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Women in the pulpit roil Georgia's Baptists

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

Albany, Ga. -- There is a gathering storm among Georgia's Baptists. Some say it's already here.

No Baptist pastor, however, can dispute that if it is not already upon their church, it will be soon.

The crux of the looming schism is a passage in the Bible from I Timothy 2:12 that reads: "I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain silent."

As more and more women are called to the ministry, the Georgia Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention are cracking down on member churches with women pastors.

Last year the GBC disfellowshipped First Baptist Church in Decatur for having a woman as pastor, and just this month the organization announced its intention to do the same with Druid Hills Baptist in Atlanta. Druid Hills has co-pastors: Graham Walker and his wife, Mimi.

In Baptist terminology, "disfellowship" equates to cutting ties with a "non-cooperating" church. This means that a church which has had its fellowship withdrawn cannot give money to the GBC, nor can it send delegates (called messengers) to future annual meetings.

Druid Hills' fate will be determined at the GBC's next meeting scheduled Nov. 15-16 at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany.

According to a March 18 report from the Associated Baptist Press, the GBC's recent moves against member churches with female pastors stem from the group's 2000 doctrinal statement, which includes the phrase "while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

Ironically, Mimi Walker has been listed as a pastor in the GBC's annual record book since 2003.

"This is a very big deal within the Baptist church because scripture tells us that a woman shall not teach a man," the Rev. Bobby Harrell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Leesburg, said. "Our church has gotten away from Biblical faith. It's a watered-down gospel, and we are preaching sermons that tickle ears."

Harrell asserts the the Bible clearly defines a woman's role in the church but that modern interpretations have muddied the lines.

"There are some fine women teachers in the church, but they should not be ministers," Harrell said. "As John wrote in Revelation: 'To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm -- neither hot nor cold -- I am about to spit you out of my mouth.'

"We in the church have become lukewarm."

Other major religions have no problem with women in the pulpit, a fact that pleases Porterfield senior minister Leigh Ann Raynor.

"It is within the rights of every denomination to determine polity," Raynor said. "But why is one passage of the Bible interpreted literally, like I Timothy 2:12, yet I Timothy 2:9, (likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire ...) is not?

"Does this mean women should throw away their necklaces and wedding bands?"

The topic of women in the pulpit is clearly an uncomfortable issue for many Baptist pastors. Two refused to be interviewed for this article and two more failed to return phone calls.

The SBC's official position on women in the ministry states: "While scripture teaches that a woman's role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men."

While there are a number of ordained Baptist women, the SBC's revision of its doctrinal statement changed the ground rules for many of Georgia's Baptists. The revision also made things clearer for some.

"Women are not qualified to preach from the pulpit. That's the true word of God," Andersonville Theological Seminary (in Camilla) President Jimmy Hayes said. "A lot of denominations allow women to preach, but that is unscriptual. We're always going to have disagreements, but the SBC is pretty conservative and I don't think the disfellowship of a couple of churches will have much of an effect."

The SBC and GBC move toward a more literal and rigid interpretation of the gospel helped give birth to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1990. Founded by Dr. Daniel Vestal, the CBF espouses individual interpretation of the Bible and in "the priesthood of all believers."

"The CBF does believe in biblical authority, but we also respect the right of individual interpretation of the Bible," Vestal said. "The SBC is very creedal in that you can only interpret the Bible one way -- their way.

Over time they have become very controlling and have developed a 'my way or the highway' mentality.

"The SBC is really out of touch with the real world. They are out of step with the spirit."

The Rev. Garrett J. Andrew of First Presbyterian Chuch advises caution when interpreting scripture.

"When quoting scripture, I think we need to be very careful to consider the context of the time and not apply it universally," Andrew said.

"Too often the church is subject to a culture's demands. In the past, it has been used to justify slavery and segregation. Today, it is being used to keep women subservient. God created man and woman in his image.

"That implies a level of equality."

Dr. Sammie Pringle of Bible Way Baptist Church agrees.

"If these pastors cannot sit down and listen to what God is saying to them about these anointed women, then there is something wrong with them," Pringle said. "God doesn't care about sex or color. He just wants us to love him with all our hearts. If Gods calls upon these women to preach, who is man to stand in the way?"

The schism within the Baptist Church is real and it is growing. So what happens now?

"There is a definite split in the Baptist church and it's not going away," Harrell said. "We are going to see more women in the ministry. That's where we are headed."