Thursday, June 21, 2007

Putting Some Legs on Our Theology

Moderate Baptists are finally putting some legs under their theology. Although many of us talk about supporting women in ministry, there are very few medium or large churches with women as pastors.

That started to change this week when First Baptist Church of Decatur. Georgia voted to call Julie Pennington-Russell as their senior pastor. Here is the story from Associated Baptist Press:

DECATUR, Ga. (ABP) -- First Baptist Church of Decatur, Ga., has become the largest church associated with the Southern Baptist Convention or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to hire a woman as senior pastor.

In a closed business session after Sunday morning worship June 17, nearly 400 members voted to call Julie Pennington-Russell as minister. The proposal, approved by a show of hands, went unchallenged in a discussion session.

Pennington-Russell, 46, is currently senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, a post she has held since 1998. She had previously worked as a pastor at Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco. She will begin her new job Aug. 19, succeeding Gary Parker, who resigned.

The church, with 2,700 members, is one of several historic congregations in Decatur, which is now surrounded by metropolitan Atlanta.

“The thought of coming alongside this remarkable congregation in this world-class city at this moment in history fills me with a huge joy,” Pennington-Russell said in a press statement. “Our family is eager to hoist our sail with this great community of Christ-followers.”

In a statement to the church about Pennington-Russell, search committee members said they spent 800 hours considering 64 candidates for the position. The committee also consulted an outside panel of six people “knowledgeable in Baptist life today.”

“At the end of the process, however, our selection was unanimous. Every member of the committee expressed the conviction that the Holy Spirit has indeed led us to our final selection,” the statement said. “We truly believe that [Pennington-Russell] embodies all of the qualities you asked us to find in a pastor, and we are convinced that, like us, you will learn to love her and admire her for her depth, her joyous Christian spirit, and her dedication to the gospel message.”

Pennington-Russell will undoubtedly become a prominent figure in moderate Baptist life. While the SBC's doctrinal statement, the "Baptist Faith and Message," states that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture,” a recent study by Baptist Women in Ministry identified female senior pastors in 117 congregations currently or previously affiliated with the SBC. More than 1,800 women have been ordained to serve in various ministry roles, the study reported.

Pennington-Russell graduated from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif. She is completing a doctor of ministry degree at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Pennington-Russell and her husband, Tim, have two children.

First Baptist Church of Decatur, with a history reaching back to the Civil War, was founded as a Southern Baptist church. According to the church’s website, however, 80 percent of its members now designate their denominational support to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and roughly 20 percent support the SBC. In 2006, the church reported an average Sunday school attendance of roughly 450 people.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an opponent of women as pastors, agreed Pennington-Russell's selection precedent-setting. For a church with the history and prominence of First Baptist Decatur to call a woman as senior minister is “undeniably historic,” he said in a June 5 post on

“Julie Pennington-Russell will quickly become one of the most prominent leaders among moderate and liberal Baptists,” he wrote. “One additional development is just as certain. This move increases the visible distance between the Southern Baptist Convention and the constellation of moderate Baptist organizations disaffected from the denomination. The distance is theological, cultural, ideological -- and growing.”


So what is the right role for women? Consider this article from

Baptist Seminary Offers Degree in Homemaking for Pastors' Wives

Bob Allen

Starting this fall Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will offer a program in Christian homemaking, the seminary's president said Tuesday. "We are moving against the tide in order to establish family and gender roles as described in God's word for the home and the family," seminary President Paige Patterson said in his prepared report to the Southern Baptist Convention this week in San Antonio, Texas.

According to the seminary Web site, the bachelor-of-arts in humanities degree, with a concentration in homemaking, will be offered through the seminary's undergraduate college program.

" The College at Southwestern endeavors to prepare women to model the characteristics of the godly woman as outlined in Scripture," a description of the program reads. "This is accomplished through instruction in homemaking skills, developing insights into home and family while continuing to equip women to understand and engage the culture of today."

Course work includes three hours of "general homemaking," three hours on "the value of a child," seven hours of "d esign and apparel"--including a four-hour "clothing construction with lab"--seven hours of nutrition and meal preparation and a three-hour course on the "Biblical Model for the Home and Family."

Responding to a question at the SBC annual meeting about the program, Patterson said many wives of future preachers have said, "We need to know in a day when homemaking is no longer honored whether or not it would be possible for us to have a course of study that would lead to a degree in homemaking."

"It is homemaking for the sake of the church and the ministry and homemaking for the sake of our society," Patterson said. "If we do not do something to salvage the future of the home, both our denomination and our nation will be destroyed."

The seminary's trustees were told about the new program last fall. It wasn't mentioned in news stories or the seminary's press release, but a Baptist blogger critical of Patterson's administration reported he "nearly shot Diet Coke out of my nose" when he heard the recommendation. Trying to imagine how such a degree falls under the umbrella of the institutional mission of a theological seminary, blogger Benjamin Cole dismissed the idea as "quite silly."

"A seminary degree in cookie-baking is about as useful as an M.Div. in automotive repair, if you ask me," Cole said. After the fall trustee meeting, Cole proceeded to parody what he nicknamed the "Mrs. Degree" in 10 blogs between Oct. 30 and Nov. 21.

The new undergraduate degree is in addition to an existing 13-hour program of seminary studies for student wives and women's ministries concentrations in both the master-of-divinity and master-of-arts-in-Christian-education seminary degrees.

Dorothy Patterson, wife of the seminary president and professor of theology in women's studies, is the only woman faculty member currently teaching in Southwestern's School of Theology.

Another, former Old Testament languages professor Sheri Klouda, sued the seminary in March, claiming she was dismissed from her job simply because she is a woman. The chairman of the seminary's board of trustees was quoted as saying Klouda's unanimous election by trustees five years earlier, under leadership of Patterson's predecessor, was a " momentary lax of parameters."

Located in Fort Worth, Texas, Southwestern isn't the only Southern Baptist seminary encouraging ministers' wives to serve in traditional roles. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., offers a 13-hour certificate of ministry studies through its Seminary Wives Institute that includes "essentials" like "God's plan for marriage," child-rearing and shopping on a budget.

"At Southern Seminary, we recognize the need for God-called ministers' wives to be prepared for ministry," says a program description. "We believe that a minister's wife needs to be educated and equipped as she and her husband prepare for service in the churches and beyond."

An accompanying Women's Ministry Institute at Southern Seminary prepares women to minister to other women in the local church. Both programs are offered through Southern Seminary's Boyce College and headed up by Mary Mohler, wife of Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler.

Mary Mohler and Dorothy Patterson were the only two women serving on a seven-member committee that drafted a family amendment added to the Baptist Faith & Message in 1998. That article proscribed the proper role for a wife as "to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband, even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."

The family article made headlines nationwide. The New York Times quoted Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics as commenting: ''They hope to make June Cleaver the biblical model for motherhood, despite numerous biblical references to women who worked outside the home.''

Two years later Southern Baptists updated the Baptist Faith & Message again to specify, " While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

Southwestern Seminary's online catalogue says the seminary introduces women "to the marketplace of ideas, including both complementarian and egalitarian positions" so they are "thoroughly equipped to give an articulate and well-reasoned evangelical response to the feministic ideology of the age."

In addition to its programs for women, Southern Seminary in Louisville also houses The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Council exists to counter "feminist egalitarianism"--the view that men and women are equal in the church and home--with "the noble Biblical vision of sexual complementarity," which holds that men and women are of equal worth, but God ordained for males to be the head of both the home and the church.

Last year Southern Seminary named the Council's executive director, Randy Stinson, as dean of its School of Leadership and Church Ministry.

Bob Allen is managing editor of .

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