Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Baptists and Ordination: Would Jesus Qualify?

Christians, by definition, are followers of Christ. They just differ on “how." How should Christians walk daily with Christ? How closely? Every Christian falls in a different place along a wide spectrum of discipleship practices and intimacy with Christ.

Churches, by definition, are groups of Christ’s followers, disciples supporting each other and joining together for worship and ministry. Again, they differ on "how." What Christian practices should churches follow? How strictly?

Historically, Baptists have valued priesthood of believers and autonomy of churches. As individuals and churches forge unique paths of worship and discipleship, problems arise when some confuse authentic Christian practices (following Christ) with mere religiosities (patriarchal traditions).

Ordination of women has long been a source of controversy among Baptists. Some churches believe there are no gender barriers to ordination. Others believe that ordination is reserved for males, only.

For centuries, Baptists have laid aside their differences, cooperating to facilitate larger ministries together. However, divisions over women's roles (among other issues) have recently prompted fundamentalist Baptists to disfellowship from associations and state conventions any churches who ordain women. 

The only “autonomy” evident among these ousting churches is that some object to ordination of women as pastors; others draw the line at women ministers; still others object to any women being ordained, beginning with women deacons.

The word “deacon” comes from the Greek “diakonos,” meaning “servant.” In the early church, deacons were chosen by their peers in recognition of their gifts of servanthood.

Baptists' perception of ordination has become skewed over time. It has shifted from a recognition of humble servanthood to a position of authority and power, perceived as an election into a class of spiritual elitism.

I once witnessed a misguided deacon candidate "campaigning" for ordination, approaching church members with, "I hope you'll vote for me." Ordination candidates should be selected, not elected. Ordination is not an admission requirement into an exclusive club of elevated spiritual status. 

Baptists have never had consistent criteria for ordaining deacons, ministers or pastors except for a sense of calling by the candidate and an affirmative vote by a congregation. The process has always been up to the ordaining congregation.

Baptists have no age or education requirements for ordination. Candidates in individual churches may be ordained pre-seminary or post-seminary, or with no education at all. I know of some pastors who were ordained in their early teens.

Some ordination councils grill candidates about doctrine; some question candidates' stances on hot-button issues. Others simply say, "Tell us your story of how you've followed Christ."

Oddly, though the IRS recognizes both ordination and/or licensing as credentials for professional ministers (pastors/ministerial staff), many Baptists make a big distinction between the two. Both licensing and ordination require an affirmative vote by a church, recognizing a candidate's spiritual gifts and calling. Ordination adds the laying on of hands.

All Christians are ministers. Professional ministers, licensed or ordained, are those called to vocational ministry. They make all or part of their living doing ministry with churches, denominations or other Christian-related institutions.

Some Baptist churches hire licensed ministers as clergy, not requiring ordination. Others regard only ordained ministers as clergy, whereas licensed ministers are considered laity, reflecting hierarchical thinking that considers ordination a "higher calling" than licensing.

Ordination itself is not divine; it is a human tradition of affirmation. Technically, the word "ordination" does not even appear biblically in the context of choosing deacons.  

As far as we know, Jesus was never ordained by humans, just chosen by God. And the disciples whom Jesus chose (including some women) were never formally ordained, just chosen by him to help with his ministry on earth.

First Timothy 3 is the passage most often quoted by inerrantists as the primary guideline for selecting deacons for ordination. Verse 12 (KJV) states that deacons “must be husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well,” a statement often used to disqualify women, or men who are divorced, or married to divorced women. [I once heard of a Baptist congregation that even rescinded the ordination of a deacon who remarried after his first wife died--he was no longer "husband of one wife."]

A closer look at verse 12 reveals a huge dilemma for inerrantists. A strict, literal interpretation would disqualify even Jesus, the ultimate personification of a servant leader, as a candidate for ordination, because Jesus is thought to have been single, having no children.  What a loss for any church.

[Jesus probably wouldn’t be ordained or hired by a church, anyway. His treatment of women and his style of ministry were anathema to the hierarchical, patriarchal systems that have prevailed for thousands of years.]

When it comes to disallowing ordination of women, inerrantists must rely on increasingly elaborate theological gymnastics in order to justify their patriarchal practices. Baptist autonomy notwithstanding, when such religiosities prevail, Jesus’ way of leading, thinking and living becomes less and less evident among some who call themselves Christians. What a loss for everyone.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

My Bible Clearly Says . . .

Anytime the word “inerrancy” is mentioned, the subject of “woman’s place” is never far behind. Whenever women challenge the status quo, it only takes a moment for husbands and church leaders, threatened by loss of control, to begin intoning "my Bible clearly says…” in an attempt to weight their argument. Patriarchal platforms completely fall apart without the undergirding of “inerrant” scripture.

Inerrantists believe in a “literal” Bible, though only certain translations. They believe that God breathed the Scriptures into the biblical writers who then transcribed God’s words without any “mixture of error." (One would think that if accuracy were so important, an original, complete manuscript would have been preserved.)

Certainly the Holy Spirit worked in the biblical writers’ lives as they wrote, even as the Spirit works through our faith experiences today. God reveals Godself in many ways, but when words are used God speaks through people--and people are fallible. Those concerned about the influence of today’s culture upon Christianity should be equally concerned about the influence of ancient culture upon Scripture.

The human writers of Scripture were deeply entrenched in their patriarchal society, filtering information and experiences through their ancient cultural orientation. The process continues as today's Christians, trying to discern meaning about God and Christianity from the authors' already-filtered words, again filter the texts through their modern cultural orientation, further obscuring the original meaning.

The story is told of a little boy who asked his father, “Daddy, where did I come from?” The father, assuming this was a teachable moment, nervously launched into a discourse about sexuality, to which his overwhelmed son replied, “Oh. I just wondered. My friend, Josh, said he came from Denver, and I didn’t know where I came from.” Human beings cannot interpret divine meaning perfectly because of our limited human orientation.

For inerrantists it’s all or nothing when it comes to the Bible, but flaws don’t mean the Bible should be discarded. Despite cultural influences, the core of God's truth still breaks through. Author Barbara Brown Taylor says that the Scriptures have "human fingerprints all over the place," yet "for all the human handiwork it displays, the Bible remains a peculiarly holy book." One does not have to accept an "inerrant" Bible in order to discover and embrace faith in Jesus Christ.

Around 1990, while studying at Southern Seminary, I loved to wander through the library museum, gazing at the mummy and other Holy Land artifacts. One display case contained a photo of a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of Isaiah, clearly showing where a scribe had omitted a sentence, then squeezed corrections above the lines and between columns. I wondered how some biblical scholars could so adamantly support inerrancy--but then I remembered that two central issues surrounding inerrancy are control and patriarchy, especially concerning women ministers.

Inerrantists insist that "my Bible clearly says..." as they quote Scripture passages to support their patriarchal stances. Similar proof-texting has been used to uphold slavery and other injustices over the centuries. Yet inerrantists are very selective when it comes to other Scripture, ignoring verses that are equally as “clear" if taken literally.

Inerrantists insist that the Bible reserves certain church leadership roles for males, only. But do they also believe that the Bible mandates that only Jews (or fishermen, tax collectors, doctors) can be disciples? Or that the Great Commission (Matt. 28: 19 - 20) was given only to the twelve?

Inerrantists cite selected verses to disallow women deacons or ministers, and require women to submit to their husbands. But they ignore other Scriptural guidelines which are equally "clear": women's silence in church (I Cor. 14), women having long hair and wearing head coverings (I Cor. 11). 

Inerrantists require strict adherence to some biblical practices, but broaden others. Unlike Jesus, inerrantists use modern transportation, technology and conveniences. Unlike in Jesus' day, modern inerrantists allow women and men to worship together and use pipe organs or synthesizers during worship.

Inerrantists object to women preaching or teaching men, but they forget that even Jesus was taught by a woman--his mother. Jesus came to earth not in "aged" form (to use Creationists' terminology), but as a newborn baby. He didn't exit Mary's womb speaking fluent Aramaic, already knowing everything about the world into which he was born. Jesus "increased in wisdom and in stature" (Luke 2: 52). We don't know a lot about Mary between Jesus' boyhood and the cross. But if Joseph taught Jesus carpentry skills, certainly Mary also nurtured and taught the very Son of God, influencing him throughout his earthly life.

The inerrancy platform obviously has no merit, largely because inerrantists apply it so inconsistently. One of its main purposes is to keep women "in their place," to retain male domination in church and home. Such a platform, designed only to maintain the status quo, is a platform built upon sinking sand.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Church Wives and Middlemen: Stories from the Trenches

In the late 1970’s the Georgia church I served as Minister of Music decided to host a Sunday School Leadership weekend. Someone from the state convention office recommended a motivational speaker from a large Atlanta church. His visit with us was memorable.

The man was highly polished, physically fit, disciplined and certain that his method was the only way to increase Sunday School attendance significantly in any church. Everything about his presentation was regimented. No church was supposed to begin step G without first completing steps A through F in exact order. He even advocated a precise way to distribute Sunday School records. When someone offered a suggestion for adapting his ideas to our church situation, he dismissed them with (sic) “Do you want to grow a Sunday School or not? My way works.”

He and I were invited to join the pastor’s family for a meal at the parsonage. The table conversation drifted towards his personal health regimen, a program that included not drinking any beverage at the table until after he had consumed all of his food. (I have no idea the health or digestive benefits of that practice, but I can’t imagine enjoying any meal under those circumstances!) There were also some tense moments as the pastor's youngest son had a behavior meltdown during dinner, requiring strong parental intervention under the ever-intimidating eye of our guest.

Mostly, I remember him standing in the center aisle of the sanctuary after the final session. Expressing his appreciation for the weekend, he shook hands with the pastor and me. Then he turned to the pastor’s wife, a diminutive woman with a quiet smile and sweet spirit--also a highly competent high school math teacher. Putting his hand on her shoulder he leaned down to her and said, (sic) “I really like you. You’re the perfect pastor’s wife--so ‘teachable.’”

She flinched but kept smiling graciously and didn’t offer a reply. He certainly struck a nerve with all of us. The next day as the pastor and I reflected on this man’s arrogant, condescending nature, we realized that our church likely experienced more negative than positive outcomes after his weekend with us.

Fast forward a decade or so.

Sometime around 1990 I attended a conference at Kentucky Baptists’ Cedarmore Assembly, near Louisville. At breakfast I sat with a group of women--mostly church musician friends from moderate KBC churches--around one of the long tables in the dining hall. We introduced ourselves to the other women around the table as we ate.

At some point the conversation turned to the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) controversy over women’s ordination and women’s “place” in church life. The controversy was hot and heavy at the time, receiving lots of national press. My friends and I began grousing aloud about the unbelievable statements making headlines from SBC leaders and conservative pastors.

We had already been introduced to a younger woman sitting at the end of the table; she had come across the river from Indiana to attend the conference. As the conversation evolved about our moderate churches’ stance on women’s inclusion, she suddenly blurted out, (sic) “You’re kidding!! Why, at my church we women don’t even give our own WMU (Women’s Missionary Union) report in business meeting. We have to give a written copy to one of the men to read aloud!”

I’ll never forget the wide-eyed, teary look on her face as she spoke. She was having an epiphany, a life-changing revelation about the world she thought she knew, an awareness that was simultaneously upsetting and mind-expanding for her.

The irony was, my friends and I were having a similar epiphany as we listened to her outburst. We'd had no idea that extreme situations like hers existed in churches today.

Fast forward another decade or so.

Several years ago a friend recommended to me a book about women and the church: Leading Women: How Church Women Can Avoid Leadership Traps and Negotiate the Gender Maze (Carol Becker, Abingdon Press). At first I was put off by the title, thinking disdainfully, “Oh, here we go again. Still another author is telling women we must keep a good, submissive attitude so we can be ‘led‘ by men in order to stay in the center of God’s divine plan.”

Was I ever wrong! Becker’s book is not about women being “led” or “taught” by men in church and home, but more about women who lead, despite having to maneuver in a patriarchal church environment. I found her book totally captivating--read all 206 pages in one long sitting. Her experiences and observations as a woman minister so closely paralleled mine, at one point I found myself musing that I could have authored her book.

Through Becker I was first introduced to the term “church wife,” a paradigm of a typical 1950’s woman who does the main work of keeping a home or church running efficiently, but is never allowed a leadership role or title--head of household, deacon, ministerial staff, pastor--all of which are reserved for men. If one looks around, congregations everywhere are overflowing with “church wives.”

Some churches allow, even encourage women to do all sorts of volunteer ministry tasks, but only if they are overseen officially by men. Other churches pay female nursery workers or kitchen staff or janitorial staff, but all other positions filled by women are volunteer, only. Still other churches hire women as “directors,” even those with seminary degrees, while men with similar credentials and responsibilities are hired as “ministers" (with higher pay, of course).

A Georgia Baptist church once told an acquaintance of mine, a female musician with an advanced music degree, “You can direct the children’s and youth choirs because that’s just girls and boys, but not the adult choir, because there are men in there, and a woman shouldn’t be over a man.” A Methodist friend resigned from teaching her Sunday School class because men started attending, and she believed that “a woman shouldn’t be over a man.”

Fast forward to the present.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an article in the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader by Catholic activist Janice Sevre-Duszynsky in response to a recent Vatican ruling. Apparently Catholic priests “involved in the ordination of a woman will now suffer greater penalties than priests who abuse children. Anyone involved in the ordination of a woman will be automatically excommunicated. …The new edict places the ordaining of women called by God to priesthood on the list of grave sins next to pedophilia, heresy, apostasy and schism.” Patriarchy is alive and well in Catholic circles.

Then, while channel surfing last week, I stumbled upon a Lexington cable TV broadcast of “The Bryant Station Baptist Hour.” The church choir loft was filled with women and men, young and old, all wearing modern clothing and sporting stylish haircuts. Yet the women all wore head coverings, either scarves or hats. I was intrigued that several even wore wide-brimmed hats as they sang.

The stout young pastor--wearing one of the worst toupees I’ve ever seen--was preaching that day on “The Christian Home.” Mostly his sermon was directed to the women. After a few minutes of astonished listening, I found a pencil to write down several quotes from his sermon: “Ladies, you have an obligation according to the scriptures to have a well-kept home.” “Older women have a calling to teach younger women to submit to their husbands.” “Husbands, you must love your wives into submission; wives, you must submit to your husband until he loves you more.” Patriarchy is alive and well in Baptist circles, too.

Now take a leap backwards to the time of Jesus.

Once again, we look to Jesus to help us understand what God really intended for human relationships.

Through the years I’ve heard numerous sermons based on the story of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10; Jn. 11 – 12). In every one of them the only person who always ends up looking bad is Martha, the one whom Jesus gently reprimands for not keeping her priorities straight.

I’ve always felt a little sorry for Martha. After all, she was just doing her best to fulfill the role that society expected of her: housekeeper, cook and waitress--all "wifely" tasks. For all we know, her sister Mary may have been a "flower child," a wandering airhead like Prissy (Butterfly McQueen’s character) in Gone with the Wind, who had to be monitored constantly in order to keep her on task.

Nevertheless, Jesus elevated the social status of both Martha and Mary. We don't know if other men were present every time Jesus visited in their home, but Lazarus was their brother and likely lived with them. And the disciples usually traveled everywhere with Jesus.

Hospitality to guests was (and still is) an important part of Middle Eastern culture. Society typically relegated household tasks to the women while the men sat and socialized together in a separate area. (Reminds me of some Southern dinner parties I've attended.)

Jesus defended Mary on more than one occasion when she (gasp!) forsook her "wifely" tasks and boldly entered a roomful of men to be near Jesus. He invited her to have conversations directly with him, and, in a culture that didn't allow women to be disciples of any rabbi, he even made her one of his disciples. A middleMAN was not required for her to have a personal relationship with Jesus and become his disciple.

And—I love this!—Jesus freed Martha from the kitchen. He invited her also to be daring, to abandon society's "wifely" expectations of her so that she could have a direct, personal relationship with him and be his disciple, too.

The scriptures don't relate any of the men's responses to Jesus' bold moves. Perhaps they were too stunned to respond. I can just imagine them thinking, hungrily, "Now wait a minute, Jesus. If both Mary and Martha are sitting here talking with us men, who's doing the cooking? Who's going to serve us some tea?"

Jesus was willing to wait on his dinner as he taught important relationship lessons to everyone in the room...and to us:

To the men: The world does not revolve around you; it revolves around the kingdom of God. Your assumptions of superiority and entitlement are not pleasing to God. Let go of some of your power and become real men—you will be much happier.

To the women: Be bold, but without malice in your hearts. I will give you courage to challenge those who try to stand between you and me, or try to keep you from following me. I am your teacher; you learn directly from me; I will lead you. Keep working to become all that God created you to be.

“Women’s place” in church and home has been an issue far longer than just the past few decades. Despite Jesus' influence, patriarchy continues to exist after thousands of years. At our current rate of progress, it may take another thousand years for all women to be fully accepted as equal to men in both church and home. That's discouraging sometimes, but it doesn't prevent us from pressing toward such a worthy goal. May God bless our efforts.

Monday, 2 August 2010

An Exercise in Empathy

Racism or sexism? Which is a bigger problem for churches?

Historically, Americans have dealt with racism much longer than sexism. Caucasian vs. African-American (“white” vs. “black”) issues were the focus of civil war over a half-century before the large “women’s rights” protests began.

Both racism and sexism are rooted in hierarchy and power. Women of all races are forced to deal with patriarchal language and attitudes around the globe. Gender issues pervade every race and culture.

In American churches women and men generally worship together in near-equal ratios, although church leadership roles are usually reserved for men. However, congregations tend to worship separately along racial lines—a larger issue than simply worship style preferences. There is little or no racial diversity in most church congregations. Sunday morning worship, in the words of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., is still “America’s most segregated hour.”

Even where whites and non-whites do worship together there are obstacles to overcome. Biblical and religious metaphors still refer to black as evil (dark, dirty, sin) and white as holy (light, clean, pure). Unfortunately, it doesn't require much of a leap for some people to apply the imagery to skin color.

People of color also frequently contend with “white” religious artwork and song lyrics that do not reflect who they are racially. Though the reference is to sins being crimson, not black, I’ve often wondered how African-Americans, Latinos and other people of color could ever sing with a straight face gospel song lyrics such as, “Now wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.”

White-biased imagery is common in our churches, but its inherent racism is much more subtle than the blatant sexist language and patriarchal imagery that is so dominant in our worship services and beyond.

[For the purposes of this article I’m referring to linguistic imagery and references for human beings only, not God. Males and females--unlike God, who is genderless—are gender-specific, and that difference needs to be reflected in our verbiage.]

Women, no matter their race, statistically make up over half of every congregation. Yet gender-exclusive language and imagery are traditionally used in scripture translations and sermons, hymns and choruses, litanies and liturgies. The constant message is that "God says" women must defer to men both in church and at home.

Sometimes the verbiage is ridiculous when one thinks about it. I've often wondered how women can sing "Let there be peace on earth....brothers all are we..." without choking. I once heard a prominent, embattled woman minister joke, "Hey, I don’t have any problem singing ‘Christ Receiveth Sinful Men” to great laughter in her Women in Ministry support group.

Perhaps the following exercise will generate some empathy for those who feel excluded by the sexist language commonly experienced in churches:

1.) For the purposes of illustration only--not to ignore Latinos, Asians, and others--suppose the world was divided into only two races: “blacks” and “whites.” (These two terms are chosen because they are one-syllable words that encompass large people groups.)

2.) Now take almost any hymnal and substitute the words "whites" or "blacks" everywhere the words "man" or "men" are found.

In twenty-first century America, it is unthinkable that any hymn text would include phrases such as:

● “Tho’ the eye of sinful blacks Thy glory may not see.” (“Holy, Holy, Holy”)

● “God with whites is now residing.” (“Angels, from the Realms of Glory”)

● “And peace to blacks on earth.” ("O Little Town of Bethlehem")

● “I know that he is living, whatever whites may say.” (“He Lives”)

● "God's great love to blacks Thou art." (“Great Redeemer, We Adore Thee”)

Most people (I hope!) would be uncomfortable with singing hymn texts like those above. And I suspect that any hymnal publisher would either adjust the language to make the text more inclusive or delete the stanza or hymn entirely from consideration for publishing. No publisher would say: "It's too inconvenient." "Changes will mess up the rhyme scheme." "It's okay; nobody will pay attention to it, because the rest of the text is meaningful."

Hopefully the above exercise illustrates how not being intentionally inclusive is by default exclusive. If someone made an effort to count how many times male-biased language and imagery are used in songs and scripture translations there might be more empathy for so many women who feel linguistically invisible in churches. Certainly these women don't feel intentionally included.

Some women may not feel this way (yet), but I suspect that church leaders’ overwhelming use of gender-exclusive language causes an increasing number of women to stumble. The gospel message of inclusion simply cannot be delivered adequately in the vehicle of gender-exclusive language. Our churches' mandate is to lead the way in correcting this situation.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Language Matters in 21st Century Evangelism

Through the years, Rick Warren has consistently provided food for thought on the subject of evangelism. Agree with him or disagree [which I often do, especially when he links evangelism exclusively with his preferred worship style], his words are difficult to ignore. Sometimes, however, I wonder if he really listens to himself*:

· “There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all‘ approach to fishing, and the same is true in fishing for men.”

· “The goal is . . . to make it as easy as possible for the unchurched to hear about Christ.”

· “We will do whatever it takes to reach more people for Christ.”

· “What matters is that your style matches the people you are seeking to reach.”

With his constant rhetoric about 21st century evangelism techniques, one would think that using gender-inclusive language in everyday speech, song, and biblical translations would be near the top of Warren’s list of ways to attract women to the gospel.

But that’s not the case. At minimum, he obviously doesn’t think gender-inclusive language is important. More likely, he rejects the notion outright. It’s just too much trouble--and highly unnecessary--to adjust the gender-exclusive verbiage commonly found in church circles.

Warren definitely is not alone in his perspective. Throughout history, women have been forced to adjust to “one-size-fits-all” patriarchal language that helps keep women linguistically invisible. Centuries of patriarchal grammar rules have required people to interpret whether words like “man,” “men,” “he,” “him,” and "his” refer only to males or to everyone.

These long-accepted rules allow using masculine pronouns to refer to either a male or a female. But the rules never allow female pronouns in reference to males. “Man" or "he" or "him" can refer to "one man" or to "everyone". "Woman" or "she" or "her" can never refer to males.

Dwight Moody, now Executive Director of The Academy of Preachers, writes in a 2002 article, “The Bible is a Man’s Book“:

“As it is, men controlled the translation, interpretation and proclamation of the biblical message. Only within the last generation have such positions of scholarship and authority been open to women. This heightened awareness of gender is part of a broader cultural shift, of course. Many are now asking: How can a book ‘of the men’ and ‘by the men’ be anything other than ‘for the men’?”

“There is a double standard here built into the prevailing paradigm of masculinity, which allows both men and women to hear male language as neutral and female language as gender-biased.”

Constant, unexamined use of such outdated grammar rules is ultimately inexcusable for modern Christians trying to convey clearly the gospel to today’s world.

Ignoring for a moment that human biblical writers were already influenced by ancient patriarchal, hierarchical society, translations such as the NRSV, CEV, TNIV, et al, are at least intentional about clarifying gender meaning as they translate the so-called “inerrant” Hebrew and Greek source materials into easy-to-understand language. When the source text obviously has a plural meaning, for clarity these translations use words like “people,” “everyone,” or other plural synonyms rather than “man,” “men,” etc.

Yet there is great resistance to inclusive translations. And those who ask why are quickly dismissed as “feminists.” Warren’s own words identify the real problem:

· “The problem with many churches today is that they’re stuck in the culture of the 1950’s—using bait and hooks that worked in that era—and they’re wondering why the fish are no longer biting.”

· “The kind of fish you want to catch will determine every part of your strategy.”

· “Unfortunately, many churches don’t take the time to understand the people they want to reach.”

· “Many churches offer only two choices: Take it or leave it.”

With the SBC's (and others’) continuous, patriarchal pronouncements about women plus the great resistance to inclusive translations and gender-inclusive speech/song modifications, it is no wonder that many women--churched and unchurched--remain uncertain whether or not the whole gospel is truly for them.

* Bulleted quotes are by Rick Warren, from an article by Jon Walker, Western Recorder, May 2001, “Rick Warren Offers Evangelism ‘Fishing Lessons."

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Intentional Inclusion: Race & Gender

Recently, at the KBF (Kentucky Baptist Fellowship) Spring Gathering, Robert Parham’s new, award-winning documentary, “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism,“ was shown to participants. While viewing the presentation I felt a sense of despair that despite decades of excruciating effort to rid our society of this blot, racism still plagues us. Like kudzu, we can’t seem to get rid of it, no matter how diligently we prune. Just when we think we’ve dealt with the issue effectively in some areas, killing it off for good, it keeps reappearing in unexpected places, even in our churches. We’ve made progress, of course, but our society still has a long way to go.

One of the areas in which we have made some progress is with racist language. Today’s American society has largely been sensitized to the ill-effects from using racist language when referring to people groups, especially African-Americans. In the last decade or so, America has had growing challenges with use of racist terminology for Hispanics, Muslims, and others, but we’ve been dealing with racist terminology for African-Americans much longer.

Slavery in America has been illegal since the Civil War, but racist language was publicly, openly heard until the late twentieth century, and still persists in too many circles. People of color long ago recognized that they would never achieve equal status with Caucasians as long as common, derogatory terminology about their race remained unchallenged. In the aftermath of the Martin Luther King, Jr. era, anyone using racist language today risks becoming a target of scorn and possible legal action.

The problem with racist language is bigger than derogatory terminology, however. It’s just as devastating to be "invisible": ignored, unseen, not thought of.

Former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, honoring the memory of her childhood friend, Denise McNair, and three other girls killed in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL said in a speech a few years ago, “America finally came to terms with its birth defect, finally came to terms with the contradiction . . . that when the Founding Fathers said, ‘We the people,’ they didn’t mean any of us.” (RNS)

Racist language and sexist language garner the same basic effect: exclusion. The exclusion may or may not be intentional, but the effect is still the same. As with racist language, despite decades of slow progress, gender-exclusive language is still with us, even in churches.

Midway through the 2008 American presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama, in a Democratic primary campaign speech, quoted Abraham Lincoln, proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” I was surprised that Hillary Clinton, his female opponent at the time, didn’t take Obama’s unexamined use of this 19th century quote as a reason for rebuttal on the grounds that in the 21st century the quote is perceived as sexist. [Perhaps she either didn’t notice or didn’t want to risk being labeled as “unpatriotic” for questioning the words of Lincoln, a revered American icon.]

The truth is, Lincoln’s words were exactly what he meant. He was trying to bring the races together, not the sexes. Likely he wasn’t deliberately excluding women; he just hadn’t thought to include them. Women were invisible to him in both grammar and thought when it came to important issues.

That’s the problem with gender-exclusive language in a nutshell. Language shapes thought. Thought precedes action. And our grammar rules and practices keep women linguistically invisible. Our moderate churches say they are including women, but unless church leaders are intentional about including them through deliberate, consistent use of gender-inclusive language, women will remain second-class members in most churches.

It’s not a matter of intentionally excluding women. It’s a matter of intentionally including them. It’s a matter of recognizing that the overwhelming majority of them are already one-down in society and must constantly be intentionally included in order to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Otherwise, by default, they will remain invisible and overlooked for church leadership positions and other opportunities traditionally offered to males.

Jesus didn’t just preach equality. He practiced a life of intentional inclusiveness, giving us a perfect example of how to treat each other with love. Jesus reached out a welcoming hand to the woman with the issue of blood, to the Samaritan woman, to the lepers and tax collectors, to the children whom his disciples dismissed, to others whom society marginalized. We can do no less than follow his loving example.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

My First Blog--Ever
This is my first blog--ever. I've been reluctant to start blogging, knowing my words might draw fire.

I'm uncomfortable with being a target; my life is complicated enough as it is. I don't like being the center of controversy. I especially don't like risking stereotypical, derogatory labels conveniently applied by passionate people who disagree with my stance on hot-button issues.

As a woman minister I like being perceived as talented, competent, spiritually mature, friendly, cooperative, approachable, trustworthy, compassionate, easy-going, lighthearted,...the list goes on. Words like feminist, control-freak, rigid, controversial, man-hater, troublemaker, hard-driving, and other far-less-polite terms are labels I'd like to avoid.

For the past few years I've regularly written columns--mostly about worship and church music ministry--for Connections, our church newsletter (articles accessed under "staff" at My goal for those columns has been to be informative, inspirational, and pastoral. Those columns are tailored specifically for our current congregation as I've gently steering through controversial waters about worship practices and music ministry issues one-at-a-time, trying to build community and morale within our very diverse—and decidedly opinionated—congregation.

For my Connections columns there has been no urgent need to address issues about women or women in ministry, because this congregation came to the conclusion decades ago that gender was not to be a barrier to full inclusion in the life of the church. For fifteen years now I've thrived while serving God and this church as Music/Worship Pastor. I've seen several senior pastors and staff members come and go. Currently--except for our Senior Pastor--our entire pastoral staff team just happens to be all female.

In such an oasis of acceptance (including issues other than gender), it's sometimes easy to forget that ours is a highly unusual church, especially among Baptist churches, both conservative and moderate. But step outside our doors and BAM! It frequently smacks you in the face!

Some of us—pastoral staff and a few savvy church members—are aware of the bias that's so prevalent in churches elsewhere. But when average members of our church return from a worship service or wedding at another Baptist church, they incredulously report what they heard and/or saw take place in regards to women. And first-time visitors to our church often comment (for good or bad) that they are astounded by what they see and hear--especially if it's a communion service, since nearly half our current deacon body is female.

For about thirty-five years SBC and CBF churches have graciously employed me full-time (part-time while I was in seminary) as their Minister of Music—against all odds, when you consider the prevailing climate against women ministers through the years.

However, full-time—or even part-time--employment by Baptist churches has often been denied to my "sisters in ministry." So many have felt the pain of open rejection or at best only partial, limited acceptance in churches. All of this thwarts God's calling upon their lives to full-time ministry in the local church. Since the early 80's I've felt that it was a part of my ministerial calling to be an advocate for women, especially those called to professional ministry.

So, I've started this blog. I'm blogging for a broader audience than my current church family, although I have no guarantee that anyone will be interested in what I have to say. Articles posted on this blog sight will be "edgier" than my Connections columns.

Most of my posts will deal with women's equality, women in ministry, and especially gender-inclusive language issues. I've had articles published through the years about women in ministry and gender-inclusion issues, but I've never dealt publicly with language issues in the church and beyond. Even today all of these issues are alive and well in churches everywhere, especially in Baptist circles.

I'm expecting that most conservatives will resist everything I have to say; even many moderates will resist my attempts to clean up the sexist language that still prevails in churches, just because it's "inconvenient," or they feel like I'm "shoving the issue down their throats."

In recent years I've come to believe that gender-inclusive language is foundational for women (outside and inside the church) to experience full acceptance in church and society. Total elimination of sexist language will undoubtedly never happen in my lifetime, but that doesn't preclude my efforts to raise awareness of and sensitivity to this important issue.

Language gives shape to our thought. Thought precedes action. The gospel message of inclusion can never adequately be delivered in the vehicle of non-inclusive language. We must be intentional about raising awareness of and facilitating change in the language of the church.

This is why I'm blogging. This is why I'm risking controversy. Join me on my journey....