Years ago the eminent Walter Rauschenbush wrote regarding women in ministry, “Plainly women are here as our equals in religion, in the intellectual life, in industry and in the life of our commonwealths. When a thing is both right and inevitable, we might as well accept it and go ahead.”
One might well argue that he was taking an accommodationist position, but I think there’s more at stake in this Baptist social reformer. Rauschenbush was surrounded by powerful examples of Baptist women doing ministry.
His city neighbor was Helen Barrett Montgomery, whose rise to leadership in education, ecclesial administration and missions was meteoric. In his regional orbit were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. He knew of the work of Ellen Cushing in northeast Burma and Lottie Moon in China. Even more telling were his spouse, Pauline, an insightful critic and correspondent, and his daughter, Emma, who served alongside her spouse, John Clough, for more than 30 years in India. Emma and John were responsible for globalizing Walter’s principles of the social gospel.
A long time ago, it was assumed that men would hold senior leadership and fulfill the pastoral role. The proper roles of women were parental and household, but there was a clear expectation that women could and should fulfill their membership vows and provide nurturing ministries in the congregation.
One would think that substantial changes in attitudes about women in ministry would have occurred among Bible-taught people. So what obstacles continue to keep Baptists and some evangelicals from accepting women in Christian leadership, especially as pastors? I think there are two: the application of a gender-specific view of God and a male-dominant ecclesiarchy.
At its core, gender-specific understanding of God is a byproduct of biblical translation and exegesis. Words in the Hebrew and Greek texts have multiple translations in varying contexts and languages. Linguistic issues are complicated by theological assertions like the Trinity, the doctrine of God and Christology that require clear identifications of God as Father, Son and Spirit. Out of this grows the relationship of Jesus to the Creator that caused him to refer to God as “Abba.”
I am not denying in any way the need to affirm the Fatherhood of God nor the male gender of the human Jesus, but I do wish to call attention to the application of those doctrines to gender exclusive roles of Christian leadership. If God as Father and Jesus the Son be male, then none but males can adequately represent God and Jesus in the church.
I personally think that is a faulty transference and an inadequate understanding of gender and clear biblical teaching like Galatians 3:28 (“In Christ there is neither male nor female”).
The ecclesiarchy of historic Christianity is relentless and unforgiving in its task to safeguard the ministry for men. Since the second century for certain, the priesthood and the episcopacy of Christian churches have been male-exclusive. Men have defined the offices, warrantied the lines of succession and carefully exegeted the authoritative texts to represent God. Only in splinter groups and theologically unorthodox movements have women assumed leadership roles until the emergence of the evangelical tradition where women first came to prominence.
Now, there’s a real irony for many present-day evangelicals.
Clergy titles, language, uniforms and regalia, plus expectations draw heavily upon an assumption of male dominance. Nouns like “presbyter,” “bishop,” “priest” and adjectives like “reverend” and “pastoral” are all rooted in masculinity. The formal garments of ministry harken back to imperial Rome, and the structures and divisions of Christendom mirror civil and political Rome in a male-exclusive bureaucracy.
But, thanks to better translations and more objective theological scholarship, we know better. In actuality, a woman in clergy garb appears as natural as her male counterparts, and ministerial nouns and adjectives in English apply meaningfully to both genders. If the current statistics for women enrolled in ATS-accredited theological schools are an indicator, more women than ever aspire to Christian ministry and leadership. And they express it in terms of a calling.
The most compelling argument for me came about as our daughter grew to teenage years. With her mother, we dreamed of all the possibilities that lay before her as she matured: higher education, motherhood, a professional career, an entre into virtually anywhere in the world she wanted to go. We believed in God’s providence she was very special: there were no obstacles to her full realization of self.
At one point, due to a relocation, we were in search of a new church relationship. Several pastors came to our home to welcome us. Our daughter asked each about their view of women in leadership. One of the pastors whom we all especially liked, reluctantly explained that in his congregation there were women Sunday school teachers, women on prominent committees, and they supported women missionaries. But, the congregation just had not yet embraced women in deacon or pastoral roles.
The issue was suddenly sharply focussed. We could not – and would not – be part of a congregation where our daughter could not realize her full potential under God. Doing so would be incongruous with every institution, all of her mentors, her parents and her growing understanding of God. Theology became contextualized and personal.
Yes, Professor Rauschenbush, when a thing is both right and inevitable, we might as well accept it and go ahead. The time has come!
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.
Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and Ethics, and Adjunct Professor in History and Classics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is also president of the Board of Interfaith Spirituality Network, a provincially based interreligious organization.