The executive council of a Baptist association in Jefferson City, Mo., has voted to take no action against a church for ordaining a woman minister.
Doyle Sager, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, hailed a Feb. 29 vote by Concord Baptist Association leaders as a win for autonomy of the local church in an article posted on the Internet at MissouriBaptists.org.
The unanimous vote came in response to a request made at a regular council meeting Jan. 18, when a member of Concord Baptist Church asked the association to take a stand against women’s ordination.
First Baptist Church of Jefferson City has long included women as deacons but last year ordained its first female minister. Jeanie McGowan, the church’s minister for single adults since 1996, graduated last May with a master of divinity degree from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and was ordained to the gospel ministry Aug. 24.
McGowan said the association’s vote affirming First Baptist’s autonomy demonstrated a “loving spirit and recognition of Baptist principles that I have long held dear.”
Concord Baptist Church protested McGowan’s ordination in a letter read at the association’s semi-annual meeting last fall. The letter, drafted by the church’s deacons and affirmed by membership at a business meeting, labeled the ordination of women as deacons or ministers as “unbiblical and a departure from Southern Baptist belief and practice.”
The letter said Concord Baptist feared the practice of women’s ordination might spread and urged its sister church to “re-examine her position,” according to a report of the meeting in the Missouri Baptist Convention news journal The Pathway.
But according to Sager, speaker after speaker rose at the Feb. 29 council meeting at Mainstreet Baptist Church in California, Mo., to affirm love, unity and toleration of differences. Several speakers, he reported, said they would not ordain women in their own church but considered it a matter of local-church autonomy.
Calvin Brown, the association’s director of missions, said in a statement at the meeting that the issue “is not worth dividing the association.”
“We should affirm that every church is autonomous and has the right to choose its own leaders,” Brown said, according to a text of his comments that he made available with EthicsDaily.com. “And we should respect different interpretations of Scripture in such matters. No church either for or against the ordination of women should force its views upon another church.”
Brown said the association’s constitution affirms both the 1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith & Message statements and taking a stand on women’s ordination would have the effect of choosing one version over the other. Neither version of the Baptist Faith & Message speaks directly to women’s ordination, but the 2000 statement prohibits women from serving as pastors.
Brown also said ordination is a local church issue, and the dispute was over biblical interpretation rather than heresy or morality.
Brown said in a telephone interview that the 25 churches represented at the executive council meeting were “not necessarily agreeing” with the ordination of women, “but they are saying it is a local church issue.”
Brown said he does not expect the issue to resurface at the association’s upcoming semi-annual meeting March 21. “I think it’s over as far as the association is concerned,” he said.
Monte Shinkle, pastor of Concord Baptist Church, did not respond to an e-mail inviting him to comment.
First Baptist and Concord Baptist are two of the largest of the association’s 39 churches, and this isn’t their only difference. First Baptist gives to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, while Concord Baptist supports the Southern Baptist Convention.
Shinkle is immediate past president of the Missouri Baptist Convention, and Concord is one of six churches representing the MBC in a lawsuit against five state convention agencies for moving to self-perpetuating boards of trustees. First Baptist supports the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, an MBC breakaway group that backs the agencies being sued.
While disputes over women’s ordination are rare among Southern Baptists, they are not unprecedented.
In one of the most famous, Shelby Baptist Association in Memphis, Tenn., voted Prescott Memorial Baptist Church out of membership after the congregation called Nancy Hastings Sehested as pastor in 1987.
In 1999, a church in Bloomington, Ind., left the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana to avoid discipline. About the same time, an association in Savannah, Ga., dismissed a church for calling a woman as pastor.
More recently, Parkview Baptist Church in Gainesville, Fla., narrowly survived an ouster vote by Santa Fe River Baptist Association in 2001 over ordination of a female minister of education.
Last year a Baptist church in northern Kentucky turned down a female member’s request to be ordained, saying it didn’t meet church guidelines.
While some estimate there are as many as 1,800 ordained women in churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, SBC officials contend the number is much lower. Most women ordained in Southern Baptist churches serve in non-pastoral roles. SBC leaders two years ago identified 33 women senior pastors with a borderline SBC connection, out of 41,500 congregations the convention counts as members, according to an article in the Kentucky Post.
McGowan told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail that some people at her own church at first weren’t sure they were ready to take the step. “Some came to the pastor confessing that they had come to realize that their objections were not scripturally based, but rather from the fact that they had not experienced having a female pastor before,” she said.
“I feel sad for those who read the Bible and interpret Holy Scripture to say that God only calls those with certain anatomy,” she said. “The many references to women that I find in Scripture convince me that the only anatomy God is interested in is a heart that is open to God’s direction and call.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.