Celebrating 50 years of women ordination

Addie-Providence-234x300This 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.

My daughter's Barbie in clergy stole helps her play "church."  Last weekend, the Barbie did a funeral for a tadpole that died before its time.

My daughter’s Barbie in clergy stole helps her play “church.” Last weekend, the Barbie did a funeral for a tadpole that died before its time.

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.

Triennial Convention reminds us of God’s work in the world

revivalThis May marks the bicentennial anniversary of the first Baptist Triennial Convention, a meeting of like-minded Baptists passionate about missions.

It was the summer of 1814 in Philadelphia. More than 30 delegates pooled resources to support missionaries.  It came after a century of revolution and war, but also of explosive missionary activity inspired by the Second Great Awakening.

It was the age of missionary giants such as Adoniram Judson and William Carey, who ventured to India to spread the gospel.  It was the time of Luther Rice, who traveled hundreds of miles by horseback to raise funds for missionaries and the Convention alike.

Other missionaries went West, East, and South to spread the good news.  One of the first women missionaries to participate in outreach, Charlotte White, traveled to Asia.

If anything, the Triennial Convention and the societies born out of that movement reveal the distinctive qualities of America’s missionary culture.  Since the nation’s beginning, the Founders believed in a “manifest destiny” to spread out to other parts of the continent out of cultural and Christian duty.

We were (and continue to be, according to the late President Ronald Reagan), in the words of Puritan John Winthrop, a “city upon a hill.”

Yet, this zeal was steeped in a colonial worldview in which Christians believed that they also had the calling to help others become “civilized.”

Despite the spiritual motivation, it was seductively patronizing in many of its forms.  Some mission activities indirectly perpetuated institutions of slavery and imperialism that gave way to Jim Crow, apartheid, and economic disparity later that century.

Nevertheless, I am thankful for the missionary legacy that birthed the Triennial Convention.  We Christians stand upon the shoulders of courageous men and women who had an amazing vision for spreading God’s Word.

But I am also thankful for a shift in worldview between then and now.  Now, we do not do missions in order to convert “the heathen” and take advantage of natural resources and third-world economies.  We do not free men and women in Christ only to enslave them upon the manors of men.

Rather, we see others as God-image-bearers who have things to teach us as well. Most contemporary missionaries seek to do “contextual” ministry through which they work within the very cultures of those whom they are reaching.

In the American Founding, Christians believed that they had a mission to bring God to the rest of the world.  Now, we realize that God is already at work in the world.

We only have to hear God’s invitation and bear witness to God’s good news with people on God’s–and their–own terms.

This strategy is biblical.  In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul took a tour of Athens.  When he preached to the philosophers there, he said that God was among them because they already built a statue to “an unknown god” (v. 23).

Paul stressed that this nameless god was the God of Israel who became human in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Paul used this cultural symbol and pagan poetry in order to connect his experiences of God with their experiences of God.

Whereas a colonial and imperial worldview tried to get people to church and assimilate cultures, a worldview taken out of Paul’s own missionary playbook behooves Christians to learn how to be guests in a world thirsty for the spiritual nourishment that only God’s well could provide.

Let us hear the invitation and go forth, and let us regain that missionary zeal that once captivated those courageous forebears who formed the Triennial Convention.