Good News at Wolf Creek
by Bill J. Leonard
Bill J. Leonard is William Walker Brooks Professor of American Christianity at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 2, 1984, p. 455. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The evening was cold; the ordaining council a relatively standard Baptist gathering of preachers, deacons and other leaders of the Wolf Creek Baptist Church in Wolf Creek, Kentucky. Seated next to the blazing fire, the candidate, a recent graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, seemed adequately prepared for assorted questions about God, the universe, and other things.
After prayer, we began with that basic Baptist inquiry: Describe your conversion to Christ and your call to the ministry. The candidate’s response was vintage Southern Baptist: Born in a Christian home . . . grew up in the church . . . father a pastor . . . converted at age five . . . “walked the aisle” . . . public profession of faith . . . baptized. Nurtured in Baptist organizations: Sunday school . . . youth camps . . . Girl’s Auxiliary . . . revivals. Constantly urged to make total commitment to Christ. . . follow him wherever he might lead. Adolescent rebellion . . . “rededication” to Christian living . . . a growing sense of God’s call to “vocational Christian ministry” . . . a period of struggle . . . finally, a “surrender” to God’s call to ministry. . . a call to preach the gospel.
There it was: a moving account of private call and public response typical of Southern Baptist ordinands since 1845. The difference was the gender of the candidate. Cindy Harp Johnson is a product of Southern Baptist piety. She listened to teachers and preachers, to parents and revivalists, and simply did what they said she must do: commit her life to Christ and follow his will wherever it might take her. She had concluded that faithfulness to God’s will involved a call to pastoral ministry. She asked merely that the people who nurtured her in the faith recognize her response.
The Wolf Creek Baptist Church did just that. The council voted unanimously to recommend her ordination by the congregation. Few Southern Baptist churches would do so. Indeed, the question of women’s ordination may be the catalyst which ultimately brings schism to a diverse and increasingly disoriented denomination. On that issue, questions of Baptist piety and dogmatism collide.
Southern Baptists carry their piety close to the heart. For years, personal experience with Christ transcended doctrinal precision in most SBC congregations. The essential question was not “What do you believe about Jesus,” but “Do you know Jesus, personally, in your heart?” Personal experience, a continuing relationship with Jesus Christ, was the bulwark of Southern Baptist evangelism, against which the gates of hell seemed unable to prevail. “When Jesus asks you to do something you must do it,” Baptists taught their young people. The titles of hymns of invitation tell the story: “I Surrender All,” “Only Trust Him,” “Just as I Am,” “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go,” and “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go, Dear Lord.”
It was inevitable that Southern Baptist women, nurtured on this kind of piety, challenged to this kind of commitment, would respond to the call to ministry. None of these women who have sought ordination remembers being told that there was one call they could never hear or one commitment they could never make. Thus Southern Baptists can look to their own teaching and piety for the cause of the increase in the number of women seeking ordination. They have simply taken their Sunday school teachers, pastors and parents at their word: “If you believe God has called you to do something, do it, no matter what others may say.”
Dogmatists are now trying to pass a series of disclaimers through the state and national conventions. “Do whatever God commands.” they insist, “unless you are a woman and feel called to preach.” In the short run, they may succeed in getting such resolutions passed. Given our democratic polity, they have a right to try. My suggestion, however, is that formal resolutions are too little, too late. These proclamations will affect a few seminary graduates and denominational employees. But to deter women’s ordination in the long run, the dogmatists must transform Southern Baptist piety altogether. They must change the way we tell our children about faith, salvation and discipleship. They must bring their disclaimers to bear on Sunday school teachers and youth camp leaders. They must place limitations on the way Southern Baptists describe and live out the ways of God in the lives of human beings. They must teach us to sing “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go, Unless . . .”
And that is why the legalists are doomed to failure. Our piety is too deep, our sense of divine providence too profound. I realized that at Cindy Harp Johnson’s ordination service. Wolf Creek Baptist Church is no liberal, urban congregation peopled with seminary professors and other theological pinkos. It is country -- situated on Kentucky Route 228 just above the Ohio River. Its congregation is hard-core Southern Baptist, meeting in a nice brick building with a picture of the Jordan River painted behind the baptistry. The members are farmers, homemakers and retired people -- and to the last one they voted to ordain Cindy Harp Johnson to the gospel ministry.
The ordination service was a moving experience. Cindy’s sister played the piano, her mother read Scripture, her brother-in-law sang, her father gave the prayer, her husband presented her with a Bible, and two of her professors, one male, one female, preached.
But it was the laying on of hands that convinced me that Southern Baptist piety is stronger than dogmatism. Cindy knelt and the ordained preachers and deacons initiated the rite of the laying on of hands. Then, since the congregation authorizes ordination, all the members were invited to participate in that powerful symbol of “setting aside.” They came, young and old, men and women. The formal laying on of hands turned into emotional embraces. Tears flowed freely. Then I caught sight of an old woman hobbling her way to the front, bracing herself on first one pew, then the next. It was Miss Ethel, the matriarch of the congregation and the personification of Baptist feminine piety. She reached out for Cindy, hugged her close and said, “I love you, honey, and I’ll support you, whatever you do.” There was not a dry eye left in the place.
If they want to stop women from seeking ordination, Southern Baptists must give up much of their devotion. If they do, they may give up something of the Spirit as well.
After the service, we adjourned to the basement for a lunch the likes of which you would expect in a rural church. Leftover hugs and tears went well with fresh green beans and turnips. At lunch I heard the people speak of this woman the way they would of any decent minister: “I don’t know how I would have made it this year if she had not helped me.” “Her sermons mean so much to me.” A deacon said it best: “We don’t think of it as ordaining a woman. We’re just ordaining a minister.” Out at Wolf Creek Baptist Church, just off Kentucky 228, that’s the Good News.