Making a Statement

When I was teaching English at Dallas Baptist University, I read All We’re Meant to Be: A Biblical Approach to Women’s Liberation, by Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty. This book changed my life. Although I had claimed my professional vocation, I had never questioned biblical interpretations that prescribed the subordination of women at home and at church. Not until I read this book did I discover that anything could or should be any different. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique had come out more than ten years before, but I’d never heard of the book or raised any questions about women’s traditional roles. As I read All We’re Meant to Be, I found more than enough biblical support for gender equality. In my evangelical church tradition, the call to gender justice could reach me only through the Bible. Recently co-authoring Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends with my friend Dr. Kendra Weddle, a religion professor at Texas Wesleyan University, I recalled how the copious scriptural evidence and clear theological reasoning in All We’re Meant to Be transformed my life with new revelations of the rightness of gender equality.

Several years later, I witnessed these revelations becoming flesh. When I was thirty-one, Dr. Raynal Barber, my friend and colleague in the English department at Dallas Baptist University, and I went to a worship service at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas. Martha Gilmore was being ordained, one of the first women in the South to be ordained by a Baptist church. We heard a sermon from Ephesians 2 on breaking down walls of prejudice that divide people, applying this text to breaking down centuries-old barriers keeping women out of ministerial leadership. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw a woman kneeling before the church as a long line of people—women as well as men—passed by to lay hands of blessing upon her. Before this night I had seen only men ordaining only men. The message I internalized was that this was a male ritual from which women were forever excluded. Now something new was happening. A woman was receiving the sacred blessing. From somewhere deep within my soul, I felt the rightness of it.

The service ended, and people started leaving the sanctuary to go to the reception in the church parlor. I sat transfixed, not wanting to leave this holy place. Raynal turned to me and said, “Jann, one day we’ll be going to your ordination. I see the way you relate to students, as a minister as well as a teacher.” I gave her a shocked look and replied, “Oh, no! I’ll research, write, persuade, give chapter and verse to support the ordination of women, but I wouldn’t want all the criticism and struggle Martha has gone through.” I just wanted to do all I could to support women’s ordination; I didn’t want to be ordained. But the prophetic word could not be unspoken. Holy Wisdom continued to call my name.

Eight years later, Raynal stood at my ordination service at Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, to read these words of the prophet Habakkuk: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . . If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come” (2:2-3, NRSV).

Rev. Martha Gilmore preached the ordination sermon, proclaiming that I was “the vision made flesh, the vision that God indeed calls women to ordained ministry.” Martha declared that I had also become “a statement, a promise for many women and men and a hope for many women who may be frightened to hear God’s call.” It helped to hear her bless me as a “statement” because that word had been used negatively in reference to me and other women who had chosen nontraditional paths. People had tried to dismiss me by saying, “Oh, you’re just trying to make a statement.” I realized that we were in a time in history when statements about the worth of women needed to be made. And these statements need to be made today as much as ever.

The post originally appeared in When God Whispered My Name: Stories of Journey Told by Baptist Women Called to Ministry.

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