Standing beneath a tent beside a freshly dug grave on a very hot May afternoon, I listened to the granddaughter of the deceased read the 23rd Psalm.
After sharing how she would remember her grandfather, she comforted her family with words beyond her years that indicated she understood grief.
She was pastoral in her delivery, with compassion in her words and tone of voice. The way she described God being present with us in our suffering resonated with me.
I had never met this young woman, but I knew she had gifts of ministry. Later, when I spoke to her, I discovered she recently graduated from Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
She said she had been able to preach on a couple of occasions. I wondered, had she been a man, would she have been given more opportunities to preach by the time she graduated?
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, stirred the pot again recently when he said women should not be allowed to “preach in the church gathered for the Lord’s worship.”
So, it seems what this young woman was doing out by the graveside was acceptable, according to Mohler’s standards.
Yet, if she had said this in the church on Sunday morning, behind a pulpit in the role of a preacher with a “Rev.” before her name in the bulletin, and especially if she had been called to preach as the congregation’s pastor, that would not be OK in his view.
Mohler parses his words carefully because he doesn’t want to offend people like the Grahams.
He doesn’t say women shouldn’t preach at all, so he asserts they should not “preach in the church gathered for the Lord’s worship.”
Of course, this is not in the Bible.
Recently, Billy Graham’s grandson, Will, reminded those attending a pastors’ conference at The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove that his grandfather said that Anne (one of Billy’s daughters) was the best preacher in the family.
So, Mohler, who was recently a guest at The Cove, cannot criticize all female preachers, just those who happen to have a male within hearing distance, especially on Sunday morning, lest they are influenced by “their authority.”
Mohler bases his pulpit ban for women on Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.”
Mohler does what fundamentalists love to do: isolate a verse, declare it to be universal and offer one interpretation of the text as the “biblical position.”
In other words, if you believe anything else about women and the pulpit, you don’t believe the Bible.
The same Paul who said this about forbidding a woman to have authority over a man also wrote that women can’t speak in church and cannot have “elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:9).
Mohler does not push these verses, given just prior to statements that Mohler interprets as a ban on females preaching in worship, because this would keep a lot of good women out of fundamentalist churches, which is not his goal.
There is a graver offense for all Baptists in Mohler’s reasoning for women not “preaching in the church on the Lord’s Day.”
In using the rational, “I don’t permit a woman to have authority over a man,” Mohler is implying the preacher is the one with the authority.
Again, this is another one of the abuses of fundamentalism: asserting that ultimate authority comes from the pulpit that is to be held by only men and that those in the pews are supposed to hear their message, accept it and follow it.
This should smack all Baptists in the face and remind us of why we became Protestants.
Remember the Reformation? All of us should know this is not how it works. The authority is not the preacher. Our final authority is the Lord Jesus Christ, who ministers to us through His Word and His Spirit.
This is the reason the “priesthood of all believers” is one of our most cherished Baptist doctrines.
It’s sad that it’s not taught or emphasized much anymore, and it was a mistake to take the phrase, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ,” out of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.
It’s not a male voice from the pulpit with all the authority, as Mohler seems to believe.
All of us have the freedom and responsibility to read the text and interpret the text under the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit.
We all have the responsibility to hear the message preached and make our minds up about whether it is truth.
Jesus is our criterion for determining the truth, not the preacher – whether they are male or female. God can, and does, speak through whomever God chooses.
Who are we to tell God whom God can and cannot speak through? Who are we to tell God where God can and cannot show up? That is the height of arrogance.
To try to hide our arrogance behind a few verses of Scripture interpreted out of context and universalized will work for some people, but not for everyone – and certainly not for me.
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.