A Southern Baptist seminary president says a new study about women in ministry raises questions about the credibility of moderates who claim women’s ordination is a wedge issue separating them from fundamentalists in charge of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Writing Monday in his “Conventional Thinking” blog, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., cited a study that he said concludes, rhetoric to the contrary, moderate churches are “virtually as reluctant as conservative churches to call a woman as pastor.”
Mohler said a Baptist Women in Ministry study titled “The State of Women in Baptist Life, 2005” suggests “the question of women in the pastorate has become something of a symbolic issue for SBC moderates and their successors.”
“In a very real sense, the question has become rather hypothetical, serving as an indicator of a theological trajectory rather than a genuine openness to having a woman serve as pastor,” he said.
“The bottom line of the research reveals that moderate Southern Baptists, while registering strong opposition to the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message, and while offering strong words of encouragement to women seeking to serve in the pastorate, appear to be extremely reluctant to call women to serve in these positions,” Mohler said.
Mohler, a member of the committee that revised the faith statement to include the phrase, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” said the report “should serve as a catalyst for asking what must be a very hard question: To what degree are moderate Southern Baptists actually open to women serving in the pastorate?”
“At the hypothetical level, this openness appears to be nearly universal among moderates–especially those associated with the [Cooperative Baptist Fellowship],” Mohler said. “At the congregational level, however, the reality appears to be dramatically at odds with this public commitment.”
He listed more than a dozen prominent moderate-to-progressive churches that have undergone pastoral transitions in the last two decades, but none has ever called a woman as pastor.
Mohler said the dichotomy bodes ill for “a future crisis in terms of a disconnect” between moderate seminaries, where a majority of students are women, and moderate churches.
“Will churches call these women to serve as pastor?” he asked. “Will the feminization of these schools force a disconnect between these institutions and their supporting churches? Where are the men?”
Mohler said the report “must raise the question of credibility on the part of moderate Baptists who claim to support women pastors.” With the exception of the Alliance of Baptists, a small group most supportive of women pastors, Mohler said, “This support appears to be hypothetical, not real.”
The issue of women’s ordination also raised credibility issues for the newly elected SBC president Frank Page, who says he opposes women pastors, after EthicsDaily.com published excerpts from his 1980 doctoral dissertation when he argued strongly on behalf of women’s ordination.
Page told EthicsDaily.com he doesn’t remember when he changed his mind, but he believes continued study of the Bible “led by the Holy Spirit” directed him to his current view.
Mohler encouraged the SBC president to offer details about his change of heart and “a full exposition” of his current position, while volunteering some details of his own high-profile reversal on the issue.
As seminary president, Mohler has done more than his share to turn back gains made by Southern Baptist women in ministry during the 1980s.
An impasse between him and Molly Marshall, the first woman to teach theology at an SBC seminary, led her to resign at Southern Seminary in 1994. A decade later Marshall became the first female president of an accredited Baptist seminary in the United States when elected president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in 2004.
Mohler fired Diana Garland as dean of the Carver School of Social Work in 1995, after she criticized his decision to require prospective faculty to agree with specific interpretations of the Bible, including opposition to women pastors.
As a student at Southern Seminary in the 1980s, however, Mohler supported women in ministry, even leading a protest of a 1984 SBC resolution against women’s ordination.
In a Weblog last month, Mohler said he began to have serious misgivings about his earlier position after theologian Carl F.H. Henry challenged him in a personal conversation in the mid-1980s, “how, as one who affirms the inerrancy of the Bible, I could possibly deny the clear teaching of Scripture on this question.”
But Mohler did not describe himself as an inerrantist when he was elected editor The Christian Index in March 1989. “Inerrancy is one important thing to be said about Scripture, but it is not the only thing,” he said, according to Baptist Press. “The most important things to be said about Scripture are its authority and inspiration.”
But a younger Mohler seemed less enamored with the evangelical leader who, appointed to the SBC resolutions committee by convention President Jimmy Draper in 1984, drafted a resolution opposing women’s ordination in part because, “The man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.”
Mohler was part of a hastily organized committee that collected funds and signatures from 412 members of 12 Louisville-area congregations to take out an ad protesting the resolution in the Aug. 4, 1984, issue of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
The ad expressed “disapproval” with the resolution, while affirming: “the equality of men and women in creation and their common formation in the image of God;” “equal participation of women in men in the life and work of the church;” “a responsible interpretation of the biblical message in its totality, recognizing its affirmation of the role of women and men;” and “traditional Baptist polity, which recognizes the autonomous character of each local Baptist church and allows for no institution, individual or convention to speak for Southern Baptists.”
The ad included quotation of Gal. 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”
CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal also changed his mind about women in ministry and church leadership.
“I’ve had to repent and ask God to forgive me,” Vestal said at the 1997 CBF General Assembly in Louisville, the first major address after his election. Vestal confessed he once opposed women pastors but changed his mind due to the grace of God and Fellowship Baptists.
“The wind of the Spirit of God is blowing across the world, calling women, and they are responding,” Vestal said. “This Fellowship will attract an increasing number of Baptists, because we believe in the wind of the Spirit of God.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.