This Sunday is Pentecost in the church calendar, a day in which we acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on the early church (Acts 2).
It will be a day to affirm 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” (2:17, 18).
For me, personally, Pentecost will be profoundly significant because this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of the Reverend Addie Davis, the first Southern Baptist woman to be ordained to the Gospel ministry.
The year was 1964, and the Civil Rights and feminist movements were in full swing. An increasing number of women, Rev. Davis included, were earning college degrees.
For Rev. Davis, an education from Southeastern Baptist Seminary only reinforced her calling to the pastorate. Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, affirmed this call and ordained her to preach.
Although Rev. Davis received some hate mail at the time, she joined a chorus of preachers, men and women alike, who have been in leadership over the church since, well, Pentecost.
Reverend Davis’ own 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 ordinands.
Regardless of this rich heritage, women in ministry have not always been welcomed. 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 that “women in the church are to learn in silence, and in all subjection.”
Reverend Davis’ home church refused to ordain her, and she could not find a job in the South. Finally, a small Baptist church in Vermont called her as pastor.
As recently as the year 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 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.
One pastor, the Reverend Julie Penington-Russell, leads one of the largest Baptist churches in Atlanta, the First Baptist Church of Decatur. Another, the Reverend Amy Butler, will be the first female to pastor the historic and influential Riverside Church in Manhattan, an American Baptist congregation.
The debate surrounding women in ministry will continue for years to come. The Bible will be Ground Zero as some will argue that scripture unequivocally states that women must be silent in the church (1 Corinthians 14:33-36), while others claim the heritage of Deacon Phoebe in Romans 16 and Pentecost as attestations to the affirmation of women in ministry.
Others will rely on women pastors without much fanfare; and, 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.