(THE CONVERSATION) When leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention meet during their annual gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, in June 2021, the issue of three women being ordained to ministry will likely be an intense topic of conversation. Convention leaders had decried the moves in May by Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, California – one of the denomination’s largest churches – as a violation of biblical teaching and the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance on women in ministry.
As someone who was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1993, I know that opposition to women’s ordination has always existed, but many denominational leaders, seminaries and local churches have supported the practice.
For Southern Baptists, ordination is an affirmation of a call to ministry that enables the church in its work in the world. Ordination recognizes a person’s calling and gifts for leadership and allows people to carry out certain ministerial duties such as being a pastor, administering communion, performing baptisms and officiating weddings. It does not necessarily bestow any religious authority.
The first woman to be ordained by a Southern Baptist church was Addie Davis in 1964 at the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.
At the time, the Watts Street Baptist Church was already known to be a progressive congregation that was supportive of the civil rights movement. So ordaining a woman fit within the church’s progressive vision, although most members weren’t aware they were making history with Davis’ ordination. The church’s pastor and Davis did receive some letters opposing her ordination, but the Southern Baptist Convention meeting a year later did not take up the issue.
However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that more women were ordained. As the women’s movement began to have influence across society, many churches and individual women began to recognize that if women could be CEOs and university presidents, they could also be pastors and denominational leaders. Soon, greater numbers of women began attending Southern Baptist seminaries, professing a call to ordained ministry. I was among them.
As a scholar who writes about Baptist women, I know how fundamentalists within the Southern Baptist Convention continue to oppose women’s ordination. I also know that there is not an awful lot fundamentalists can do to prevent it. Local churches are fully autonomous, and the Southern Baptist Convention cannot tell them what to do. At most, it can expel a congregation from membership.
Controversy Over Role of Women
In the 1970s, Southern Baptist publishing houses, seminaries, boards that appointed missionaries and commissions organized a number of national gatherings focused on the role of women in the church. Subsequently, a group known as Women in Ministry, SBC was formed.
During its first meeting in 1983, the group adopted a purpose statement that it should “provide support for the women whose call from God defines her vocation as that of minister … and to encourage and affirm her call to be a servant of God.”