Whether as deaconesses or preachers, women have been involved in ministry in the Baptist church from its inception in England and continuing throughout its growth in the United States. Baptists ordained women in the U.S. as early as the 1880s, but the practice is not shared by all congregations. According to the fourth State of Women in Baptist Life report, 2,200 Baptist women have been ordained to the ministry since 1964.
History of Women in Baptist Ministry
Throughout the history of the Baptist church, the role of women in ministry has been a divisive theme. The division was evident in the Baptist church's English beginnings where one group, the General Baptists, permitted women to preach as deaconesses and church members, but a second group, the Particular Baptists, believed in male-only ministry. John Bunyan, a 17th-century Baptist leader, expressed the belief that because men were made in the image of God, women were not suitable for the ministry.
Both Positions Based on Scripture
Both sides of the debate regarding women's role in Baptist ministry rely on Scripture to support their positions. Baptists advocating a male-only ministry point to Genesis and state that the woman was created to help the man; they also refer to a distinction between the roles of males and females recognized by Jesus and Paul's call for women to be silent. Baptists in favor of an egalitarian outlook also cite Scripture, noting that Acts 18:26 speaks of a woman named Priscilla, who taught a man, alongside her husband Aquila. Paul also made a favorable mention of another female believer, Phoebe, who he described in Romans 16:1 as a deaconess from the church at Cenchreae. Supporters of gender equality in ministry cite Paul's declaration that there is no longer a distinction to be made between Jew and Gentile, master and servant or male and female (Galatians 3:27-28).
Rise of Women in U.S.
In the United States, the view of the Particular Baptists was predominant and women's role in ministry was limited until the revival of the 18th Century -- the First Great Awakening -- and the rise of the Separate Baptists, a group that permitted women to preach as deaconesses and eldresses. Nevertheless, when the Separate Baptists merged with the traditionalists, known as the Regular Baptists, to form the Southern Baptist church, women in ministry roles disappeared. The 19th Century saw Baptist women active in missionary work, planting churches and preaching.
There is a regional divide evident in the acceptance of women in Baptist ministry. Northern Baptists ordained women in the late 1880s while Southern Baptists resisted the trend until 1964, when, at Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, Addie Davis became the first woman affiliated with Southern Baptists to be ordained. In the late 1980s and early 2000s, Southern Baptists announced a harder line toward women in ministry, stating it was no longer encouraging the ordination of women; however, Missouri's Cooperative Baptist Fellowship took a different approach, offering cash incentives to congregations interviewing women for pastoral positions. Outright prohibition of such ordinations is not possible due to the autonomous nature of local Baptist congregations.
Gathering data regarding the number of women in ordained ministry is difficult because self-reporting is the only method to collect statistics from autonomous Baptist congregations. Nonetheless, the advocacy group, Baptist Women in Ministry, has been reporting about the ordination of Baptist women since 2005. The group reported that in 2010, 53 women ministers were ordained in Baptist churches. Pam Durso, executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, stated there were 135 Baptist women pastors or co-pastors in 2010; that number increased from 102 in 2005.
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