Correction: In first paragraph, it is the Georgia Baptist Convention, not the Altlanta Metro Baptist Association, that has taken action against churches. (04/26/10 — 11:00 a.m. CT)

In Georgia, Baptists are quarreling about women preachers. One church, First Baptist of Decatur, where Julie Pennington-Russell is pastor, has already been removed from the ranks of what is known as a “cooperating church” by the Georgia Baptist Convention. Another church, Druid Hills in Atlanta, may be facing the same fate although in the Druid Hills case the issue is a husband-and-wife pastor team.

Behind it all is a single biblical verse found in the first letter to Timothy. The verse reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain silent.” Those 18 words have slammed the door on women preachers for a long time. When you talk to Baptist leaders, and ask what women who feel called are supposed to do, they shrug and say, “It’s God’s word. We just have to accept it.”

Funny thing about God’s word – sometimes it appears that there is a little picking and choosing going on. For instance in the verses that follow the so-called prohibition against women preaches, there are also some very strong words about how women should dress and wear their hair. These words are rarely if ever enforced in any Baptist church I know about.

There are other examples. In the Book of Leviticus, there is a prohibition against eating pork, catfish and shrimp. My experience has been that these are three of the main food groups at most church picnics.

And don’t get me started on the wholesale ignoring of the teachings of Jesus about taking care of the poor. Nearly a third of Matthew 25 is devoted to warning believers that our failure to take care of the least of these in our midst is a testimony that we do not know Jesus at all.

There are also some contradictions within the Scriptures that are conveniently ignored. For instance, while it appears that Paul prohibits women from preaching in the Timothy passage, in 1 Corinthians he gives detailed information about how women should dress when they are preaching. Which Paul do we listen to?

At another time in our history, Bible believers clutched holy writ and helped plunge us into a bloody civil war. Even Christians who did not own slaves felt they had to defend slavery because the Bible states, “slaves be obedient to your masters.” Paul, again, by the way.

In the case of slavery, what eventually happened is that the Spirit of Christ triumphed over the letter of the Bible. I don’t know anyone who on the basis of biblical authority would say that slavery is acceptable or is in some way part of God’s plan.

I am hoping this will be the course taken with women preachers. That many women experience a sense of calling and possess great gifts for ministry is beyond dispute. What needs to happen is for the prevailing male authorities to listen to the Spirit of Christ moving through the church and allow that Spirit to triumph over the letter of the letter.

While the biblically faithful are well intended, by embracing the Bible literally on this issue, they are standing as an impediment to God’s working in our world. There were many centuries in the early church where leaders had to rely on the Spirit alone – the New Testament had not been written yet. That same spiritual sensitivity has the potential to hear beyond the literal word and hopefully open pulpits to everyone God is calling.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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