I am a National Public Radio fan. It is the only radio station I listen to. One of my favorite programs on NPR is the “This I Believe” series. I have often thought about writing my own “This I Believe” essay for NPR, but I wonder if they would let me read it on the air because what I would say is: “I believe that God calls each person to salvation and to service.”
Early in life, I was taught that God is at work drawing all people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. That teaching became my own when I experienced God’s redemptive work in my own life, and I have committed my life to that experience.
Growing up Baptist, I was also taught that God calls his followers to service. We are called to share the gospel, minister to the sick and hurting, care for the poor and build up the church. In the last few years, I have concentrated much of my research and writing on Baptist women, and what I have discovered is that for hundreds of years, Baptist women have faithfully accepted God’s call to service.
Since the early years of the Baptist tradition, Baptist women have provided leadership in churches, serving as church planters, preachers, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, mission leaders and spiritual counselors and advisers. And yet, the truth is that for most of the history of the Baptist tradition, women have not held official church leadership positions or titles.
For many years, Baptist women were rarely elected as Sunday school superintendents or church clerks. Throughout the nearly 400 years of Baptist existence, the majority of Baptist churches have not ordained women as deacons, and in 2005, less than 5 percent of Baptist churches in the South had a woman serving as pastor. In 2006, some Baptists are even hesitant to allow women to teach Sunday school classes.
Despite today’s growing opposition to Baptist women holding official leadership positions in the church, I believe that God calls and gifts women to serve both as ministers and as lay leaders. It is not a belief that I have always held, but it is a belief that I now embrace for I am convinced that it has a biblical and theological basis. It is a belief that I proudly pass on to my son and daughter.
I came to this belief because of my reading of the words and actions of Jesus, who took every opportunity to nurture the faith of both women and men, and to call both women and men to service.
In the gospels, Jesus touched women, healing them of disease. Jesus taught women and encouraged them to listen to and follow his teachings. And Jesus sent women out as the first preachers of his resurrection message.
I believe that Jesus’ actions always were purposeful and intentional. In choosing to show himself first to women after his resurrection from the dead and then in instructing those women to share the news, Jesus demonstrated that he was not committed to old traditions or social systems. His was a new way. He didn’t place restrictions on who could and could not do the work of the kingdom.
Most opponents of Baptist women’s leadership, however, seem to turn first to the writings of Paul rather than to the teachings and the example of Jesus. They point to Paul’s admonition that women are not allowed to speak in church, for they are to be silent. Yet, in other letters Paul wrote of women leaders like Priscilla, whom he addressed as a fellow worker, and Phoebe, whom he identified as a servant or deacon.
So was Paul confused or contradicting himself? I don’t think so. In my student days, I was taught in my New Testament classes to consider the context of Paul’s writing and to identify the intended recipients of his letters so that I might better understand his intent and his message.
I believe that Paul’s instruction that women be silent was directed to a specific church to address a specific problem, a church that was struggling with women troublemakers. In other writing, however, Paul encouraged all Christians, women and men, to share the gospel, to contribute their gifts and talents to the church, and to work together to fulfill all Jesus’ commands.
The bottom line is that my belief that God calls each person to salvation and to service means for me personally that I must obey God’s leading. I cannot focus my attention on obtaining titles or positions or gaining power or protecting my rights.
Nor can I allow others to suppress God’s will for me. Instead, I must follow the call of Jesus to live as a servant and to minister in his name, and for me that calling is to use my gifts of teaching, preaching, and leadership. I can do no less and still remain a faithful follower of Christ.
Pamela R. Durso is associate executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn. She is co-author of “The State of Women in Baptist Life–2005,” commissioned by Baptist Women in Ministry.
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President of Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.