Convention vote widens gender divide

TORONTO, ON-Once again the role of women in leadership was cause for heated debate among Fellowship Baptists meeting for their 50th annual convention in early November.

Delegates representing the 496 member congregations of the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada (FEBCC) have been contending the role of women for several years.

In 1997 the denomination passed a position paper proposing a complementarian (women excluded from certain teaching and leading roles) view of gender roles in its churches. It argued the office of pastor/elder/overseer should be restricted to qualified men but did not say churches had to comply.

This year, delegates attending the convention voted on an amendment reading:

"In the New Testament, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is gender specific. Therefore, in Fellowship Baptist churches, this office is for qualified men recognized by the local church for oversight of the doctrine and practice of the church."

Narrow defeat

The amendment was narrowly defeated by seven votes.

"The vote was thrown into confusion by questions," says FEBCC president Terry Cuthbert. "The following day some were asking if it should be null and void."

The division over gender is causing several congregations great concern, especially those where women are serving in leadership roles. Some at the convention say churches with co-ed leadership teams have disregarded a matter of biblical truth and the role of women in the offices of pastor and elder should not be open to discussion or biblical interpretation.

Carolyn Zielke, children's pastor at Bramalea Baptist Church in Brampton attended the FEBCC convention with senior pastor Ian Campbell. New to her office, Zielke says power and authority rather than experience, educational preparation and job titles are the crux of an issue. She believes what's really at stake is people's ministry needs.

The role of pastor implies spiritual care, Zielke adds, while the role of children's director suggests a focus on program direction to care for the spiritual needs and development of children.

"Most children are not going to approach a senior pastor [about a concern or spiritual question], but they will approach someone who is identified as their pastor," explains Zielke. "My validation comes from the Lord."

Others, however, were in favour of the amendment, including Wes Clow, senior pastor at West Park Baptist Church in London. There, women serve as Sunday school and day camp teachers, and coordinate food for church funtions.

"Our feeling is that the Bible doesn't leave a place for women to take a pastoral role in the church," says Clow. "For us that also means the roles of elder and deacon."

Open to both

David Ens, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, a congregation in Desbarats, Ontario supported the amendment but says the role of deacon could be open to both sexes.

"I felt what we were voting on was basically church autonomy," observes Ens.

Bernard Malouin pastor of Baptiste Évangel in Montreal, comes from a different perspective. Women at his church are involved in church accounting and serve as deaconesses.

"Women do a great job in our churches," says Malouin. "They serve well. Everyone is useful." He voted yes to the amendment because, "In the Bible, God tells us we have pastors, overseers, elders and deacons whose mandate is to give spiritual leadership."

The national council is now considering whether to revisit the gender issue with another vote at next year's convention, after the narrow defeat of a motion that asked them not to do so.

The possibility of revisting the issue yet again troubles some people.

Harold Fuller, a member of Melrose Baptist Church in Toronto and an ordained pastor, attended a symposium at Heritage College and Seminary on October 25 about the role of women in the church. He says presentations of complementarian and egalitarian (ministry depending on spiritual gifts, not gender) were "objective, Bible-based and scholarly."

Scriptural concern

However, he is concerned by some pastors' understanding of Scripture.

Last May, Fuller presented a discussion paper to the FEBCC national council regarding the proposed amendment. Passage of a bylaw, he wrote, to make gender restrictions "a test of fellowship" would be like passing bylaws on issues such as pre-tribulation and post-tribulation rapture. Fuller advocates "at least two years of in depth study" about the wording and translations of the biblical passages in question.

"In the absence of clear biblical restrictions, it seems incongruous that males should legislate how females use their gifts in the church," says Fuller, adding he does not want to be called an egalitarian or complementarian because"labels" have polarized debate.

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