“We have long been convinced that our churches have failed to employ usefully their female members. They occupied a sphere of activity and usefulness in the apostolic churches, it seems to us, which has not been assigned to them in modern churches.”
“We have long been convinced that our churches have failed to employ usefully their female members. They occupied a sphere of activity and usefulness in the apostolic churches, it seems to us, which has not been assigned to them in modern churches.” <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
J.B. Jeter and A.E. Dickinson penned those words in 1871 in the Religious Herald, the newspaper of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Virginia’s largest association of Baptists.
Today, they’ve once again become a rallying cry for the Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia, which cited them in September in a “Declaration of the Dignity of Women.”
For those not familiar with it, WMU is an independent auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention whose primary purpose has always been to spread the Gospel.
The WMU’s roots are firmly set in Virginia. It was founded in Richmond in 1888, some 14 years after the WMU of Virginia had been established. Today, millions of women in Baptist churches are members of WMU, which, like the Southern Baptist Convention, is composed of independent state affiliates.
This fall’s “Declaration of the Dignity of Women” was the culmination of years of frustration for some women in Southern Baptist, or formerly Southern Baptist, churches. It began with the revision of the denomination’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, to declare that women should not be the pastors of churches. More recently, the denomination’s North American Mission Board declared that women could not be ordained as chaplains, at least in situations where they wouldn’t be subordinate to a man.
So, the WMU-Virginia had some declarations of its own:
“That we reject all blanket discrimination against women in the work of Christian ministry, in particular as elaborated in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message;
“That we reject the findings and policy of the North American Mission Board with regard to the non-endorsement of women to chaplaincy positions;
“That we reject any devaluation of women worldwide.”
The document, “rejecting these humiliating affronts to the dignity of Christian women,” went on to say that, “Our declaration is that women are leaders in the church, called by God, commissioned by Christ, led by the Holy Spirit with a strong noble heritage. Empowered by our mission, values and heritage, we pledge to support all people, especially women and girls, as they live out their diverse and unlimited vocations.”
The sad truth is that while Southern Baptists have taken a lot of heat on this issue in the last few years, even denominations that officially endorse the ordination and pastoral leadership of women haven’t done a very good job of it.
My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has been ordaining women for decades. So now have Episcopalians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA). The list could go on.
But you don’t have to talk to many of those ordained women to realize that congregations often still resist their service. Even among Methodists, where the pastor is appointed by a bishop for a limited term, women many times face quiet but stubborn opposition to their placements.
Attitudes are changing, albeit slowly, and not just among radical Christians.
The Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia is not made up of liberal feminists. These are theologically conservative, evangelical Christians, who lead the way in what is almost certainly the largest Protestant missionary fund raising in America.
They just think it’s about time their service was recognized the way the Bible’s authors recognized “Jochebed and Hannah, Ruth and Naomi, Deborah, Mary and Elizabeth, Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, all the women dragged to prison by Saul, Tabitha (or Dorcas), Mary the mother of John, Lydia, Chloe, Nympha, Priscilla, Apphia, the four daughters of Phillip, Ammias of Philadelphia, and all of the other named and unnamed women who led the first churches.”
Amen to that.
Cody Lowe covers religion for The Roanoke Times. This column is used with permission.