Awakening to Biblical Egalitarianism

by Dr. James Willingham

In these days of recovery of the Reformation and its theological perspectives, we find that we face a complementarianism that is careless, thoughtless, and lacking in historical research.  One of the major failures of the complementarian position is the failure to recognize that authority is a function of position, not a given that is hard and fast, never to be question, examined, etc.  We have forgotten that even the King was under law, the argument of Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex.  We have also forgotten that the ekklesia is a body members who are considered to be equals.  Beginning with the Greeks, it was incipient democracy.  We have also forgotten that the Pilgrim congregation was an outgrowth of a Separatist movement in the Church of England which recognized that every member in the church had a part in the government of the said body.  In other words, we have the beginnings of congregational government.

Congregationalism came to full flower in America with the Puritans and the Baptists in particular.  John Robinson, the pastor of the Pilgrims who did not make it to America and who did participate in the debates over the Synod of Dordt, handed us a key to the intellectualism of the Bible, when he declared, “Who knows what new light is getting ready to break forth from God’s word?”  His question raises the issue of whether there are not depths to the ideological nature of the Bible that we have yet to recognize, let alone fathom.

In 1985 I was serving as chairman of the Historical Committee of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, and I decided to examine the case for women in ministry as it appeared in the form of “Eldresses” in the Sandy Creek Baptist Association in the 1700s. Sadly, the records that would have shed some light on that issue were gone, supposedly burned in a fire, when the home of the clerk of both the Sandy Creek Church and the Sandy Creek Association burned circa 1800.  As late as the fifties, one of the arms of the original Sandy Creek Church, the Rock Springs Baptist Church, burned its records, when the deacons felt that African Americans would try to integrate the church, claiming that they had been members of it during the time of slavery.  I must admit that I suspect that there was someone else who did not want the facts known about the theology and the practices of the Separate Baptists.  The wholesale removal of records seems to have taken place among the oldest churches.  One pastor carried off the records of May’s Chapel, and the Mormons (?) supplied the records of the Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church which was organized in 1814, had messengers present at the Association in 1816 when Rev. Luther Rice was present to enlist the Association in the Great Century of Missions.  The first missionary of Southern Baptists to China, Rev. Matthew T. Yates, was converted and called from that church, and the church also supplied a crucial bit of evidence about the beliefs of Separate Baptists.

I had to reconstruct the case for eldresses from reason and from the writings of a Puritan (remember that Shubal Stearns was from a Puritan Congregational Church in New England).  Rather than present the full argument, I will cut to the chase and say that the Puritan Commentator, Matthew Poole, provided justification for recognizing the ministry of women.  He declared, concerning Paul’s comment in I Tim. 2, “I suffer not a woman to teach or to usurp authority over a man, ” this is true, except she be a specially called gifted and endowed person such as…and he named all of the prophetesses of the old and New Testament.  At this distance my memory recalls that he said, “Not to hear one so called and gifted is tantamount to not hearing God Himself even as not hearing a man so called and gifted.  But this might be a failure of memory as I could have been arguing the point as a reasonable deduction from the facts.

In any case, the Baptist and Congregational churches provided a school for learning democratic practices.  Thomas Jefferson is reported to have said that a Baptist Church near his estate in Virginia was a veritable school for learning democracy.  Seems that God was preparing this land for more freedom from biblical precepts and practices.

There is more.  There is, for example, the possibility that mankind might go to the stars, especially as we view our Lord’s statement in Matt. 24:31 where He speaks of the Angels gathering the Elect from one end of the (definite article in the original) heaven (starry) to the other.  There is more, but perhaps the most interesting to me has been to find that the ideological structure of the concepts of the Bible seem designed to produce a balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic personality in the believer, making the witnesses of Christ His best subliminal persuasives for the Gospel,


About dr. james willingham

B.S. Ed. Lincoln Univ., Mo., '67; M.A. (American Social and Intellectual History) (GPA 3.7) Morehead State Univ., Ky. '71; work toward a Ph.D. in American and Black History, 6 hrs. Univ. of South Carolina and 12 at Columbia Univ., NY, Spring and Summer of '71 respectively; M.Div. '74; D. Min. '76 Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, NC; M.A. '88 Liberty Univ., Va, (counseling). Honors: Phi Alpha theta - the International Honor Society of Historians; Pi Gamma Mu - The National Honor Society of Social Scientists Graduate Assistant, Morehead State, '69-70; Lecture: The Stanley Elkins Thesis: A Critique. Summer Afternoon Lecture Series Columbia University, Summer '71; Instructor, South Carolina State College, 1970-72 (taught 4-5 sections in American History. taught one course in Philosophy, Spring of '71), Adjunct faculty" Richmond Community College, Rockingham, NC 1985, taught two quarters of Political Science. Thesis for M.A. in American Social & Intellectual History: "The Baptists & Ministerial Qualifications:1750-1850." Prospectus for Doctoral Dissertation at Columbia University, Summer of '71, "The Baptists and Slavery." Instructor Seminary Extension: Greater Gaston Baptist Association, Gastonia, NC, 2002-2004. Taught Systematic Theology, Baptist History, Church History, Preaching, Isaiah, Hebrews Introduction to New Testament Theology. Pastorates: Pilot Knob Baptist Church, Belle, Mo., '62-64; Elston Baptist Church, Elston, Mo., '65-66; Gum Springs Baptist Church, Moncure, NC., '72-83; Heritage Baptist Church, Rockingham, NC, '84-96; Interim, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Casar, NC, 1/2001-3/2001. Chairman, Historical Committee, Sandy Creek Baptist Association, '77=81; Chairman, Historical Committee, Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, '85-86. Annual Sermon, Sandy Creek Association, 1981 Lecture: "The Genius of Orthodoxy: Eldresses." BSCNC. Delivered as Chairman of the Committee Fall of '85. Play: The Mirror of Our Past. Visual History of Jersey Baptist Church
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