The number of female pastors in the U.S. has doubled over the past 10 years according to research by the Barna Group. A Religion News Service story on the report is posted at Baptists Today.

As expected, the growth has occurred primarily in mainline Protestant churches.

While many paint this issue in strict terms of a conservative/liberal divide, there are more factors at work. Pentecostals, for example, who hold a high view of biblical authority and embrace conservative ethical positions, have long been comfortable with women preachers.

In fact, one of the stronger and clearer conservative voices on that position is my fellow Berry College grad Lee Grady, editor of Charisma magazine, who penned the book “10 Lies the Church Tells Women.”

My anecdotal-based conclusion is that this shift toward women in all areas of church leadership is slow but sure. For example, more than a decade ago, while working for The Christian Index, I saw more and more names of women among deacons at Southern Baptist churches in Georgia.

Most Baptist churches — unless the pastor is one who puts a strong emphasis on gender restrictions — have seen women move into various leadership roles once filled by men only. It is hard to argue against culture being a major factor in much of this, unless you can make a biblical case that being an usher is a position of spiritual authority rather than an excuse to hang out in the narthex (vestibule) during the sermon.

However, in Baptist life, the role of women in ministry is often seen as a major identification mark between fundamentalist and more moderate congregations. ( Baptist Women in Ministry commissioned a study that takes a closer look at the growth of female pastors among Baptists.)

Personally, this issue is as resolved for me as older debates over racial equality. In fact, the arguments against both racial and gender equality seem remarkably similar and insufficient.

Yet my “baptistness” grants freedom to others — individuals and congregations — to reach their own conclusions. (However, I would never subject my own daughters to pulpit-endorsed claims that God’s call on their lives carries limitations that don’t apply to the boys in the pews.)

The February 2009 issue of Baptists Today carried my interview with Oregon State professor Susan Shaw (also a Berry College grad, by the way) who authored the deeply researched book, God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society. She noted that the strongest opponents to women pastors (and often other roles that are seen as having authority) tend to affirm the ontological equality of women.

While women are seen as having equal value, their roles are different, according to those holding this position. But as Shaw told me: “For me, those ‘different roles’ always end up with men in power.”

Southern Baptist leaders better hope their case for excluding women from equal leadership in the church and home is lasting. For they have codified that position as biblical truth and treated the issue as doctrinally essential.

I believe they are wrong. But it will be the next generation of Southern Baptists that will likely have to say so.

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