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Women of the cloth who want to be 'the man' in the pulpit

Women of the cloth who want to be 'the man' in the pulpit

A lot of women are pastors at churches in the Southside of Virginia. But not every denomination embraces that concept.

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It’s commonly accepted that the minister standing in the pulpit may be wearing a robe.

But — symbolically — whether or not there can be a dress instead of pants under that robe can be divinely complicated.

There are many female pastors in Southside, but there remain restrictions against women in roles of leadership in churches, with some not allowing women to serve at all.

The Pew Research Center shows that 73% of adults in Virginia align themselves with a Protestant (non-Catholic Christian) religion, and there are 12% Catholic, 1% Jewish and 1% Muslim. Although both the Jewish and Muslim religions allow women religious leaders, Protestant religions with the larger memberships as well as Catholics don’t.

Of the 73% who are Protestant, by far the greatest numbers are “Baptist Family” in the “Evangelical Christian” category, 15% and “Baptist Family” under “Historically Black Protestant” at 9%. Other denominations have percentages of adherents of less than 5%, with most at 1% or less.

In Virginia 2% are Mormons, which have some divisions that allow female leadership and others that do not.

Much of the basis for those who ban women from ministerial and other leadership positions are founded on the Scriptures written by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.

But not everyone sees those words and limitations as being as black and white as the words appear on the pages of the Bible.

‘Oddly really progressive’

When it comes to Baptist churches, some welcome women pastors, but most don’t allow them. Libby Grammer, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Martinsville, grew up in a Baptist tradition that still does not recognize her as a pastor.

“It a free-church tradition,” said Grammer, who is finishing a doctoral degree at McAfee School of Theology. Baptists “don’t have that corporate kind of structures above us, no bishops or so forth.”

Although Baptist churches operate independently, most tend to align themselves with a convention, in large part to be effective in missions, she said. While “in theory they can’t tell the church exactly what to do,” there can be pressure to conform.

Traditionally, most traditionally white Baptist churches have been Southern Baptists – Pew says about 10% of adults in Virginia are Southern Baptists – and about 30 years ago, as “women were starting to be ordained, the convention was taken over” by people who did not think women should be in ministry, Grammer said. They “slowly took control of the convention and seminaries,” and churches that had supported women in ministerial roles were “forced out – ‘disfellowshipping’ churches, and still doing that to this day.”

In 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention passed the “Resolution on Ordination And The Role Of Women In Ministry,” which ends with the line, “we encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”

That would encompass serving as deacons or elders. Some Southern Baptist churches have either or both leadership roles among their members.

The Rev. Susan Spangenberg, the pastor of Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church, said “the division really started to happen between moderates and conservatives at the end of the ’80s, start of the ’90s. It came to a head in the seminaries with a plan to get all of the moderate people out, and they were taken over by fundamentalists.”

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed in 1991, largely as a place for churches that were pushed out of the Southern Baptist Convention. It has about 1,900 member churches, whereas the Southern Baptist Convention has 46,125 member churches.

Another Baptist association with a significant local presence is the Virginia Baptist State Convention, which has almost 30 traditionally black Baptist churches in the Henry County area. It does have some women pastors, said Valeria Edwards, who is involved in many capacities with the VBSC through the local Smith River Missionary Baptist Association, one of the VSBC’s 12 regional associations.

There are four Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches in the local area: First, Starling Avenue, Pocahontas Bassett and Chatham Heights Baptist churches. In contrast, about four dozen Southern Baptist Convention churches are in the Henry and Patrick Counties region.

Three of the four Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches have women pastors, so “when I came here I thought, … ‘Martinsville and Henry County are oddly really progressive about women in ministry, minus a handful. Even those that don’t” support it “aren’t overtly negative” about it, Grammer said.

Changing denominations

The Rev. Ashley Harrington is a co-pastor, with her husband, Brian, of Starling Avenue Baptist Church. She said she received “a call to ministry at a really young age, and I was in a church tradition that was very, very limiting of what women could do, so it was very confusing for me.”

It was only when she was in college, taking some religion and theology classes, that she became aware of women ministers.

“I’ve heard so many times: You can’t become what you don’t see. I’d never seen women as ministers until I was 19 or 20,” she said. “I found a denominational home in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. It was affirming of women in ministry – not a topic of debate.”

Her own home church, on the other hand, would not recognize her as a pastor.

“Hopefully, at the end of the day, when people need the church, especially in a time of crisis, they don’t care who shows up … they need the presence of God,” she said.

The Rev. Amanda Harris is the pastor for the Axton Charge United Methodist Church, which is comprised of Irisburg, Carroll Memorial and Beckham United Methodist Churches.

She grew up Baptist, she said, and ended up surprised to see the limits on women in ministry.

As a girl, Harris attended First Baptist Church, where Nancy Stanton McDaniel was the minister of education. “She was a big influence on my life,” Harris said. “I didn’t know anyone had any problem with women in ministry” until she was in college, when another woman spilled the beans about the situation.

Harris was ordained by First Baptist and has been in ministry for 21 years. She ended up transferring to the Methodist church, in part because the sacramental aspect of the religion appealed to her, but also because it is “much more accepting of females in ministry.”

During the past decades, she has “seen some huge strides in leadership roles” for women in the Baptist church, she said. For one, McDaniel became the first ordained woman to serve as president of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. Also, “for a woman to be a head pastor at a First Baptist church is a big thing, and I see it more and more.”

However, Harris added, the “Methodist church has always seen women as head pastors.”

No limits

Elder Naomi Hodge-Muse is an associate pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church, where the Rev. Kelvin Perry is the pastor – following the Rev. Jane Johnson, who left that role when she moved to her home state of Pennsylvania about a year ago.

Hodge-Muse said she never has seen any prohibitions or discouragement against women in leadership in any of the three denominations with which she has been involved, African Methodist Episcopalian, Episcopalian and Presbyterian.

She was raised African Methodist Episcopal, “and women in the A.M.E. have always been welcome” in positions of leadership, she said. Her sister is an A.M.E. minister in the fifth-largest A.M.E. church in Virginia.

When Hodge-Muse married an Episcopalian, she moved over to his church, where she stayed for 22 years. “The Episcopal Church has had women a lot earlier than most churches,” she said.

“The Rev. [Ellen] Hinkle and Christ Church made me a Eucharistic minister,” she said, a process that involved taking ministry classes. That sanctioned her to take “Communion to the sick and dying for years.”

Hinkle also groomed her toward becoming a deacon, she said.

However, eventually Hodge-Muse headed in a different direction. Nine years ago, she began attending Grace Presbyterian. To become a minister, “they accepted the four-year program from the Episcopal Church,” she said.

To her 2013 degree in theology from the University of the South, she only had to add Reformed Theology and Polity classes, she said.

There was just that one time, when she was a girl, when a minister who was not of her denomination came to the church “and started talking junk about women in pants. I just looked at him like, ‘Really?’ … That’s as close to foolishness as I have ever experienced.”

The resistance

The Rev. Mable Finney, pastor of New Bethel Christian Church in Fieldale, said she most definitely has experienced resistance to women in ministry.

“First of all, you hear people say, ‘I don’t believe in women ministers or women pastors,” she said. She has encountered “men who will not visit my church or allow me to come and minister at their church.”

A woman who ministers to women only would “probably be more accepted in that role,” Finney said, adding that she even has heard women say that women shouldn’t lead men religiously, “so you get it either way.”

People are taught those restrictions in childhood, Finney said, and having that belief system “keeps us in bondage rather than setting us free, as it should.”

In the Oneness (Apostolic) Pentecostal Church, said Bishop J.C. Richardson Jr., pastor of Mount Sinai Apostle Church, some groups support women in the ministry, and some do not.

Imams and rabbis

There are female imams (religious leaders) in the Muslim religion, and absolutely nothing in the Qu’ran (Muslim holy book) to limit women’s roles, said Khalil Shadeed of the Martinsville Center for Al-Islam.

Even so, the topic of women in Muslim leadership “is a very tough question,” mostly culturally, Shadeed said. “In fact, we are probably, in my lifetime, addressing the formal position of leading prayer in our congregational services, and we are just now establishing women as imams that are leading prayers.”

Amina Wadud, who became the first female imam in the United States 25 years ago, wrote in “The First American Woman Imam Explains the Rise of Islamic Feminism” (Vice, March 27), “In the past 20 years, Muslim women reached a critical mass in reclaiming their agency and responsibilities. In every country, at every economic and educational level, in the arenas of politics, law, art, civic society and of course, in sacred public ritual, we have tackled the biased assumption of authority belonging exclusively to Muslim men.”

In Martinsville, it is a woman who is the religious leader of Ohev Zion Synagogue, Rabbi Beth Socol.

What the Bible says

“The gospel of Jesus is freeing. It’s not an oppressive thing,” Harrington said. “It frees us to be who God has made us and created us to be. I was called to be a pastor, and on the other hand, I happen to be a woman, too.”

To people who disapprove of women in ministry, Spangenberg says, “Take it up with the Lord, because never once did I set up to do this. The Lord led me to do all of it.”

There are a few Bible verses that some people say command that women cannot be pastors.

1 Timothy 2:11-12 says, “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Finney said that her understanding of that verse always has been in response simply to one problem a church was going through: Some women in the congregation were talking to each other during service, which “was making a lot of noise and distractions.”

Paul, the author of the letter to his protégé Timothy, was just offering the suggestion that if those women had questions, they should just ask their husbands about the matter when they got home, because “he couldn’t teach with everybody talking.”

1 Timothy 3:2 says that a pastor must be “the husband of one wife.” Some say it means only men can be preachers; others say it’s a target of the practice of polygamy, ruling out polygamous people from taking the lead in religion.

“There’s a lot of theology that cherry-picks verses to control women, that keeps them from doing what they’re called to do,” Grammer said. “Instead of reading the whole story through Scripture through the lens of the ministry of Jesus, we are too often finding that one “clobber verse” just so women can’t do what they’re called to do. It’s interesting how many other verses are ignored.”

Another basic reason for the belief in superiority of man, Finney said, is simply grammatical: The “traditional masculine language of the Bible.” The traditional grammar rule has been to use “he” to stand for “he or she,” and only in the past few years are some people using “they” to be a gender-equal way to say “he or she.”

The first people to announce the Resurrection were women, Grammer said. In the New Testament, there’s “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17 KJV).

“Despite being written in a time of subjugation of women, the Bible says all that,” she said. “The Bible does support women in ministry, and we just have to read it more carefully, and read it for an eye for what Jesus wanted us to see.”

“People who believe that women cannot be in ministry often will use particular scriptures, especially those of the apostle Paul, to be almost blanket statements for all women instead of his context of writing to a particular church at a particular time, with particular needs in a particular discussion,” Harrington said. “Hopefully people will interpret the Bible through the lens of Jesus who, in his ministry, welcomed women. Women were the very first people” who witnessed the Resurrection, “so in many ways they were the first evangelists.”

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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