.

Grudem, who has attended a Southern Baptist church while teaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago, added, “Paul affirms abiding distinctions between roles appropriate to women and those appropriate to men in the assembled meetings of the church. It is important to recognize that the passages in 1 Tim. and 1 Cor. 14 are not isolated texts which fit poorly with the rest of the New Testament. Rather, they are consistent with the pattern of teaching in the entire New Testament, a pattern which, while it certainly affirms for women a much higher status than they were accorded in much of 1st century culture, and while it certainly affirms for women full equality with men in value, personhood, and reflection of the image of God, nevertheless repeatedly and throughout insists on distinct roles for men and women in marriage and in the church, a New Testament teaching which still today requires male headship both in marriage and in the church.”

Another member of CBMW’s council is Dorothy Patterson, who served as general editor of the Woman’s Study Bible and is assistant professor of women´s studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Having served on the SBC committee that drafted the 1998 BFM amendment on the Family as incorporated into the 2000 revision, she drew attention to the relationship between male leadership in the home and in the church.

“God is obviously using the metaphor of the home to reveal himself. That’s why he is so explicit on those relationships and insists that they carry over to the church,” Patterson said. She noted the essential ministry women are to have in discipling other women. “The older, spiritually mature women are to teach the women who are new in the faith,” she said, noting that the curriculum described in Titus 2:3-5 involves providing an example as “lovers of husbands, lovers of children, and home workers.”

Patterson noted that no other denomination can point to the kind of success the SBC has had in evangelism, making it unlikely that Southern Baptists would abandon biblical convictions to adopt another denomination’s practices. Women make up more than half of the mission force worldwide. According to the International Mission Board, 2,826 women are currently serving on the mission field, 725 of whom are single. Just over half of NAMB’s 5,081 missionaries are female, with 2,826 serving across North America. Some of them are jointly supported by NAMB and its mission partners in state conventions, associations and churches.

After reading Grady’s book and the accusations applied to Southern Baptists, Patterson added, “People like Mr. Grady are going to have to cough up documentation for these broad sweeping statements.”

Land further added, “Based on what I have read, I think Lee Grady made a wise decision and is far happier worshiping in a charismatic and Pentecostal context than with Southern Baptists. Perhaps he should tend to bearing witness to Pentecostals instead.”

    About the Author

  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter