Church business meeting in a Baptist church
by Lydia Barrow-Hankins
A respected deacon rises to speak. He says, “Before we vote today, I have something to say. This church is 70% women. Our deacon body should reflect our membership, and we need the women’s perspective as we make decisions for this church.”
The vote is counted. Three new deacons are elected, all women, all married women. They join the five women already serving on the deacon board of 17 people.
Is this a dream? No, it happened recently in Japan, that bastion of male dominance, at Seinan Gakuin Baptist Church in Fukuoka City. Women serving as deacons and pastors in Japanese Baptist churches is not a new phenomenon, nor is this church the exception.
With U.S. churches now undergoing a conscious, concerted return to hierarchical patterns of marriage and rigid gender roles, how can Japanese Baptists, reading the same Bible, arrive at such a different position from their American brothers and sisters, you ask.
Need. With less than 1% of the Japanese population professing faith in Jesus, the enormous need for Christian witness compared to the scarcity of Christian workers means that the Japanese church simply does not have the luxury of limiting to men the roles of deacon, pastor, and preacher of the gospel.
Religion and Culture. When Japanese are baptized, they know they have stepped from death to life, from darkness to light, and from the assumptions and mores of their society into a new society called the Church. They have heard the gospel in the liberating, affirming attitude of Jesus that reverberates through their personal lives, relationships, and social structures. Japanese Christians, having stepped far out of certain cultural patterns, can accept women, or participate as women, as full members in the Body of Christ.
Biblical interpretation. All Christians look to the Bible for spiritual guidance. The real question is, with the Bible itself giving a variety of guidelines and sometimes conflicting signals, which one of Paul’s writings, for example, do we choose as “inspired.” The answer is that we choose the text that is the most freeing, the most liberating, the one least bogged down in cultural norms and the status quo, in other words, the one most like Jesus himself. We believe the Bible, but whether we choose to focus on “women, be submissive” or “there is no male or female; we are all one in Christ Jesus” becomes clear as we clarify our principles of interpretation.
Practice. Deacons were chosen in the early church to be the servants of the church, primarily to watch over the widows. We need to ask ourselves who in the church best models the incarnation of the Living God in our church family and community. The deacons of the church, elected or not, will be not only in the board room but also in the sick room and the nursery, the associational food pantry and the halfway house, comforting, encouraging, meeting needs. The pastor may officiate at a ceremonial “Lord’s Supper,” but it is the women of the church who most often serve the fellowship meal of God’s people. The pastor may baptize new converts, but the women of the church have often nurtured a young faith and helped it to grow into confession and baptism.
So what are we to do? We can ask ourselves if our church as the local expression of the Body of Christ really wants to be organized on a model of elitism and hierarchy, so that certain members are excluded from full membership. If we exclude women, we have to ask ourselves on what other bases do we exclude: Race? Physical handicap? Age?
Economic resources? The list could go on.
Whether a church is 100 years old or a new church start, that body of believers is divinely called together by God to be the Church in that place. The Kingdom of God needs the service of all its members. The Kingdom needs also the perspective, insight, wisdom and faith of each member. The local church has the opportunity to reflect that understanding of the Kingdom by electing to the deacon board faithful, servant-minded women, for a start.
Rev. Lydia Barrow-Hankins is an ordained minister commissioned by the International Mission Board. She is one of the missionaries who may refuse to sign the 2000 BF&M.
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