Trends in Baptist Polity
                   
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Baptist Women in Ministry
by Lydia Huffman Hoyle
    

The history of Baptist women in ministry is not a simple story of progress in one direction.  It is a story of starts and stops.

Among the earliest accounts of Baptists, we find stories of women who founded and served congregations.  Some even preached.  From the beginning, however, Baptist women in ministry did not enjoy universal support.  Although some, but not all, early English Baptists (known as General Baptists) allowed women to preach, the women apparently did not serve as elders or pastors of churches.  They testified and preached as deaconesses or simply church members. A second group of Baptists, the Particular Baptists, formed some thirty years after the General Baptists.  From the beginning, the Particulars, who were theological Calvinists, supported a male-only ministry.  In time, women’s leadership roles decreased across the English churches.  The Baptists, in this respect, became more like the Anglican Church from which they had withdrawn.

In the American colonies, Baptists with Particular roots were predominant.  Thus, while women outnumbered men in the churches, their leadership was limited to men.  A widespread eighteenth-century revival, known as the First Great Awakening, brought changes however.  A new group of Baptists called the Separates developed who were very open to the spiritual enthusiasm and emotionalism of the revivals.  These Baptists

 

 

 

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 expanded rapidly in the South.  Among the Separates, women played prominent roles.  Their voices were heard preaching once again.  The Separates also included women as deaconesses and eldresses.  By the end of the century, when the Separates united with their more traditional Regular Baptist sisters and brothers, women in visual leadership roles disappeared.  The Southern Baptist Convention grew from this soil.

In the nineteenth century, women across American Christianity sought ways to be useful in the Kingdom of God.  Many served as teachers in the new Sunday School movement.  Others led a variety of social and moral reform efforts.  Still others formed and led organizations that supported missions.  Especially in the post-Civil-War period, large numbers of women sought and received appointment as missionaries. Baptist women were active in all of these roles.  Many developed leadership and ministry skills through their involvement in these “acceptable” arenas.  Gradually, additional doors opened for some.  Near the end of the century, six Free Will Baptist churches and at least one American Baptist church called women to serve as pastors.

The twentieth century witnessed the expansion of opportunities for women in ministry for Southern Baptists.  Although some churches had been ordaining women to the diaconate since early in the century, Southern Baptist churches did not begin to ordain women as ministers until 1964.  While many, no doubt, feared that churches would be flooded with women seeking ordination, the ordination of Addie Davis at that time initiated only a trickle of similar affirmations.  Eventually, by the mid 1970’s, there was a small but steady stream.  In many cases, however, the ordinations brought controversy not only to the women but to the churches that ordained them.

Women did, nonetheless, become more involved in paid church ministry.  As specialized ministry positions became common in Baptist churches, women stepped forward to become ministers of education, youth, children, music, etc.  A few even became pastors.

 

 

 

Every step of the way, Southern Baptist women in ministry struggled to defend their right and responsibility to use their gifts in response to God’s call.  Although their churches were happy to crown them as mission “queens,” they were sometimes less ready to rethink traditional interpretations of Pauline prohibitions against women’s speech in church.  In 1983, a group called “Women in Ministry” formed to provide support for Baptist women who sensed a call to serve the church.  A year later, the Southern Baptist Convention sought to turn back the tide of women in ministry by passing a resolution that restricted women from church work involving “pastoral functions and leadership entailing ordination.”  This action was given further authority when similar ideas became a part of the Baptist Faith and Message (2000).  In recent decades, churches and associations anxious to make known their allegiance to the fundamentalist philosophy of the denominational leaders have taken stands against women’s ordination and the churches that ordained them.

Today, attitudes toward women in ministry tend to reflect a Baptist church’s identification as “moderate” or “conservative.”  Although the doctrine of local church autonomy ensures that all Baptists will never conform to any convention resolution, most Southern Baptist churches today refuse to ordain women or offer them positions of pastoral leadership.  Female church staff members, if they exist, are sometimes called “directors” rather than “ministers.”  Churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship tend to be more open to women in ministry.  Even among Cooperative Baptists, however, there are few women pastors.

Outside of the Southern Baptist world, Baptist women in ministry face a varied landscape.  The American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. is generally supportive of women in ministry.  The large African American Baptist denominations as well as a great majority of the fifty to sixty smaller Baptist denominations, however, include few ordained women.

 

 

 

Throughout history, Baptist women have served God through the church.  Some have served with the official acknowledgement of the church.  Others have worked within the strict limits of tradition and culture.   Baptist church autonomy ensures that these people of the Word will continue to have differing understandings regarding God’s will for women who sense a call to His service.

Lydia Huffman Hoyle is associate  professor of church history and Baptist heritage at the Campbell University Divinity School.