Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 68) transports me to a night of noisy clamor at Gashes Creek Baptist Church, summer of 1983, when I learned how much commotion the simple notion of women in ministry could create. I was youth minister, and had not been apprised of the conflict that had emerged in Southern Baptist life over issues like this one. Our church was in need of some new deacons, and given what I’d learned in one of my college classes about the New Testament role of deacons as ministers to the widows, it made sense to me (in my naivete) that we should ordain some of our women, since they were doing this ministry anyway. One of the youth group, Tim Storey and I, spent the first part of the summer doing some Bible study on the matter, and when we were sufficiently convinced that the Bible supported women in ministry, we planned a strategy for bringing it before the church. We set up appointments to visit every family in the church to tell them of our plan to nominate some women to serve as deacons, to give them our biblical foundation, and see what questions or concerns they might have. Those were some interesting visits, and as the church business meeting approached, we weren’t sure if it would pass or not. Tim came up with a good idea; instead of bringing this motion up first, we should bring up something simple, noncontroversial, to begin the business meeting on a peaceful note, then bring up the more conflicted issue, in hopes that there might be some momentum for giving an aye vote. Our idea for this easy issue involved the message boards that were on the wall in the front of the sanctuary on either side of the choir loft. These boards showed how many people were in attendance for Sunday School, how much the offering was, and the hymn numbers. We thought the focus on numbers was misplaced, and it would be better to put an inspirational verse or something on the board, or maybe move the board back into the Sunday School area in order to keep the focus in the sanctuary on worship. Tim made the motion, I seconded, and much to our surprise a lively discussion followed, with person after person testifying to the depth of meaning those boards had for them, since they had been in that spot for generations. Some arguing ensued, and before the vote (which the nays carried), Tim turned to me and said, I think we’re in trouble with the women in ministry vote.
It’s hard to tell how much conflict existed in the Hebrew covenant community over the role of women in ministry. Obviously, in a patriarchal world, the men were generally in the limelight, with women only occasionally taking center stage. There’s not a lot written about the issue in the praise music of the ancient Israelites; today’s passage from Psalm 68 being one of the few exceptions. In the midst of this praise poem, verse 11 says this, The Lord announces the word, and the women who proclaim it are a mighty throng. I don’t know if this was a controversial lyric or not back in the day. Back in another day, the early 80s, I had for the first time met a member of this mighty throng of women preachers in the person of my college chaplain, Marie Bean. Her preaching was powerful and prophetic, and deeply grounded in the announced word of the Lord. It strikes me now how appropriate the word proclaim is in this Psalm verse when applied to women like Marie, given its etymological kinship to the word clamor. She and the other women in ministry in Southern Baptist life of that era were indeed creating quite a clamor as they proclaimed the word.
I learned my lesson about how deeply divided the baptist world was over women in ministry that night at Gashes Creek. The convention’s conservative inerrantists had figured out how to square the mighty throng of women preachers in verses like Psalm 68:11, with the New Testament mandate for preachers to be the husband of one wife and for women to keep silent in the church. They basically made an executive decision to privilege these latter verses and explain away the former, effectively prohibiting women from ordained ministry. Having seen the incredible impact women like Marie were having (I was one of those deeply influenced by her ministry), I found myself on the other side of the great divide, celebrating the mighty throng. We never voted on the issue that night at Gashes Creek; the clamor was so intense and people were so bent out of shape, that we decided to withdraw the motion and trust that the issue would move in God’s own time. It did, and a few years later, Barbara Morningstar and Edna Frady were ordained as deacons at Gashes Creek. Now these two have taken their place among the great cloud of clamoring witnesses, a mighty throng indeed, that also includes Marie Bean. I give thanks to God for all of these proclaiming women who boldly followed God’s call in the face of opposition that would have kept them silent. Without them and their influence in my formative years, I’m not sure I would have been at all prepared to marry a proclaimer and take my place in the mighty throng of preacher’s husbands.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.