The Southern Baptist Convention’s new president says he agrees with the denomination’s six-year-old statement that the Bible forbids women from serving as pastors, but his 1980 doctoral dissertation put forth a different view.
“My belief about women in ministry is consistent with that which is found in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, in Article VI, ‘The Church,'” Frank Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., includes in a listing of “issues of importance” on a new president’s page on the SBC Web site. “This document states, ‘That while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of Pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.’ I concur with that statement.”
Page titled his September 1980 doctoral dissertation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Toward a Biblical Ethic of Women in Ministry.
“There are solid biblical bases for a full recognition of the freedom and responsibility of woman in ministry and the freedom of God’s spirit to bestow the gifts for ministry upon men and women alike,” he wrote. “The time has come to declare that since the public activity of a woman is in most areas no longer considered as a breach of the marriage vow and since the law of the land no longer denies to them the right to act independently in mixed gatherings, qualified women are eligible candidates for any office in the church.”
In 190 pages, Page surveyed arguments both for and against women’s ordination from the Bible. He concluded by citing E. Glenn Hinson, at the time a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who suggested that ordination should be handled either by disposing of it altogether or applied to women or men without partiality.
“If the church makes any claim in its ordination that it is merely recognizing the gifts of the Spirit, then it can hardly deny ordination to women,” he wrote.
“[O]ne must approach the biblical evidence regarding women with a hermeneutic methodologically adequate to maintain at least three distinctions,” Page wrote in the opening pages.
“First, one must take seriously the similarities and differences between the ancient world and the contemporary situation. Historical texts have to be understood or evaluated in their historical setting, language and form. Since the biblical texts have their origin in a patriarchal culture, they reflect the androcentric situations, conditions and values of the patriarchal culture.
“Second, one must distinguish between the empirical description of a given historical situation and a theological affirmation of the divine intention for that situation. In other words, one must note the difference between that which the Bible records or describes and that which it prescribes. For example, Jesus readily acknowledged the Mosaic legislation regarding divorce in Deuteronomy 24, but in Mark 10, He quickly attributed it to men’s hardness of heart rather than to God.
“Third, one must define the unity of the Bible in such fashion as to give coherence to the variety of its standards regarding women. If God is one and His word is one, a conviction which is symbolized by a single Canon of Scripture, then His will for women is consistent rather than contradictory.”
“Given the social role of women in the first century world, Christian women were extraordinarily active,” Page wrote later. “The Christian church included women from the very first. The women enjoyed complete recognition as members of the church, or better, of the Family.”
“While male leaders may have been more prominent and numerous in the early church and while women’s activities may have been somewhat limited, many roles which ultimately were associated with the ministry were evidently never restricted to men,” he observed later. “These limitations were probably due to that which was culturally permissible and also due to the limited education of most women of the day.”
“One must search the Scripture and then perhaps, one may be more able to determine whether or not the limitations placed upon women are the will of God,” he added still later. “As a Christian, searching for a biblical ethic, one must remember that the ‘oughtness’ of the issue must be based on the revelation of God in the Bible and on the will of God as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.”
Page called Christ “the great emancipator of women, and they were among his most devoted followers.”
While acknowledging “the biblical storm center for the woman’s issue is the Apostle Paul,” Page opined that most of the Pauline prohibitions on women in roles of church leadership were cultural concessions rather than eternal truth.
“In a civilization in which woman was subordinate to her husband; where her place was in the home; where her freedom was restricted by society; Paul could not afford to proclaim a wholesale emancipation of Christian women from all the chains of custom. This was something which only time could bring about as a result of freedom found in Christianity,” he wrote.
“The early church of which Paul was a part soon realized that if the tiny organism were to survive, it had to adjust itself to its environment. One may call it compromise or reversion to a pre-Christian legalism, but one must see it as part of the age-long effort to live by Christianity in a world not yet ready for the fullness of Christ. If they were to survive, they had to be prepared to grow slowly, adapting means to ends, and developing the organization best suited to the practical business of evangelization. Such tasks made enormous demands on their patience and wisdom. They had to choose between the lesser and the greater good, to balance ultimate principles against immediate needs, to work out their salvation in a world as yet uninfluenced by their Master.
“Therefore, one must remember the fact that one must not and cannot absolutize the culture in which the Bible was written. If one mistakes the temporary arrangements to which the early church gave sanction for the eternal principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then one shall misconceive the character of Christianity and shall make of it a mechanism, not a way of life.
“To absolutize the biblical culture would mean to assume that all the standards of ancient Israel or first century rabbinic Judaism represent God’s ultimate will for the human race. Instead of making such an assumption, one must make careful distinctions between what is ‘for an age’ and what is ‘for all time.'”
Page said “There is strong reason to believe that women served as deacons in the Pauline churches,” and noted that one disputed translation of Romans 16 refers to presumably a woman named Junia as an “apostle.”
“The very nature of the church and the nature of its ministry constitute the essential reason why barriers should not be interposed to the entrance of qualified women into ministry,” he wrote. “To impose barriers to women in ministry would be disloyal to God’s gift of grace. This also amounts to autocratically placing obstacles against the working of the Holy Spirit in the church. This, in essence, would mean pulling the Holy Spirit down to the level of limited human knowledge and understanding.”
“Looking at the various viewpoints regarding women in ministry and having dealt with the related biblical passages, this writer agrees with the … reasons for the participation of women in ministry, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit,” he wrote. “This writer, at least in part, agrees … that social distinctions are meant to be transcended, not perpetuated, within the body of Christ. They have been unfortunately perpetuated with a vengeance.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.