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.