Growing up in the church, “I didn’t sense that women were oppressed,” author and seminary professor Cleophus J. LaRue admitted. The Baptist church he attended was made up of 75% women, and they served in many leadership positions. Women taught Sunday school and headed up the missionary society and Baptist training union. LaRue even learned the foundations of Christian faith from a woman in his church who was the matron of the usher board on which he served. He realized these women were gifted individuals, and his exposure to earnest women doing the work of the Lord stayed with him. But he understood and accepted that they could not ascend to the pulpit; in the congregation where he came to faith, it was known to be absolutely unacceptable for a woman to claim that she had been called by God to preach.
When LaRue was a young pastor, he was invited to sit on a scholarship committee in Texas. LaRue took his prejudice against women preachers to his new position of power. The scholarship committee interviewed prospective ministers and decided whether or not money would be awarded to them for their education. When African American males were in front of the committee in need of financial assistance, LaRue wholeheartedly supported them. Few questions were asked, and as much money was awarded to them as possible. If a woman came forward in need of money to become a trained missionary or chaplain, he would support them, as well. But if a woman ever came to the committee claiming that she had been called to preach and be an ordained minister, that is when, LaRue explained, he would become “the African American hatchet-man.”
LaRue knew his position on the committee board. It was an unspoken understanding that women would not be given funds to be preachers or ministers. When an African American woman would come forward, the committee looked to LaRue to reject her. His Southern white colleagues—who were sensitive to allegations of racism, discrimination, and unfair treatment—needed LaRue, and they counted on him to speak out against the women aspiring to be preachers. “I unfortunately did their bidding,” LaRue said, believing at the time that he was following the will of God. “After my questioning, they gave up seeking money from that committee.” As the hatchet-man, LaRue effectively cut women out.
One day, after LaRue and his colleagues on the scholarship committee board had adjourned, a woman who had been refused funds to become a minister approached him outside of the building. He had been a major part of barring her from the scholarship money. He had chopped her up, and he felt good about it. But this woman confronted and challenged him. She told him that she knew he had played a major role in the decision to deny her funds; she could tell by his questioning that he had no intention of allowing her to receive any money.
This determined woman turned the questions on LaRue. “Who are you?” she asked him. “Who are you to say where God has called me?” She plainly pointed out to LaRue the unjust and ungodly way he was behaving: sitting comfortably with his education and with his church but denying others the right to the same opportunities. She told him that it was one thing for him to not give her money—she could accept that from him—but he was in no place to bring her vocation into question. She had no money and no idea how she was going to get an education, but she was certain of her calling. Tears graced her cheeks as she spoke. “I will go to school regardless of whether or not you will help me because I know that God has called me to preach the gospel.” For Cleophus LaRue, this was an experience like that of the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. He drove home that day a profoundly changed person.
LaRue went before the leaders in his church. As he recounted the events of the incident, he saw the disgust on the senior women’s faces as they learned that he had been keeping women from realizing their call to preach. LaRue continued, “I’ve had a change of heart,” he told them. “We need to do things differently. I am ready now to be receptive of women and to accept their calls.” He said to his elder board that equality for women was his new conviction. He told them that he didn’t know what it meant for his future in the church. He didn’t know if they had a place for him, but he could no longer continue his restrictive behavior. LaRue’s new belief was so strong that he was willing to risk the same rejection that he had been carrying out himself on the scholarship board.
LaRue feared backlash from the elders at his church, but to his surprise he learned that many of the leaders already supported women in preaching positions. “We were wondering when you were going to catch up, Reverend!” chimed many of the senior women. Although some of the men in the church tried to assure LaRue that he had been doing the right thing on the scholarship committee, his epiphany was affirmed by senior leaders in his church. These were women that carried his church and he was right by them. “I’m happy to say that the entire church has embraced women fully, and I’d like to think that I played a part in that,” says LaRue.
LaRue attributes much of his new resolve to that experience with the young African American woman seeking a scholarship; she pried open his eyes to recognize clearly the strong women leaders he had encountered throughout his whole life. LaRue finally obtained a practical, down-to-earth understanding of God’s work in and through women. He puts it this way, “It was not the writing of scholars. It was exposure that changed my mind; it was seeing women in the trenches doing God’s work at every level.” Eventually it entered into his psyche that it was not right to keep capable women from the pulpit. “It dawned on me because [women] permeated every other sphere of religious activity and leadership in the black church.” LaRue recognized that women in ministry are an invaluable asset. He saw that preventing them from using their gifts was not only discriminatory to women, but also hinders the work of the gospel.
However, LaRue’s new path was not easily traveled. He had to learn what this new attitude meant for his life. Even after his revelation, there were stages of his life that he is not proud of. There were times when LaRue would be in situations with other men where they would start slandering women and he would just sit, nod, smile, and say nothing. Even though he had changed his own mind, at this juncture he did not see it as his obligation to change the minds of other men. But now he has moved into the role of advocate. LaRue excitedly declares, “I am actively involved in trying to place women in leadership positions, and I do not sit quietly when men start the women-bashing! I consider it to be a work of justice and a work that aids me in my witness to the Word of God.” As part of his work to actively change minds about gender equality, LaRue edited a book, This is My Story: Testimonies and Sermons of Black Women in Ministry, in which women share their journeys to reaching their call to ministry.
Today, after fifteen years of teaching at the seminary level, LaRue remains a committed advocate for women in the church. “I’m convinced that some of my better preachers are women, and I know that some men wouldn’t want to hear me say that,” he laughs. LaRue believes that part of the reason women are stronger is because they have had to suffer more. Women have had to justify their call. They have had to stand against difficult odds and because of this, their calling means much more to them.
LaRue’s testimony challenges us to understand that preventing women from realizing their call to leadership is both an injustice and a disservice to the church. There are dedicated women already down in the trenches doing the work of the Lord. As LaRue’s experience shows and as the Bible teaches, woman can be, and are now, powerful teachers and preachers.