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Backward Southern Baptists


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000

What is it with the Southern Baptist Convention? They inch two steps forward, then leap half a mile backward. Not so long ago they apologized for slavery: a late, but commendable step forward. Only now they've gone and declared that women should not serve as pastors. It's enough to make a person go join the Episcopalians -- the Episcopalians have women bishops.

The Baptists seem to have forgotten that in the early days of their denomination in Europe and later in America, they were radical, revolutionary even. They believed that the word of God should be accessible to all and the experience of the spirit available to all. A person did not have to know Aramaic or Hebrew or have studied at the Vatican University or Oxford or Harvard to hear the call and preach the Gospel.

The Baptists argue that Scripture limits the ministry to men, because Jesus' official disciples were men. But Jesus never barred women from evangelizing. And despite St. Paul's misogynistic dictates about what women can and cannot do, the early mothers of the church preached, wrote and raised funds -- just like the men. They died for their faith, too -- just like the men.

Biblical scholars now think that one of the several writers of the Old Testament was a woman. Should she have put down her pen and hung out washing instead? What about the prophet Deborah, whose words were deemed wiser than most men's? Should she have said nothing? And then there's Mary, who, when the incarnation was revealed, exclaimed: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!" Maybe she should have just stayed quiet.

The Southern Baptist Convention is causing pain to many women within its own denomination and opening itself up to ridicule from without. Many question just what sort of Christians we're dealing with here: At the same time that women pastors were voted out, the convention underlined its support for capital punishment. Have the Southern Baptists read the New Testament lately? Seems as if there's a lot in there about love and forgiveness. Jesus never blessed an electric chair. But maybe those "inappropriate" women pastors were emphasizing that kinder, gentler stuff too much.

Lord knows, it's not for editorial writers to tell Southern Baptists or any other denomination how to run their churches or interpret the Bible. But Southern Baptists also are part of larger society, and we hope their attitude toward women doesn't follow them out the church door.

Diane Roberts is a Times editorial writer.

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