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WMU executive and NAMB respond to Va. declaration

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The national Woman’s Missionary Union and Virginia WMU are autonomous organizations, national WMU Executive Director Wanda Lee said in a statement regarding a “Declaration of the Dignity of Women” adopted by Virginia WMU in September.

The Virginia WMU declaration alleges discrimination “against women in the work of Christian ministry” and takes particular aim at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Faith and Message 2000 statement of beliefs. The BF&M, which cites numerous Bible passages in various areas of belief, notes that the office of pastor should be held by men.

Lee, in a statement issued to Baptist Press Nov. 16, noted, “Just as every state Baptist convention is an autonomous body, so is each state WMU organization, particularly as they deal with issues in their state.”

Lee also stated, “Although state WMU offices address many issues, concerns and opportunities as they arise, they are each encouraged to make decisions that facilitate the overarching purpose of WMU — to engage adults, youth, children, and preschoolers in missions.”

Lee did not voice a reaction to the assertions made in the Virginia WMU declaration.

“There is great diversity among the 40 state WMU offices that relate to national WMU, ranging from a one-person staff to a large staff of part-time and fulltime employees, and everything in between,” Lee said. “Some are self-supporting auxiliaries and some are departments within state Baptist conventions. Virginia WMU is probably one of the clearest examples of an auxiliary, in that they fund themselves, have their own board and determine their own partners.”

Of the distinction between national WMU and various state WMU organizations, Lee said, “We respect the autonomy of both bodies and their right to speak for themselves.”

The declaration has drawn a reaction, however, from Dorothy Patterson, one of the pioneers in women’s studies in Southern Baptist theological education. Patterson holds graduate theology degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Luther Rice Seminary and the University of South Africa.

In a column in Baptist Press today, Nov. 18, Patterson notes, “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.”

Even so, Patterson writes, “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)….

“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,” Patterson writes. “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).”

Virginia WMU, in its 484-word declaration, states in part, “Our declaration is that women are leaders in the church, called by God, commissioned by Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, with a strong, noble heritage. Empowered by our mission, values, and heritage, we pledge to support all people, especially women and girls, as they live out their diverse and unlimited vocations. Through the study and exposition of scripture, public advocacy, mentorship, networking, inclusive language, careful dialogue, proactive speech, seminary scholarships, and influence on pastoral search committees and nominating boards, we will encourage and continue to develop the leadership of women and girls in all spheres and at all levels of church life.”

Referencing “humiliating affronts to the dignity of Christian women,” the Virginia WMU declaration states: “We draw the strength to declare, with prophetic conviction:

“– That we reject all blanket discrimination against women in the work of Christian ministry, in particular, as elaborated in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message;

“– That we reject the findings and policy of the North American Mission Board with regard to the non-endorsement of women to chaplaincy positions.

“– That we reject any devaluation of women worldwide.”

NAMB, in a statement to Baptist Press, said it “still strongly affirms women in a myriad of roles in the church and denomination, including the 2,500-plus who serve as NAMB missionaries and the 200 women who serve as SBC-endorsed chaplains. However, NAMB no longer endorses women to chaplaincy roles that call for a ‘fully qualified member of the clergy or that have a role or function similar to that of a pastor.’”

The Virginia WMU declaration did not spark debate during the annual meetings of the two Baptist conventions in Virginia, the Baptist General Association of Virginia and the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia held earlier in November. The BGAV newspaper, the Religious Herald, carried several letters to the editor about the declaration, pro and con.

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