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Texas leaders slated in meeting keyed to women pastors, gender-neutral Bible

DALLAS (BP)–Texas Baptist leaders are among the featured speakers at the biennial international conference of the Christians for Biblical Equality scheduled in Dallas this summer. A defender of women pastors and gender-neutral Bible translation, CBE is featuring Julie Pennington-Russell, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Director Charles Wade as speakers at its June 22-24 meeting.

A promotional brochure inserted in the BGCT-funded Baptist Standard in the Dallas-Fort Worth area describes Pennington as a leader in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, calling it “an alliance of thousands of churches and individuals unhappy with the SBC’s restrictive policy.” She is scheduled to speak on “Before the Unwrapping: Learning to Live in Love.”

Pennington-Russell sharply criticized the SBC last spring after reading the proposed Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement that referenced a biblical view of only males serving in the office of senior pastor. Pennington-Russell was quoted as saying, “It would come as a surprise to Jesus that the office of pastor should be limited to men.”

Another critic of the BFM statement, Wade will participate in a panel discussion on “Equipping the Church, Empowering the Saints,” along with Central Baptist Theological Seminary professor Carolyn Gordon, a vice president of Baptist Women in Ministry, and Willow Creek Community Church co-founder Gilbert Bilezikian, a proponent of gender-neutral Bible language. Bilezikian’s session will address “A Biblical Challenge to the Southern Baptist Teaching on Women from a Fellow Baptist.”

Wade’s criticism of the SBC confessional statement includes his objection to continued use of the 1998 family amendment, and what he regards as a violation of the right of local churches to decide whether to call female senior pastors. The official BGCT website echoes his sentiment, stating, “Few Texas Baptist churches have felt led by God to call a woman as senior pastor, but no Baptist church wants to be told whom it can and cannot call.”

A session on “Women and Spiritual Gifts” will feature Dan Gentry Kent who chose to leave his teaching post at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth when asked to sign the 1998 BFM family amendment. Kent now chairs the CBE board of directors and is the full-time coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas. Kent also is a vice president of the Southern Baptist Historical Society.

Mike Lundy, director of Family Life Concerns for the BGCT’s Christian Life Commission, will address “Couple Spirituality.” And former New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary ethics professor Joe Trull will lead a session on “Deja Vu All Over Again: The Rhetoric of Pro-Slavery Appears Again,” comparing the rationale used to support the traditional view of female roles with that used to support slavery. Trull edits Christian Ethics Today, a journal formerly associated with the Texas-based Center for Christian Ethics established by former SBC Christian Life Commission exec Foy Valentine.

Other conference leaders with ties to the SBC are Janet Burton, retired minister of education from Woodlawn Baptist Church in Austin, providing drama for the event; Baylor University religion professor Rosalie Beck, dealing with women in Christian history; and Baylor University religion professor Sharyn Dowd, providing a study of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 in her session on “Let the Women Speak in Church.”

Christians for Biblical Equality advocates use of the New International Version-Inclusive Language Edition published by Hodder and Stoughton in the United Kingdom. Zondervan suspended sale of the NIVI in the United States after widespread criticism from evangelical Christians who objected to historically misleading and doctrinally confusing gender references.

CBE conference leader Gilbert Bilezikian is a key defender of the egalitarian approach to Scripture translation, denying any distinctions between men and women in the church and home. Telling World magazine, for example, of his confidence that egalitarians will win out in years to come, he said, “It is a quiet reform movement that is unstoppable.

“In two or three generations from now it won’t even be an issue,” Bilezikian said, predicting that groups holding to the traditional view will be relegated to the margins.

CBE draws its belief that women are qualified to pastor from Galatians 3:28, specifying that “men and women are to diligently develop and use their God-given gifts for the good of the home, church and society.” CBE Executive Director Mimi Haddad criticized the SBC for overlooking “Scripture’s consistent affirmation of women’s leadership in the church” when messengers overwhelmingly approved the new BFM statement last year.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Dorothy Patterson, a member of the committee that drafted the 1998 family amendment included in the current BFM statement, referred to the CBE’s dependence on the Galatians passage as a proof text that takes the passage out of its context of soteriology (salvation). “Egalitarians are constantly taking a focal verse and making that mold the rest of Scripture,” Patterson said.

As general editor of the Woman’s Study Bible, Patterson wrote, “We must be cautious about imposing contemporary views about the nature of equality upon the Bible, especially on such an emotion-laden issue as the nature of authority patterns in marriage and in the church.” While Galatians 3 addresses the nature of salvation, Patterson said other passages such as Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 expound the proper social relationships of men and women in the church.

“The CBE is saying equal means the same,” Patterson explained, erasing distinctives between men and women. “The complementarian would never erase the equality of man and woman. We were created not only equal, but equal to do the tasks God has assigned us to do.” Patterson’s views are paralleled by an organization known as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

CBE conference leader Joe Trull, in his critique of the BFM, accused Patterson of maintaining a “hierarchical view of marriage” that “inevitably leads to the ancient fallacy that men answer to God and women answer to men.” Patterson responded that the image of God is properly reflected when “the realities of headship and submission are enacted within loving, equal, complementary male-female roles.”

Trull has also accused SBC seminaries of regressing in their use of women’s education, gifts and calling. He called on CBE to fulfill a unique role of offering “the message of biblical equality” at a time when “a growing number of excluded churches and believers” in the SBC “are waking up, speaking up and confronting the tide.”

Following passage of the BFM statement last June, Southwestern Seminary President Kenneth Hemphill told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Many people have focused only on the singular prohibition of women as senior pastors. It is important to note that the statement affirms women in diverse roles in ministry according to their unique giftedness.”

Prior to changes in seminary leadership following a conservative resurgence in the SBC, the schools often attracted women preparing to pastor. And yet, few have been accepted into Southern Baptist church life, according to a recent study by Midwestern Seminary which found that only 30 women as senior pastors – less than one-tenth of 1 percent – in the 43,000 Southern Baptist churches across the country.

To better match the needs of the vast majority of churches, Southern Baptist seminaries have increased the curriculum offerings that prepare women for ministries they will be able to exercise. Southeastern offers a master of divinity in women’s studies while New Orleans offers a master’s degree in women’s ministry. Midwestern, Southern and Southwestern have added diploma or certificate tracks to equip the wives of ministers. Such changes have broadened the base of enrollment by women pursuing roles most commonly accepted in Southern Baptist life.

For Russell-Pennington, the opportunity for women to serve in the pastorate is especially important. She told CNN last summer, “In a Baptist tradition, the local congregation is where it all happens. As long as there are congregations out there with the courage to follow the spirit of God … then women will always find a place.”

As the Christians for Biblical Equality convenes in Dallas this summer, she and other Southern Baptists who oppose the BFM statement will have a forum for waging their case.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter