“How much room is there for women of conviction to cooperate with the new conservatives?”

This question was born out of my reports on a meeting that I had attended with the leaders of some local SBC churches.

I am unsure this is the right question. I question both the focus on women, and the choice of “new” as an identifier for these conservatives. First, moderates of conviction as a whole–male and female–are trying to assess our cooperation with the SBC movement that is absconding with the convention and her institutions, both of which our parents and grandparents built. Second, many of the issues pressed by the SBC leadership are not new, and certainly were addressed during the last century. Yet, these issues just as certainly have not been pressed with such vigor, in this convention, in my lifetime. The vehemence, orchestration and savvy are new. Perhaps, in the end, the question as articulated here does provide a place to grab hold, even if it is little more than the tiger’s tail

My encounter took place in a meeting of local churches interested in building a Baptist campus ministry at Duke University. The meeting was initiated by a Baptist campus ministry leader from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. Two representatives from the local association were also there. Nevertheless, the local (male) ministers set the tone, and it was sharp and dictatorial. The tigers had come out of their cages and they were spouting theology that tore my heart, for I am a woman of conviction reared among Baptists of conviction.

How I came to be at this meeting may not be immediately obvious–for I am neither a pastor nor a divinity school intern, nor employed by the association or the state convention. I am, rather, a lay member of a Baptist church. A divinity school student and I–along with a committee of church members and Alliance of Baptist and CBF leaders who are interested in college ministry–have been holding a place for Baptist ministry at Duke since the state convention cut the position there this fall. We provide Bible study, care packages, dorm visits and the other building blocks of campus ministry. But more importantly, we pray and plan for opportunities to build a new Baptist ministry on campus. Because we were invited to participate, we made a principled decision for me to attend the meeting in order to explore the possibility of cooperating with the convention itself and with other local churches. We would not refuse to cooperate. I was not there by chance.

The meeting began with pleasantries but dimmed with surprising bluntness. A minister who earned his degree under the former president at Southeastern Seminary immediately asserted that we must identify a common set of beliefs, and suggested the Baptist Faith and Message as the identifier of choice. I alone spoke in opposition. The Baptist Faith and Message does not adequately represent the diversity of our convention.

One of the more seasoned ministers intervened to suggest that we not make ordination of women an issue. Although he opposes ordination of women, he did not think it an issue worth dividing this group. I was grateful for this nod, by a theologically conservative man, towards the leadership of women of conviction–and towards a compromise that drew him outside of his comfort zone. The specific issue of the ordination of women as deacons or as ministers was set aside, although reluctantly.

Ironically, setting aside the women’s ordination issue does little to make cooperation with the new conservatives more workable for women of conviction. This is highlighted in the specifics that the other ministers found beyond debate–the beliefs to which we would all have to agree. They included inerrancy of the text, no disagreements about textual interpretation, no room for Christians who are homosexual and the centrality of Christ to salvation.

The first two specifics– insistence on a belief in the inerrancy of the text and a refusal to allow room for disagreements in textual interpretation–pose immediate and obvious problems for women of conviction. How are we to think about, assess, and guide others in the crucial study of Scripture if we cannot understand Ephesians 5 in the context of a gospel that is multifaceted and complicated? How are we to be the believer-priests that our Baptist history has required?

The issue of the centrality of Christ, on the other hand, seems oddly out of place in this discussion about women of conviction. Belief in the centrality of Christ to salvation is pretty standard among moderate Baptists. Not the particular belief, but the way it was addressed felt dangerous. Since one of the ministers of the church where I am a member has been active in interfaith dialogue, the ministers there pressed the issue of the centrality of Christ with me. I wondered aloud why they would make assumptions about me on the basis of the beliefs of one of my ministers. Distress filled the room, for we “must” agree with our ministers. The principle of the priesthood of the believer, then, is threatened for believers who are women.

The issue of homosexuality may also appear to be tenuously related to the topic at hand. The issue, however, is at the center of the convention’s recent decision to oust the Cabarrus County church for baptizing members who may be homosexual. This decision, echoed in attitudes expressed at the meeting, disregards the longstanding commitment to the autonomy of the local church to decide who, in the name of our Christ, is to be baptized, married or ordained. When this commitment is disregarded, the freedom of churches to ordain and bless the ministry of its women of conviction is immediately defeated.

The place for women of conviction in our faith communities is threatened when an individual verse of Scripture is elevated above the ministry and teaching of Jesus; when we as a community are not allowed to dialogue as we interpret the text; when our women (or men) are required to fall blindly in line behind their ministers; and when churches lose their autonomy to an autocratic convention. And so we discover that there is little room for women of conviction–or the men whose souls have been won for Christ by them–to cooperate with the vehemence, orchestration and savvy of the new conservatives.

As for the new conservatives themselves, we are commanded by our Christ to love them. There is no other way, and it will make us better Christians. But as Baptist Christians we cannot dodge God’s call to be believer-priests and to fellowship together in local faith communities that offer Christ to the lost. Neither can we hold on to, nor cooperate with, tigers that mute the tongues of women who respond with the prophet, “Here am I Lord.”

We must love. We cannot cooperate.

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is an attorney in Durham, N.C., and member at Watts Street Baptist Church.

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