Every five years or so, the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) sponsors a conference with the ungainly acronym of BICTE: the Baptist International Conference on Theological Education. Meeting either before or after the BWA’s Annual Gathering, the conference generally focuses on a specific topic for discussion.
This year’s BICTE, meeting in Nassau, the Bahamas, is focused on the role of women in the church under the theme “TOGETHER: Re-Imagining, Re-Reading HERstory in the Church.”
The meeting got under way July 5 with a greeting from meeting planner Trisha Miller Manarin, who leads the BWA’s Mission, Evangelism, and Justice work. She noted that BWA had passed a resolution appreciating the work of women in the church and urging further study of their role in the church some 31 years ago — while meeting in the Bahamas.
BWA General Secretary Elijah Brown expressed appreciation for both women’s contributions to the church and for theological education. He spoke to the difference in the availability of theological education in different regions of the world, and encouraged those present to support an online program called Horizons that offers theological education, in concert with a local mentor, in any location that has an internet signal.
Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, brought the first plenary lecture, entitled “The Charism of Women in Ministry.”
“I believe that women bring particular grace gifts to ministry and their inclusion is transformative for Christian identity and practice,” she said, with the lecture offering several examples of such charisms.
“Women understand the privilege of service,” Marshall said. They don’t take it for granted, but “demonstrate gratitude and thanksgiving in ways that transcend what their male colleagues express.” Recognizing the opportunity offered by the Spirit, they are less likely to feel “entitled” and succumb to authoritarian leadership styles.
Women also “demonstrate hermeneutical imagination with texts and contexts,” Marshall said. Reading scripture from the perspective of women can bring new light to texts whose interpretation has been the province of men from the earliest days of the church. Rather than seeing the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet as a prostitute, for example, they recognize her role as a prophet whose message Jesus endorsed.
In different ways, “Women demonstrate creative capacities to reform congregational life, theological education, and public service,” Marshall said. They are more likely to construct “communities of inclusion as they lead congregations,” she said. Though still a small percentage, women have demonstrated strong abilities as theological educators. Women who receive theological training are also likely to carry what they have learned into public service, she said.
Women also contribute to a different vision of God, Marshall said. Women have helped us recognize the negative impact of solely gendered language and to move toward more inclusive language that helps us to gain a richer understanding of God and to move beyond a patriarchal reading of scripture that promotes the idea of God as male and women as subordinate to men. Marshall pointed to various biblical texts that help us “to imagine that God is beyond our projections” of the divine as inherently masculine.
The rich experiences of women and their particular ways of knowing is seen in how “women’s leadership deals with the real exigencies of life,” Marshall said. She cited research indicated that gender “does determine a great deal about how one experiences the world,” and that women’s experiences and knowings can contribute to the church in ways that men typically cannot. These ways of knowing include appreciating silence, listening to the voices of others, paying attention to one’s inner voice, procedural knowledge that is both separate and connected, and constructed knowledge that integrates all the voices.
“I believe that women bring particular grace gifts to ministry and their inclusion is transformative for Christian identity and practice,” she said. “The church needs the charism of women in ministry as never before if it is to be found faithful.”
In a response, Ksenija Magda of Croatia expressed appreciation for Marshall’s paper, but raised one reservation, suggesting that the argument that women’s unique charisms arise from their oppressed state through history is still arguing from a position of inequality. If women achieved the same roles as men, she said, would they lose the source of their unique charisms?
“Men are not from Mars and women and not from Venus. We are all from earth and we should deal with it,” Magda said.
Frank Rees of Australia also responded to the paper. He noted increasing enrollments of women in theological education. Marshall’s insights into women’s gifts could inspire men to explore their own particular gifts, he said. He thanked Marshall for the insights and asked how they might be taken further through men and women studying them together. The charisms Marshall ascribed to women are not necessarily inaccessible to men, he said.
Everton Jackson of Jamaica brought a final response. He noted that, since women have been marginalized for so long, special efforts have been necessary to include women. He warned against swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction. We should recognize that men and women share a common source of giftedness: biblical charisms are equally available to men and women, he said. Thus we should avoid suggesting that either is superior. He expressed a wish that Marshall had offered more exegetical interpretation of texts typically used to argue against women’s active role in ministry.
Responding to the respondents, Marshall expressed appreciation for Magda’s observation that women’s uniqueness can come through suffering, and that hierarchy is a result of human sin, not divine. She said she appreciated Rees’s discussion of gender roles and Jackson’s call for a deeper treatment of the texts, lest they be taken out of context.
The Friday evening plenary session was to address the issue of Baptist women and spiritual formation across generations. The lecturer, Eika Kanamaru of Seinan Gakuin University in Japan, approached the subject through a biographical review of Akiko Matsumura, a leader in Japanese Baptist life during the 20th century. Unfortunately, Kanamaru was unable to attend, so her paper was read by Leo Thorne. Lina Toth of Lithuania and Scotland, Angela Reed of Canada and the US, and Nora Lozano of Mexico and the US responded.
For those who cannot attend, the BICTE conference is being live-streamed through the Baptist World Alliance channel on YouTube, which is also recorded for later viewing. The link for the first session is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAOhW3NYy3c. The conference book, including manuscript copies of all the plenary messages, can also be downloaded at no cost from http://bit.ly/BICTEBook.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.