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The Albany Herald recently published an article about the Georgia Baptist Convention’s upcoming vote on whether to disfellowship Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta where Mimi Walker serves as co-pastor.

As those familiar with Baptist politics already know, the Baptist Faith and Message was amended in 2000 to include the following clause: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” This statement is based on an interpretation of several biblical texts, but none more central than 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain silent.”

Bible interpretation that dismisses the passage’s context, much less the larger historical context, isn’t for me. Yet, as a Baptist, I affirm the Georgia Baptist Convention’s freedom to disassociate or associate with any churches they desire. The principle of autonomy is not for individual churches alone; it extends to denominational organizations as well.

While I am saddened by rigid interpretations of isolated texts that are used to exclude those who interpret them differently, and though I wish there was a more generous orthodoxy present in the conservative Baptist movement, I affirm their right to take such actions – however off-base I deem them to be.

What I do not believe is acceptable are the fairly pervasive comments among Southern Baptists who explain their actions toward churches that call women as pastors by suggesting that they are defending “the gospel.” In the Herald’s article, Bobby Harrell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Leesburg, Ga., is quoted as saying: “This is a very big deal within the Baptist church because Scripture tells us that a woman shall not teach a man. Our church has gotten away from biblical faith. It’s a watered-down gospel, and we are preaching sermons that tickle ears.”

When I read such claims, I wonder when the gospel became “women are not permitted to serve as pastors?” When did Jesus proclaim that the good news of the Kingdom of God is that women should not exercise authority over men, should not teach men, should not be senior pastors and should remain silent in the presence of men? Did I miss this the last time I read through the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

And why does Harrell not assert that the gospel is also watered down when women in Baptist churches practice other behaviors forbidden in 1 Timothy 2, such as braiding their hair and adorning themselves with gold, pearls and expensive clothing? Why are these behaviors not a basis for disfellowshipping a church?

Moreover, if the good news, the gospel, of Jesus is really that women cannot teach men and must remain silent in their presence, one wonders why Jesus didn’t jump in the bushes to hide himself from the women who came to his tomb on the morning of his resurrection until “appropriate” male messengers arrived who were qualified to go and tell others that he had risen?

To assert that churches who call women as pastors have accepted “a watered-down gospel” reveals that ministers sharing the ideology of Harrell have no idea what the gospel really is. If the gospel is a proclamation that women cannot be pastors, then, with Paul, I must declare that “we are to be most pitied” and we may as well “eat, drink and be merry” for this is not good news at all.

This begs the question: Do Harrell and Southern Baptists who think like him really believe that the gospel can be equated with the subjugation of women to men? Do they really believe that the good news of Jesus can be equated with the belief that those fortunate enough to be born with one reproductive organ instead of another are the only people qualified to serve as church pastors?

Perhaps we should be more careful what we label “gospel,” lest we equate the good news of the Kingdom of God with the narrow ideologies, partisan politics and myopic interpretations of Scripture that Jesus exposed and rejected during his ministry.

Zach Dawes is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ministerial resident at Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His blog is here.

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