The recent comments from the Baptist Standard, regarding former President Jimmy Carter’s claim that he left the SBC over its resolution that women should be submissive to their husbands got me thinking about the role of women in the churches in which I have been involved for just about all my life. The resolution on the wife’s submission is not necessarily surprising, given the cultural setting in which the majority of Southern Baptist church members reside, though, in all fairness, the concept is clearly taught in the scripture. Paul mentions it twice, Peter once, but each time it is made clear that there is a mutual obligation on the husband’s side to provide and care for his wife in the same way that Christ did for the church which he died for, and Paul takes it as far as to proclaim that, though the wife is to be submissive, she is also a mutual partner in the marriage relationship and that, once promised, the husbands body belongs to the wife as much as the wife’s body belongs to the husband. Their family roles are different, but the purpose of submission is family unity of purpose and that seems particularly linked to the raising of children. What has happened to family life in modern culture, with a skyrocketing divorce rate in particular, is the topic of another blog.
It seems that most of the criticism related to the Southern Baptist Convention leadership’s stance on women and their position in the church comes from either the fringes of the denomination, or from outside of it altogether. The BFM was altered, at a convention meeting in 2000, to include an interpretation of scripture regarding women serving in the capacity of “senior pastor” of a church. In practice, there have been a few highly publicized incidents in which a church or institution has interpreted related scrupture more tightly, resulting in controversy and perhaps the severing of relationships, but considering the size of the SBC, and the number of cooperating churches, those incidents have been extremely rare.
My own beliefs and convictions regarding the scripture were shaped very early on, largely by women who volunteered to serve in the two small Baptist churches in which I was raised. My parents, raised in different, and somewhat non-compatible Christian traditions in their growing up days in West Virginia, moved to Arizona in the 1950’s, where I was born. They had joined the Christian and Missionary Alliance, but there were no Alliance churches in the part of Cochise County where they moved, so they didn’t attend church regularly. However, I was sent to Sunday School every week from the time I can remember. In a photograph of the attendees of the newly formed First Baptist Church of St. David, Arizona in 1962, I was about four or five years old, one of three preschoolers in Sunday School that morning. In 1964, my family moved seven miles to Benson, and I began attending the Benson Heights Baptist Church. Both of these congregations were Southern Baptist affiliated, and because they were so close together, their ministry history is linked. I was baptized at age 6 as a member of the St. David church, but the sanctuary didn’t have a baptistry, so once a month, when they had candidates for baptism, they joined with the Benson church on a Sunday night and used their baptistry. I will never forget that service, there were seven of us in line, I was the youngest and went first. The sanctuary was packed, since both congregations turned out in force for baptism night (we’re talking about a seating capacity of 120 people), and the water was cold.
Jane Batchelor is the first Sunday School teacher I can remember. She taught the Beginner’s class at Benson Heights, and had done so for a number of years. She was a sweet lady, originally from Sikeston, Missouri, widowed early, left with two young sons and had some life lessons in faith. She had remarried prior to my encountering her in Sunday School and though her formal education had ended in the eighth grade, she knew her Bible well, and had a knack for teaching it to kids. In addition to Sunday School, she led Sunbeams on Wednesday night, which I also attended regularly, and made a point to visit each family with a child in her class every week. The most important thing I learned from her was the discipline of memorizing scripture, something she insisted on and gently taught and reinforced. I can remember our class, never larger than six or seven children, standing in front of the church at least twice each year, reciting a whole chapter from memory, and to this day, I can still quote I Corinthians 13 from the King James version.
That was followed up by years in the Primary department with Lucy Cornett. Mrs. Cornett was a dignified lady from Weatherford, Texas who was fond of big hair and loved teaching Sunday School. It was Mrs. Cornett who introduced me to the flannel graph board, and at the same time, to object lessons, many of which involved some kind of treat in class. Her husband was the R.A. leader, and her daughter, Kathleen, who was in high school at the time, was the church pianist. I don’t know if Mrs. Cornett had any formal education beyond high school, but she was another devoted disciple of Christ who knew her Bible.
Ocie Roseberry was my teacher when I was in the Junior department. The fact of the matter was that we just didn’t have very many men in the church, and those who were involved taught adults or youth. Mrs. Roseberry handled a class of mixed boys and girls in fourth through sixth grade, sometimes as many as seven or eight on a Sunday morning, just fine. She, too, exhibited the same level of care and concern for her class that my previous two teachers did, calling us on the phone and making sure we got there on Sunday. She was fond of class picnics and field trips.
There were several teachers in the youth department who made an impression on me, but the most dedicated teacher there during the time I was involved was Laura Carroll. She had five kids, four boys and a girl, became the church pianist when Kathleen Cornett went to college, played for a family gospel quartet, and was working on her B.A. in nursing, but we always had a well prepared lesson, and though it was not required of her, she organized youth group activities. I don’t know how she did it, but she was there almost every time the church doors were opened.
There were men in the church who were influential as well, including two pastors whom I consider my mentors, Dr. Maruice Brantley and F. Gerald Sullivan. But had we not had women step up to the plate, the church would not have survived. Including those I mentioned, there were women like Maybelle Bivens and Hattie Massey, both gracious Mississippi belles who taught adult Sunday School classes and organized the Monday night visitation. On many occasions, they came on Saturday to dust, mop and clean the church building. There was Faye Parrott, who was the equivalent of our social and recreational director, who once broke her foot pitching in a church softball game, which she said was God’s way of teaching her patience. There was Betty Pevoto, who also tirelessly taught Sunday School and who, along with Beulah Paschall, Hattie Massey, Nancy George, and some other ladies, kept the church doors open during some trying times in long interims between pastors. There were some Sundays in the church’s history when the only adults in worship were women. But there was never any grumbling or griping, no agitating over whether or not they should be ordained, or be officially “equal” to the men, they just made themselves available for God to use as he needed in that particular body of Christ, and they went about their task with quiet determination.
They certainly set a fine example for me. When I went off to college, I had a solid foundation in Bible, which was a great help getting through the basic Old and New Testament courses, and Christian Doctrines. Most of that I could attribute to having spent the first 18 years of my life in a Sunday School class every week in a small church taught by women who were fully committed to their faith in Christ and their calling to use their spiritual gifts in ministry. There were no restrictions ever placed on that.