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Despite Naysayers, Women Served in Ministry for Centuries

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Churches across the world recently celebrated Pentecost, affirming God’s salvation and call “upon all flesh,” a calling whereby “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy … even upon my slaves, both men and women” (see Acts 2:17,18).
For me, Pentecost was profoundly significant because 2014 also marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Addie Davis, the first Southern Baptist woman to be ordained to the gospel ministry.

The year was 1964, the civil rights and feminist movements were in full swing, and an increasing number of women were earning college degrees.

For Davis, an education from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary only reinforced her calling to the pastorate.

Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, affirmed this call and ordained her to preach.

Davis’ great-great-grandmother was a preacher and, as a Baptist, she was not alone in pursuing ministry in the local church. 

Ever since 1609, when the first Baptists, John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, founded churches, women were included in leadership.

“The church hath power,” John Smyth wrote in that pivotal year, “to elect, approve and ordain her own Deacons both men and women.” 

The first English Baptist Confession of Faith, penned in 1611, included female candidates for ordination.

Regardless of this rich heritage, women in ministry have not always been welcomed.

For example, John Calvin, a church reformer and contemporary of Smyth and Helwys, did not favor women in ministry.

Baptists who drafted the Somerset Confession in the mid-1600s insisted, “Women in the church are to learn in silence, and in all subjection.”

Despite her ordination at Watts Street Baptist, she could not find a ministry position in the South.

Finally, a small Baptist church in Vermont called her as pastor.

As recently as 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention enforced a ban on women holding ordained positions in the church. 

This came only 16 years after the convention’s resolution to steer away from ordaining women as deacons.

Yet, the Pentecost spirit in which men and women are called to prophecy and preach lives on.

According to the 2010 report of the Baptist Women in Ministry, some 2,200 women have been ordained to the gospel ministry since 1964.

My daughter’s Barbie is often dressed in a clergy stole to help her play “church.” Last weekend, that Barbie did a funeral for a tadpole that died before its time.

This simple story illustrates the change in perspective that has taken place over the past 50 years.

The debate surrounding women in ministry will continue for years to come.

Some will argue that Scripture unequivocally states that women must be silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-36).

Others will claim the heritage of Phoebe, a deacon mentioned in Romans 16, as well as Pentecost’s outpouring of gifts on both men and women as attestations to the affirmation of women in ministry.

Still others will rely on women pastors without much fanfare.

If Pentecost has anything to say about it, men and women both will continue to bless Christ’s church in a variety of leadership positions for years to come.

Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Conyers, Georgia. He blogs at Baptist Spirituality, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.