Baptist Women Deacons and Deaconesses: Key Developments and Trends, 1609-2005: "Baptist Women Deacons and Deaconesses: Key Developments and Trends, 1609-2005" Is a Big Topic. It Covers Four Centuries. It Spans International Boundaries. It Exhibits Considerable Conflict
Deweese, Charles W., Baptist History and Heritage
It relates to the Bible, theology, church history, and ethics. Therefore, I have chosen a special way to present this paper: I will ask and answer key questions that I believe will help get to the heart of the story.
First, does this topic have enough importance to justify an article? That sounds like an odd way to begin, but answers vary. Baptists have disagreed over whether Phoebe in Romans 16:1 was a deacon or simply a servant and whether the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 were deacons or the wives of deacons. Baptist history is filled with arguments for and against women deacons and deaconesses and their ordination. Further, noted Baptists have interpreted in radically different ways the potential contributions of women in diaconal roles. To illustrate, in 2000 Mike Clingenpeel, editor of the Virginia Religious Herald, wrote: "Excluding women as deacons seems a terrible squandering of human giftedness." (1) In sharp contrast, upon learning of my interest in writing a book on women deacons, the editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger described the issue as a "can of worms," (2) and the editor of the Georgia Christian Index questioned the study by stating that "surely there is some more compelling work in which to invest your research and writing skills." (3)
Issues at Stake Relating to Women Deacons
What issues are at stake in this discussion relating to women deacons? A partial list would include at least the following: the power of God to call women into whatever ministry he chooses; the focus given or not given to the life, spirit, and teachings of Christ in assessing the matter; literal views of scripture compared to more contextual understandings; misuses of the writings of the apostle Paul relating to women; the place of women in the ministry and service of the church; the implications of growing patterns of excessive pastoral authority in Baptist life; increasing concerns about women's subordination and submissiveness in denominational confessions of faith, resolutions, theological education, missions programming, and curriculum literature; diverse attitudes regarding the biblical basis and meaning of ordination; misuses of the autonomy of the local church against women's leadership and service; and theological influences that affect Baptists' attitudes toward women.
A key issue at stake is the credibility and integrity of the Southern Baptist Convention and its agencies. For example, on October 6, 2004, the SBC North American Mission Board adopted a document that it will apparently use as a guideline to determine what constitutes a New Testament church. (4) That document attacked ordained women deacons and, by inference, churches that ordain them. Evidently, NAMB will use that document to determine how to distribute money for new church starts. Since, by implication, churches with women deacons are not New Testament churches, they probably should not count on receiving mission money. That kind of action turns church starts into a denominational chess game with a preset conclusion; women deacons and their churches will likely lose every time.
Factors Promoting My Interest in this Study
What factors prompted my interest in the history of women in the diaconate? In the early 1970s, while in seminary, I wrote a seminar paper for Professor Glenn Hinson on the roles of deaconesses in the early church. In 1977, I prepared an article for Baptist History and Heritage titled "Deaconesses in Baptist History: A Preliminary Study." In 1979, Broadman Press published my book, The Emerging Role of Deacons, which included material on women in the diaconate. In 1990, I did extensive study on Baptist deacons in the American Baptist Historical Collection in Rochester, New York, and in the Library of Congress in Washington.
Several women deacons, all important to my personal pilgrimage, have inspired me. Professor Evelyn Underwood, who taught me United States history at Mars Hill College in the 1960s, was, in the 1970s, elected both a deacon and a deacon chair in the Mars Hill Baptist Church. …