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“How Can I Help But Speak?”

One woman’s response to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message

“How can I help but speak when I have the words of life?”

In 1998, the Southern Baptist Convention made headlines around the nation with the addition of the words “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband” to the Baptist Faith and Message (B F&M). It seemed that everyone, from talk-show hosts to the person on the street, had some commentary to offer on the statement. Many were tempted to dismiss it as an archaic example of a denomination safe and secure in the eighteenth century. Others affirmed the words as a return to “family values.” All were, at the very least, curious as to why such a statement came from such a body of believers at such a time as this.

I was curious to examine the scriptural basis for this suggestion of gracious submission. Because I have a profound love of Scripture I could celebrate many of the passages chosen. I, too, hold highly Genesis 1:26-28, which says, “God created humanity in God’s image . . . male and female, God created them,” for it reminds me that I am (even as a woman) created in God’s image. At our wedding, my husband and I shared the beautiful words found in Ecclesiastes that encourage a mutual relationship, where, if either one falls the other is there to pick him or her up. With the birth of our daughter, I understood more fully the psalmist’s wonder when, in Psalm 139, it was proclaimed: It was you who formed my inward parts, you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:13). All these passages are used as support for a wife’s “gracious submission” in the B F&M.

I admit my suspicions were raised as I studied the forty-one different scriptural passages used to support the writing of this family statement. In most cases, only one or two, or three or four, verses were quoted, and taken out of context with no acknowledgment of the verses that immediately precede or follow the quotation. For example, when quoting Titus 2:3-5, a passage giving instruction to women, verses 2 and 6—the verses immediately preceding and following that instruct men on their behavior—were dismissed as unimportant. Did the SB C have a particular need to instruct women and not men?

A more repetitive example of Scripture out of context happened three different times: (Eph. 6:1-4 [5-9], Col. 3:18-21 [22], and 1 Peter 3:1-7 [2:18-25]). In each case, as wives are encouraged to submit to their husbands and husbands are encouraged to submit to their wives, immediately adjacent is an encouragement for slaves to submit to their masters. These verses, however, were not included in the new B F&M, because, obviously, slavery is no longer an activity we condone. So the SBC now excludes these slavery passages—the same ones it once used to justify its formation and split from the Northern Baptist Convention. How is it that the writers of the BF&M can determine that one passage is to be literally followed today, while an adjacent passage is no longer applicable? Ironically, one passage of the forty-one citations was quoted at length. The writers of the 1998 B F&M deemed Proverbs 31:10-31 worthy of a lengthy quotation. It is the closing passage of the Book of Proverbs and has been called “Ode to the Capable Woman.” I celebrate that the B F&M took time to quote such a wonderful passage of Scripture. For, when careful examination is given, one finds a woman of remarkable ability— not unlike many women I know. To call her hardworking is an understatement. She rises early and goes to bed late. She provides for her family. She participates in the workplace by purchasing and selling of land, and making garments to sell. She speaks and teaches. And more, much more. For a woman in her society to have such a powerful and influential position—not just within her household, but within her community as well—was remarkable. Yet she is praised—her children and her husband say that she surpasses them all!

Had the BF&M addition of the family statement in 1998 admonished husbands and wives to be mutually submissive, it would have been more faithful to the biblical examples it cites. Its suggestion that women should be housewives only ignores biblical examples of women who worked to support their families. Its implication that a woman’s role is solely to raise children offers no grace or love to childless couples. Its intentional choosing of Scriptures that admonish women, while blatantly ignoring adjacent passages that give similar admonitions to men, seems agenda driven and intolerant of females.

I was at a meeting recently of some area ministers, most of them Methodist. When they heard that I am a Baptist minister, their reaction was all too familiar. For, in recent months, since the release of the 2000 BF&M, everyone from strangers to friends reacts in the same way: “You’re a minister in a Baptist church? I thought you couldn’t do that anymore!” Their reaction is a commentary on, among other things, people’s impressions of Baptists, their assumptions about the statement, and their confusion about Baptist polity.

Let us again read clearly what the BF&M states: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” The statement begs the question, “What Scripture?”

As in the family statement, numerous passages are quoted as justification—thirty in all. Most of those verses are used in reference to the other part of the statement on “The Church,” speaking to ordinances, rights, church processes, and so forth. Only one of the thirty Scriptures addresses this particular statement about women and the role of pastor. The B F&M cites 1 Timothy 2:9-14, where women are admonished to keep silent in the church and not to teach men. This admonition is found in verses 11-12. Verses 9-10 are about a woman’s appearance—that she should dress modestly, wear no jewelry nor braid her hair. This appearance discussion appears in at least two other New Testament passages—1 Peter 3:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 11:5. If the New Testament writers found it so important for a woman’s appearance to be modest, with no jewels and a covered head, why do we no longer practice a literal interpretation of this passage? The answer is obvious: It was a “culture thing”—for biblical times only. Yet it is within such a cultural context that women are instructed to keep silent in church and not to teach men. Who has the authority to determine that verses 9 and 10 of 1 Timothy 2 are cultural history, while verses 11 and 12 are applicable to today? What criteria made such a determination? When two verses are snatched from Scripture to support one’s position, with no regard for surrounding verses that set the cultural context, the scriptural message is distorted at best.

As with the Family Statement, the thirty passages cited for “The Church” are, by and large, one- and two-verse selections. The BF&M writers do, however, take time to quote the entire twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians, and again, I am grateful. For when the Scriptures are taken in significant sections, in context, their integrity is maintained. Many of you are familiar with the twelfth chapter as a discussion of spiritual gifts. “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge . . . to another faith . . . to another gifts of healing . . . to another prophecy.” Please note: There is no gender differentiation in the giving of spiritual gifts. It does not say that to the males is given the gift of prophecy and to the females the gift of teaching children, for the writer of 1 Corinthians understood that God’s spirit and God’s gifts can be given to whomever God chooses.

I am afraid that the two verses the SBC uses to instruct women to keep silent in the church carry very little weight in the context of the Scriptures as a whole. For affirmation of the role of women in an y position in the church, one need only look to the example of Jesus, who affirmed women in a society that considered them as less than property. It was Jesus who spoke to a Samaritan woman—and many came to believe because of her testimony (John 4:1-42). It was Jesus who looked on the crowds and said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray for laborers” (Matt. 9:37-38). Not male laborers—just laborers. And it was the risen Jesus Christ who first appeared—not to men—but to women and who told them—to do what? “Go and tell” (Matt. 28:1-10).

“How can I help but speak when I have the words of life?”

Let me tell you about three women I know. The first grew up in a Baptist pastor’s home. Her calling to the ministry has been a lifelong adventure. Her calling to the pastorate happened in seminary in a very real and incredible way. It was affirmed by her family, her congregation, and her professors, when she won the preaching award. She struggled to stay in the Baptist denomination—but her calling to be a pastor is much stronger than her calling to be a Baptist. And so she left. And she has pastored for the last three years Disciples congregations in Texas. She is the most gifted and talented and compassionate minister I have ever known. And we lost her, and we are the poorer for it.

The second minister I know very well. She remains in an associate pastor position in the Baptist faith. She continues to do so because she trusts Baptist polity—she knows that a congregation’s decision to call her to any position is that congregation’s decision to make with no influence from other congregations or Baptist bodies. That’s what the autonomy of the local church is all about. She is willing to wait to fulfill her calling to pastor—but how long? Will there be a day that outside influences will make it difficult for her congregation to fulfill the will of God as they see it? Will people unknown to her or to her church, who know nothing of her call to ministry or her deep desire to serve, to preach, to pastor, who know nothing of the prayer and love that went into her church’s decision to affirm that call by ordaining her—will those outside people decide that her congregation’s autonomy is no longer important? Will she, too, leave her Baptist faith behind and join any one of the many denominations that stands ready to affirm her? Will we, as Baptists, be the poorer for it when she leaves?

The last woman I met only a few weeks ago. She is a freshman ministry major at a local university and a Baptist, and I am to be her mentor this semester. In order to best determine how I can help her, one of the first questions I asked was, “Do you intend to remain a Baptist?” Her answer was quick: “denominations don’t mean much to me. I’m a Baptist at a Methodist school and I attend a nondenominational church. I think denominations are stupid—they just divide people.” Granted. she’s 18 years old and she has much to learn. But she’s at that formative point in her life when she’s making major decisions. And I am fearful that our Baptist battles have driven away another gifted woman who would be a fine addition to any church staff.

Twice now I have quoted a powerful statement and I close with it now: “How can I help but speak when I have the words of life?” Do you know said it first? A Baptist. A missionary. A hero. And her name was Lottie Moon.

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