MOUNT OLIVE — Asking whether women should be ordained to the ministry is the wrong question according to Baptist professor Curtis Freeman.
“The question is, ‘Who is being gifted in the church?’” said Freeman, professor of historical theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. “Where are those gifts being displayed?”
Freeman was guest lecturer at Mount Olive College’s Vivian B. Harrison Memorial Lecture March 10 with the theme, “And Your Daughters Shall Prophecy: Women’s Voices in the Church.” He also preached during the school’s chapel service that day.
Freeman said ordination doesn’t give one the gift of preaching. Ordination is instead the church recognizing that gift, he said.
“The point is the church doesn’t really call people into ministry,” he said. “We help people discern God’s call on their life.”
The lectures included an overview of four 17th century Baptist women who wrote about their experiences. They were among nine known Baptists and 38 others who were writers in that period. In all, about 300 total prophetesses were active in England between 1640 and 1660, Freeman said.
The four Baptist women wrote at least 748 pages of material, many in pamphlets, which were cheaply reproduced and available to a wide audience.
“The pamphlet was like the 17th century Internet,” Freeman said.
Historical records indicate that the women influenced early English General and Particular Baptists, according to Freeman.
“Through their writings they surely attained an even wider audience,” he said. “Yet there was also a tension between the prophetic voices of these women, the gathered churches and the wider society that eventually refused to swallow their prophetic pill.”
Freeman said that revolutionary forces in England at the time had destabilized power and forces that “long had kept women in their place.”
“The social spaces that opened up enabled women not just to think freely but to speak their minds freely,” he said. “Yet as the Baptist movement became organized and institutionalized many of the more egalitarian expressions of the early days dissipated.”
These and other women who spoke out were on the fringes of the early Baptist churches, Freeman said.
“Maybe these women standing on the edge see something those of us at the center of the church can’t see,” he said.
Freeman said women have found a space to share their voices during other periods of social upheaval, such as the American Revolution, the western frontier and the Equal Rights Amendment issue. He asked if churches could find a way to create such a space without waiting for culture to create it.
Freeman used the story of the first woman ordained by a Southern Baptist church to suggest three essential elements of discernment used by the church. Addie Davis was ordained by Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham on Aug. 9, 1964.
The church was “committed to the practice of calling out the called,” Freeman said. Such a call includes both inward discernment and outward confirmation, he said.
“It’s not about women in ministry,” he said. “It’s first about this principle of calling.”
The second conviction of Watts Street church was what Freeman called “openness to more light from the Word.” For many the issue of women in ministry is settled, one way or the other. But others remain searching and open.
“It’s a sense that our understanding is growing,” he said.
Freeman said Watts Street was also committed to stand together with others under the rule of Christ. An ordination council from the local association examined Davis.
“Because a local congregation stands under the immediate rule of Christ, it has the power to call its own ministers, celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and administer the keys of church discipline,” he said. “Yet no congregation is independent. It is interdependent with those who ‘walk by the same rule.’”
Freeman said this is a “hard word,” since all Baptists don’t agree.
“Sometimes I’d like it to be me and Jesus, but in the end I don’t think that’s the way it is,” he said.
The challenge of standing together will take patience and humility, Freeman said.
“It is the vector of the Baptist vision that suggests that we find our way together,” he said. “Ultimately, it is not a matter of gender or ordination, but of spiritual discernment.”