This article is reprinted from The Ledger, Lakeland (May 28, 2000), with the author’s permission.
Once again we shake our heads, laugh, and roll our eyes at the Southern Baptist Convention. The boys who run that outfit never seem to tire of doing silly things. This time, when a few thousand of them [met] in Orlando in June , they [made] all 15.9 million Southern Baptists reject female preachers.
My grandmother was a preacher. After she got religion, that is, at the age of 39. Prior to that, she ran roadhouses, brothels, and smuggled rum from Cuba. She had never married, never worked for any man, and was a strong, independent woman. She was a single mother, my father being her only child, and he, too, got religion shortly after she, when he was 20. Both Grandmother and Daddy were preaching within months of their conversions, finding audiences on street corners, WPA work camps, jails, brush arbors, and Hemming Park in downtown Jacksonville.
After he was “better trained” by local preachers in Jacksonville, Daddy objected to his mother’s preaching, saying the Bible forbids such. I can remember their arguments about that. Grandmother said she could not refuse to preach when God had called her to do so. Daddy’s friends would ridicule her by joking, “God called him to preach, but she answered!”
When the Baptists in Jacksonville refused to give her pulpits to preach from, she went to Harlan County in Kentucky and preached to coal miners and mountaineers too far from towns and too hostile to outsiders for the numerous, timid male preachers. She heard about the people in the bayous of Plaque-mine Parish in Louisiana who had not been reached by the gospel, so she took her message and some medicines in a small pirogue into the tributaries of Cajun country. Then, upon her return to Jacksonville when I was a small boy, she found a hospitable congregation in the Church of the Nazarene, and it was there she preached until she was overcome with cancer and died in 1959, at the age of 60.
I wish I could talk with her today about the new addition to the Southern Baptist creed, the Baptist Faith and Message Statement, the part that states “the office of :pastor is limited to men.” I could not participate in the discussions between my grandmother and my dad when they were both alive, but I am sure she pointed out the examples in the Bible where women preached and were called to do so. My dad and grandmother have settled the issue now in heaven I am sure, but I would love to hear them.
Jerry Vines, one of the power brokers told his Jacksonville mega-audience recently, “We are all preachers, but the role of senior pastor is for men only.” Senior pastor? The title was unknown in my grandmother’s day. Pastors were called preachers. The parsing of terms by the committee that places this new wrinkle on suppressing women called by God would be lost on her. She would not be intimidated by them, that’s for sure. Her calling did not come from gender-fixated, insecure men and their wives. It came from God.
We stood singing innumerable verses .of “Just As I Am” one Sunday in a church far away while the preacher stood at the front in earnest conversation with a young woman who had walked the aisle. People walk the aisle in Baptist churches in response to invitations to follow the leading of God. This young woman was responding to the call of God in her life to preach. While we all continued to sing, the pastor disputed her offer of surrender to God’s call by saying: “Surely you must be mistaken. You must feel God calling you to be a preacher’s wife!”
My grandmother was strong enough in her mature body and young faith to withstand such intrusions between the Holy Spirit and free persons. My wife and our daughter, had they felt called to preach, would be strong enough as well. And I pray that if by God’s good grace he should call our 9-year-old granddaughter, Madeline, to preach that she would be strong like her great-grandmother and say to any self-absorbed preacher-man: “My calling does not come from you and is not dependent on your permission. My call comes from God and I can do no other.” Madeline can be anything she wants to be: writer, scientist, doctor, lawyer, judge, astronaut, senator, CEO, police chief, plumber, fighter pilot, diplomat—you name it. She can do whatever her inclinations and abilities permit. Who among us would tell her “No, young woman, your gender prohibits that ambition.” But if God Almighty calls her to serve him as a preacher (and what a gifted preacher she could become), she would have to overcome a manmade barrier in Southern Baptist life that would seek to dissuade her, to convince her that she was not qualified for God to give her such a calling. What arrogance! What foolishness! The world is going to hell, and Southern Baptist preacher-men are deciding whom God can use and whom he can’t, and how he can use them and how he can’t.
Sometimes I imagine a gender-limiting preacher man reaching the portals of heaven, and, when asked by the Savior, “What have you done for me while you were on earth?” he would reply proudly with a wink and a nod, “I kept the women from preaching, Lord!” The preacher-man would expect to be patted on the back and told, “Well done! Come and enter!” That’s what he would expect. But, somewhere along the streets of glory he will meet a preacher-woman named Betty Anderson. She will help him understand the error of his ways.