The BUGB affirmation of the ministry of women 2: practicality

The BUGB Council decision was not to walk apart from those who cannot accept the ministry of women; rather it was to be more intentional about affirming the Union’s support of the ministry of women. If this does not mean exclusion, the question has rightly been asked, what does it mean? What difference can this make on the ground?

One way of thinking about this, it seems to me, is in terms of a hierarchy of doctrinal truths. We might distinguish between four levels in which a doctrine might fall:

A. If you do not believe this, you are not adequately Christian;

B. If you do not believe this, you are not adequately Baptist;

C. If you do not believe this, your position is eccentric within the Baptist community;

D. You can believe any way you like about this.

Now, it is important to realise that we will have different estimations of what belongs where (a point that, being missed, often leads to simple incomprehension in ecumenical discussion). Let me offer for example, though, Trinity and Christology as class-A doctrines, and believers’ baptism and congregational government as class-B. The interesting distinctions come further down.

There are matters of indifference denominationally: I have no idea how many Baptists are premillennial in their eschatology these days, for instance, or how many would hold to a six-day creation position. These are issues, however, on which the Union has no mind and no particular interest – class-D doctrines in my schema above. Perhaps where one stands on charismatic issues is also like this now: some of our churches are very comfortable with overt manifestations of spiritual gifts; some very uncomfortable; but neither position is more authentically Baptist than the other, at present.

Forty years ago, that was not true. To be involved in the charismatic movement then did not exclude you from being Baptist, but set you apart as unusual, eccentric, within the Union. The mind of the Union was not there. A pressure group was created to change the mind of the Union, to make charismatic worship ‘Mainstream’. It worked, but back then someone committed to charismatic renewal who had a position on a denominational body would know that her opinions were odd, and she probably should have conscientiously set them to one side when acting as a representative of the denomination. This is a class-C doctrine, in my terms. Today there are others: a sacramental understanding of ministry (although this is perhaps shifting – see Paul Goodliff’s new book) or a ‘peace-church’ position.

It seems to me that the effect of the Council’s decision, if followed through (as I hope it will be) is to move belief in the equality of female and male ministry from being class-D to being class-C within the denomination. If I am getting this right, Council is, in effect, saying, ‘if you believe that Scripture restricts the ministry to men only, you are welcome to walk with us still, but you must realise that on this issue you are walking out of step; we will not be making accommodation for your views within our structures; if you act on our behalf, on this issue you should be aware that you do not and cannot represent us.’

Such a stance, if followed through conscientiously, could have far-reaching and significant practical effects. Such as? Well, let me offer one, for me very personal, example:

I concluded some years ago that I could not belong to a local church that did not affirm the ministry of women and men equally (I asked the question before we moved to St Andrews; the church meeting here has affirmed its commitment to the ministry of men and women equally; had it not, Heather and I would be in membership elsewhere). I have many friends whom I like and respect who think differently, and I have no wish to ‘un-church’ any of them, but for me, a male-only ministry is like infant baptism or belonging to a state church: it is not a denial of the gospel, but it is a significant enough distortion of gospel values that, in good conscience, I want to walk separately from those who believe in such things. I will share with them in mission energetically and cheerfully, but will continue to believe that they have made a grave error in their understanding of Scripture, letting cultural mores trump the plain meaning of the sacred text.

My point here is one inevitable consequence of this position: if I were to ever seek settlement within a BUGB church again, I would be asking that my profile not be sent to churches that did not affirm the ministry of men and women equally. I would hope, given the new stance of BUGB, that this request would be respected.

(This seems to me a change; when I was a student at Spurgeons, we took, as a student body, the decision that we would no longer agree to supply preachers to any church fellowship that was not prepared to accept any (ministerial) student from the college indifferently. The live issue, of course, was churches not wanting female preachers. We were warned by ‘the powers that be’ not to take this decision in advance, and castigated somewhat for taking it when we refused to heed the warnings.)

I had the immense privilege of speaking at a conference for newly-accredited ministers within BUGB earlier this year; there was a Q&A session with Union representatives. At one point, someone stood up and raised the issue of the recent Council decision. I cringed inwardly – in my day, the question would have continued ‘this is what the Bible says…’, followed by a series of Victorian patriarchal platitudes that had nothing to do with the teaching of Scripture. This time, however, it didn’t. The questioner (male) challenged the Union reps on why they did not simply expel any church that was not welcoming and affirming of the ministry of women. The applause for the question was sustained and lasting (and the response given by the BUGB folk gracious and convincing).

More recently, I heard tell of a large and successful church ‘down south’ which recently had an interregnum lasting two years and more. I queried why – it seemed to me the sort of fellowship many ministers would want to serve. My informant, a member of the church, listed a number of reasons, but looming large amongst them was the fact that the fellowship had a male-only eldership. The ministers it would hope to attract, who by virtue of ‘success’ (whatever that means) and visibility could afford to be choosy, humanly speaking, in the churches they looked at, were mostly repelled by a ‘leadership is male’ position.

It would seem from this – albeit anecdotal – evidence that there is a strong and increasing majority of BUGB ministers who believe conscientiously similarly to me. I wonder if this should become visible, in the way we chose to make it visible as students in Spurgeons? It is a commonplace of observation that a Baptist church which claims it is opposed to the ministry of women is often being held ransom by the opinions of a very small minority of vocal members; at present, there is little or no penalty attached to caving in to such a vocal minority; if the price of appeasement can be spelt out bluntly by a Regional Minister as ‘well, if that’s your position we will accept it, but you should know that it means that 75% of the ministers seeking settlement will not allow us even to send you their profile.’ It might concentrate minds, and force congregations to decide whether this is an issue to which they are actually committed, or whether it is prejudice and lack of imagination that is leading them to deny the truth of the gospel and cave in to the culture.


  1. Kevin Davis
    Aug 27, 2010

    they have made a grave error in their understanding of Scripture, letting cultural mores trump the plain meaning of the sacred text.

    Coming from the American evangelical landscape, it’s hard to imagine someone being this bold about their position on women’s ordination. The majority of evangelical churches over here are firmly complementarian, with the pentecostal churches being the most notable exception. Of course, evangelical churches within the mainline denominations accept women’s ordination, but these churches are fewer and fewer — with members, and even whole churches, leaving over homosexual unions/ordination. This leaves the major evangelical denominations in a position of relative health and future promise. And, once again, other than the pentecostal denominations, these denominations are complementarian: the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Evangelical Free Church in America, and such. Moreover, the major leaders and theologians in these churches are firmly complementarian, which has great influence on the next generation. I’m thinking of D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, John Piper, Andreas Kostenberger, and so on.

    So, it’s interesting to compare the UK and the US on this issue. In the UK, egalitarianism is the assumed future norm (if not the assumed norm already); whereas in the US, complementarianism is the assumed norm and the future is uncertain.

    • Kevin Davis
      Aug 27, 2010

      Of course, even in pentecostal denominations (like the Assemblies of God) with egalitarian ordination standards, the office of senior pastor is almost entirely male. Most Assemblies would not even consider a female pastor as their senior pastor.

      • Steve H
        Aug 27, 2010

        Thanks for stopping by again, Kevin.
        The UK/US comparison is interesting – I wonder if it is quite so stark as you paint? You are right to point to certain denominations which have a strong complementarian position, which largely we lack in the UK (the closest would be the FIEC, but it is a fairly minor element of the British Evangelical scene). Even in those denominations, however, there is discussion if you know where to look (I think of young emerging leaders I know in both the PCA and the SBC). What of the major ‘non-aligned’ evangelicals? I don’t know where, say, Rick Warren or Bill Hybels stand on this one, but I suspect that it is nearer my position than Mark Driscoll’s(?) Again, people like Jim Wallis, Scott McKnight, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell – all count as significant evangelical leaders. Also, are not the African-American churches much more open to female leadership than others?
        On our side, there is some diversity within the evangelical movement. On the one hand are groups like the Salvation Army, ‘egalitarian’ (horrible and misleading word) from its nineteenth-century origins; on the other, there is a significant constituency amongst Anglican evangelicals that are committed to the ‘leadership is male’ position, and UCCF (our version of IVF), one of the major pan-evangelical bodies in Britain, seem to be presently opposed to the ministry/leadership of women.

      • Jennifer
        Mar 21, 2011

        My take would be that the US situation is largely as Kevin describes, with a few notable exceptions. Bill Hybels and Willow are decidedly egalitarian on women in leadership, for example, as are many of the “emerging” leaders you mention. But they are still “edgy” in evangelicalism, and having deep roots in both the SBC and PCA, I would be shocked to see either of those denominations (and especially the SBC) come anywhere near changing their policy in the next 20 years. PCA plants and churches I am aware of who are considering women in the highest levels of leadership (many have women leading at every other level) and also considering changing their denominational affiliation to do so.

        The vast majority of evangelicals would be speaking of egalitarians when they would say, “they have made a grave error in their understanding of Scripture, letting cultural mores trump the plain meaning of the sacred text.”

  2. Simon
    Aug 27, 2010

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your latest thoughts on this.

    Coincidentally, as you were posting this I was a a meeting of the BUGB ‘Women in Leadership’ task-group, where we were reviewing the follow-up since the March Council, and working towards next March when we will feed back formally. As you rightly identify, the ‘what now?’ question was large on our agenda.

    My personal aspiration is that the next step will be that the Union ensures all of its structures, committees and resources are coherent with the Council decision; and that this is married with a proactive programme of education and challenge to those congregations who are not affirming of women in ministry.

    Whilst this will not be enough for some (I’m thinking of the voice at the NAM conference), I think it stands the greatest chance of seeing change at a grassroots level. My concern about expelling churches who do not comply with the ‘policy’ (and I should note that this has never to the best of my knowledge been on the agenda of any of the Union groups I’ve been part of in this process) is that they will either go it alone, or network with other churches who deny the ministry of women, with the result that the women in those congregations who might be called and gifted for ministry continue to have that denied, while the men in those churches continue to be denied the gift of female ministry.

    Given that in most churches which are non-affirming, it is a relatively small number of people driving that position, my judgment is that the possibility of change through engagement, education and challenge is great, and worth the cost of asking my female colleagues in ministry to continue to live with the immensely difficult position of being in fellowship through the Union with those who deny their very calling to ministry.

    But I should note that this is not a position I come to lightly, and I’m very aware that as a male minister the cost for me here is minimal(no-one is denying my ministry on the ground of my gender). I think that those of us engaging this debate from the male side have a real and important part to play – because many of those whom we would want to challenge will only hear that challenge from a man – but it has come home to me recently how difficult this can be for those whose lives and ministries we are discussing; because once again the female voice is silenced as patriarchy reasserts itself.

    • Steve H
      Aug 27, 2010

      Thanks, Simon – and thank you for doing the real work on this, not just pontificating online like me.
      The response from BUGB folk at the NAMs conference to the ‘just expel them’ question was just as you say – narratives of churches that had been changed by a process of engagement and discussion, contrasted with the imagined effect of not engaging, where a church leaves the Union and its opposition to the place of women in ministry becomes an important part of its self-narration for a generation or two to come.

  3. Sue Barker
    Aug 27, 2010

    As one of the women who were encouraged by yours and others stand on the supply of student preachers when we were at college, may I say a big THANK YOU!
    Unfortunately it does women no good to promote the position of women ministers and preachers and we need men like yourself and Simon.
    I had the experience of a church saying no to me because they had a new convert in their membership and the majority did not wish to over-rule him. However, within a few months he had changed his thoughts.
    And I would hold that the equality of men and women is a class A doctrine! whatever gift the men and women are given – be it arranging the flowers or preaching!

  4. Julie Aylward
    Aug 27, 2010

    Can I too add my thanks to you, Simon and many others who continue to work on this matter.
    Steve: Where would discrimination against someone (a minister) because of race or disability come in your different levels?

    • Steve H
      Aug 27, 2010

      Hi Julie, Sue, thanks for stopping by.

      Julie – the levels are an attempt to describe where the mind of the Union is, not an account of my personal judgement. It seems to me that the Union is presently much less tolerant of discrimination of grounds of ethnicity or disability than on grounds of gender (although in practice I wonder how many non-urban churches would actually welcome a Black minister? – but they would know that they could voice their objections to her because she was female, but not because she was Black). As I say, this is an attempt to describe what is, not to prescribe what should be…

  5. craig
    Aug 28, 2010

    As I mentioned on the FB discussion, while I am sympathetic to the Nams voice, I pastor a church where despite my personal opinions and some teaching on the subject a number of genuine and worthy Christians disagree: It is easy rhetoric to cast this as black or white (excuse the race comparisons) but it is pastorally often more complex, esp if a pastor still longs to serve the people he was called to be among and still harbours some hope for change: so while I may have argued at Council for a stronger line than Simon suggests here, in the pastoral aftermath of post council church life, I think for me, he has proven to be wise.

    • Steve H
      Aug 28, 2010

      Hi Craig,
      Thanks for stopping by. I honour you – and pray for you – in what you are trying to do – and I think, from my outsider’s perspective, that BUGB was right to take the nuanced decision it did, re-affirming where the Union stood, whilst seeking to engage with, and change the mind of, churches that believed differently.

  6. Patrick
    Aug 28, 2010

    Wow. From an Irish (Republic) perspective, this conversation is light years away from where Baptists and the vast majority of independent evangelicals are at. I’d put it at as closer to a B position than C. Opportunites for gifted women to pastor and lead are extremely limited outside denominational churches that do recognise women ministers (at least in theory. In practice within my own Presbyterian denomination there is, I think, even less ‘take up’ by women than 20 yrs ago).
    I guess we are back where GB was x years ago. What I wonder were the key factors in your shift towards what seems an increasingly normative position of women in leadership?

  7. Ken
    Sep 15, 2010

    Hi Steve,

    I realise this comment may come a little late. It came to my attention that your reference to a male speaker might have included a few words among the many that I made by question to the council in that very discussion. If indeed this expel issue was part of what I said, I’m not sure it was the most important part.

    The first part of my comment was a concern was there was a clear contradiction between the certainties with which BUGB communicated to us mid Nammer’s compared to the open nature of their hopes for dialogue with unwilling churches. I’d love to unpick all of that!

    The second part of my comment was given that the ministry department is low on resources and this is a time intensive process in journey, shouldn’t churches where they’ve made this journey to wholeness seek to support and work alongside those that won’t. Clearly this happens implictly, but perhaps something more explicit, structured and synergistic is needed (between umbrella, association, ministers and their churches).

    The third part was to finish off the beginning really. Should minister’s be told that certain matters of conscience and interpretation may be overwritten by BU terms and conditions of ‘ministership’; but churches cannot. Perhaps, and only perhaps, there should be a road for some which they choose to walk which leads to expulsion.

    Then again, it might not have been me you were thinking about.

  8. Ken
    Mar 18, 2011

    Dear Steve,
    Your class structure for doctrines is intriguing and gives a helpful scale on which to peg importance of doctrine. If we rank Believer’s Baptism at class B (which does indeed seem a Baptist distinctive) it makes me wonder why Baptist Unions would accept churches which practice open membership. Is there not indeed a probability that this erodes other Baptist distinctives? If we can happily have churches with open membership (class B doctrinal difference) co-exist happly in the union(S); Then surely Baptist churches with male only leadership stances (class C doctrinal difference) should suffer no worse. Why should Union reps simply expel any church that was not welcoming and affirming of the ministry of women if they do not expel open mebership churches ?

    • Steve H
      Mar 19, 2011

      Ken, welcome. BUGB is not intending to expel anyone, but any Union could take that decision on this or any other matter. Open membership is common in the UK, far less so in the States, for reasons to do with history (see my forthcoming book on Baptist Theology…).

      • Ken
        Mar 19, 2011

        I’ll look forward to the new book – providing it’s not ultra expensive 😉
        While BUGB may not be intending to expel anyone, it seems clear from your report on the conference for newly accredited ministers that someone challenged the union reps to do just that.
        With open doors for membership in baptist churches to those who do not adhere to believer’s baptism do we not leave our churches open to hugely diverse internal doctrinal differences which, as we have seen, can make building consensus in a church difficult. Perhaps that’s just part of the fun of being in a baptist church like St Andrews ! I know it stretches my faith in all sorts of directions which I hope is good for me personally, but I’m not sure it lends itself to healthy, happy, productive church life.
        Let me know when the new book is published.


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