When in Romans: Peace with God (SBC response sermon)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

            For most of last week I was working on an answer to the question of how we can have peace with God. That’s what Paul seems to want to talk about in today’s Epistle lesson, and that’s what I was planning to preach about this morning. I was going to say that we have peace with God when we realize that we will never be justified by being good enough, but only by trusting the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. But toward the end of last week people began to ask me a different question. Through text messages, emails, and phone calls they were asking not how do we have peace with God, but is this church a Southern Baptist church? And I think you know the reason for that.

            At last week’s annual meeting the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed its position that no woman can be the pastor of a Southern Baptist Church. But then it went beyond that and voted to amend its constitution so that no church that had a female pastor of any kind, even if she were a pastor to children, could be part of the Southern Baptist Convention. “The title of pastor is reserved for men alone,” they said. Which is why people were asking the question. They know Richmond’s First Baptist Church has female pastors, and has for years. So far we haven’t had a female senior pastor, but we have a female senior associate pastor, and we have a female associate pastor, and we have a number of other women who serve as ministers and deacons in our church. The people who have been asking this question are wondering if, when the SBC ratifies the amendment to its constitution next year, this church will be kicked out. They want to know: “Is this an SBC church?” Let me see if I can answer that question.

            What I usually say is that Richmond’s First Baptist Church was founded in 1780—65 years before the Southern Baptist Convention even came into existence. But I also say that through the years we have partnered with whatever denominational entity or agency could help us fulfill our mission, and for many years the SBC was a good partner. When I became a Baptist in 1981 I joined a Southern Baptist church. I learned about the emphasis on missions and evangelism that has defined the denomination from the beginning. I learned the names Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong, two famous (female) Southern Baptist missionaries. I learned about the Cooperative Program, the unified giving plan that made it possible for me to go to seminary free of charge—a gift I’m still grateful for. But I also learned that being Baptist means freedom.

When I talk about this in our newcomers’ class I often refer to Walter Shurden’s little book, Four Fragile Freedoms, and then I talk about our individual freedom, sometimes referred to as soul competency. I say, “In some churches they baptize infants, but we Baptists like to wait until you are old enough to make up your own mind about Jesus. In a Baptist church nobody carries you down the aisle, and nobody pushes you down the aisle. You make up your own mind.” Next I talk about Bible freedom. I say, “Some churches don’t think the people in the pews should be reading the Bible; they think that should be left up to the priests. But we believe that with the help of the Holy Spirit every Baptist can read and interpret the Bible with understanding. We encourage it, and don’t think anyone should stand between a Baptist and her Bible.” Next I talk about church freedom, often referred to as local church autonomy. I tell them, “Other churches have bishops and popes, but we don’t. We have a congregational form of government. We get to decide for ourselves what our mission and ministry will be, and we are free to ordain whomever we perceive to be gifted for ministry, male or female.” Finally I talk about religious freedom, based on the principle of a free church in a free state. “This is how Baptists got their start,” I say. “They didn’t like the Church of England telling them what to do. So they came to this country seeking religious liberty and found it. They built a wall of separation between church and state. We are at our Baptist best when we don’t tell the government what to do, and don’t let it tell us what to do.” James Dunn, who for years served as the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, put it another way. He said, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to do!” That spirit is deeply ingrained in Baptists, so when the Southern Baptist Convention tells us we can’t have female pastors we feel our spines stiffen. We wonder, “Who are you to tell us what to do?” And people who don’t even know us begin to ask, “Is your church a Southern Baptist church?”

Let me tell you a story. Back in the mid-1980’s the Southern Baptist Convention was coming apart at the seams. The denomination was embroiled in a controversy some called a “conservative resurgence” and others called a “fundamentalist takeover.” At stake, some said, was the Bible itself, which led them to brand an otherwise ugly denominational disagreement as a “battle for the Bible.” But not everybody wanted a fight. Some were praying for peace. And in the middle of that controversy a so-called Peace Committee was formed with representation by some of the most prominent personalities on either side. Dr. Jim Flamming, Pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, was appointed to the Peace Committee and he did his very best to be a peacemaker, but as Lynn Turner remembers he came home from one of those meetings and told the church that those people had no interest in peace. He said, “This is a fight going on among preachers and we don’t need to have any part of it. Instead of saying that we are a liberal church or a fundamentalist church or a moderate church or a conservative church, let’s just say that we are the church of Jesus Christ,” which may be another way of saying, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell us what to do!” And when the Southern Baptist Convention literally split apart in 1991, with thousands of former members founding the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Dr. Flamming begged the church not to choose, not to split this church down the middle, but to remain the church of Jesus Christ and let those who wanted to support the SBC send their mission dollars there, and those who wanted to support the CBF send their mission dollars there, and for all those years since then—more than thirty years now—that’s the way we’ve done it.

So, are we a Southern Baptist church? When I came to First Baptist fifteen years ago I was told, “No. We do not formally affiliate with either the Southern Baptist Convention or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Instead we support missionaries, and church members are free (there’s that word again) to support SBC missionaries, CBF missionaries, or both.” That may explain why our church didn’t show up on a blog post by Mike Law, an SBC pastor in Northern Virginia who started searching through the websites of every church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, looking to see if they had any women on their staff, and checking to see if any of those women had the title “Pastor.” I looked through the entire post to see if our church was listed, and it wasn’t, but I saw the faces of women I admire and respect, pastors and associate pastors who have done great good in their churches, posted on this blog as if it were the 17th century and this were a witch hunt. It made me mad. Mike Law believes these women are a threat to the Southern Baptist Convention. He believes they pollute the denomination’s doctrinal purity. He believes the role of pastor can only be filled by a man.

I disagree.

I disagree on biblical grounds. I remember back in 1984 the Southern Baptist Convention said that women could not be pastors because Eve was the first to sin. I had just started seminary, but I knew that Eve at least protested when the serpent invited her to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam didn’t. Eve handed it to him and he bit right in. The convention quoted the writings of Paul at some length, which is why many women still don’t get along with him, but remember that Paul was writing in the first century, when women were considered second-class citizens and the property of their husbands and fathers. When Paul (or someone writing in his name) said, “I forbid a woman to teach a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)[i] it was because women were not allowed to study in those days, and you wouldn’t want an uneducated woman trying to teach. That’s not true in the twenty-first century. Women can study right along with the men, in fact, many seminaries have more female than male students, and many professors will tell you that their female students are their best and brightest. And when Paul said, “Women should keep silence in church” (1 Cor. 14:34), I believe it’s because women had always been relegated to the balcony or the back of the room in the synagogue, where they may have whispered and swapped recipes and passed babies back and forth. “But keep silence in church,” Paul said, and he may have meant, “because this is for you, too.” Isn’t he the one who said, “For there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28)?

In Romans 16 Paul sends his regards to Phoebe, who was a female deacon. He had great respect for Priscilla, who was a powerful preacher. He mentions with gratitude those women who were his partners in the gospel. He advised women to keep their heads covered when they “prophesied” (a New Testament word for preaching). You may remember from the Book of Acts that Philip had four daughters who prophesied, or from the Day of Pentecost that God poured out his spirit on all flesh, both men and women, or from the Gospels that the women who followed Jesus were the last at the cross and the first at the tomb, or from the Easter story that if it hadn’t been for Mary Magdalene we might never have known that Christ had risen. You don’t need me to tell you these things. Take women out of the Bible and there’s not much left. Take women out of the church and the roof would collapse.

And that’s my other argument. I disagree with those who say the role of pastor can only be filled by a man on biblical grounds, but I also disagree on the grounds of experience. I posted Lynn Turner’s picture on Facebook on Friday and said something like, “Has this woman ever been a pastor to you?” The testimonies came flooding in, in fact they are still flooding in, from people who have known and loved Lynn for years and who have been blessed by her ministry. Yesterday I posted a picture of Allison Collier and said, “Allison will offer the pastoral prayer in worship on Sunday morning. Do you know why? Because she’s a pastor.” And once again the testimonies came flooding in. Meredith Stone, Executive Director of Baptist Women in Ministry, said that if the SBC constitution is amended some churches may decide to change the titles of their female pastors just so they can stay in the Convention. Well, here’s what I say: you can change Lynn Turner’s title. You can call her whatever you like (and some people have). But she is now, and will always be, a pastor. That goes for the other women on our staff and for all those women I have worked with through the years who were gifted and called by God.

Why is the Southern Baptist Convention doing this? Why do they feel the need to put women in their place, once again? I have my opinions, but at this point that’s all they are. What I really want you to hear is this: that because of the cherished Baptist principle of local church autonomy, even if we were a Southern Baptist church, the Convention could not tell us what to do. They could kick us out, but they could not shut us up, and they could not keep us from being who we are. As the Apostle Paul might say, “Since we are justified by grace through faith, we have peace with God.” And he said that as someone who had been kicked out of better places than the Southern Baptist Convention. Paul had peace. In an earlier draft of this sermon I pictured him standing waist-deep in the waters of baptism, like Jesus, looking up toward heaven as a dove fluttered down and a voice said, “This is my beloved child.” If you’ve had that experience, if you know you are God’s beloved, then there’s not much that can touch you. I pray that for all those Baptist women in ministry out there—and in here—that they would know they are God’s beloved, and that they would not let the actions of a group of mostly old, white men get them down.

Standing waist-deep in the grace of God Paul wrote: “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” “Hope does not disappoint us,” Paul said. We have the hope of sharing the glory of God. And even if we have to go through hell to get there,

We will.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] The Letter of First Timothy is not considered one of the undisputed Pauline letters, meaning it may not have been Paul who said this at all.