Christian Ethics Today

My grandmother was a senior pastor

By Patrick R. Anderson

Editor Patrick Anderson

The craziness in the church seems never to end. I thought the inanities underpinning certain “doctrines” would have dried up and blown away by now. Controversies which should have been long since settled seem to erupt over and over again, like zombies brought back to life. The Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the most tradition-bound bastion of Christianity, still forbids women from serving in priestly roles. The Southern Baptist Convention, another tradition-bound hierarchical church system, follows suit.

In 1997, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by John Paul II, stated that the church is bound by Jesus’ choice of apostles. The 12 disciples were all men, after all. Therefore, it stands to reason that “the church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason, the ordination of women is not possible.”

Not to be out-done, in the year 2000, Southern Baptists adopted a revised Baptist Faith and Message Statement that decreed, among other inanities, that, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Previously, they had laid the charge that because Eve had been the first to sin in the Garden of Eden, women were excluded from pastoral ordination. Catholics found a mandate in the choice of first disciples by Jesus; Southern Baptists found the mandate in Creation stories and the writings of Paul.

Now, in 2021, the same two organizations are focused on the gender of pastors and priests, and oblivious to matters of real concern.

My grandmother was a preacher — after she was saved, that is, at the age of 39. Prior to that, among other dubious endeavors, she ran roadhouses, brothels, “hideouts” in the Florida swamps for runaway criminals and deadbeat dads, and smuggled rum from Cuba into Tampa Bay and West Palm Beach.

It was in that environment she raised her son, her only child, my father. She never married, never worked for any man, and was a strong independent woman. He, too, was saved shortly after she was when he was 19.  Both grandmother and daddy were preaching within months of their conversions, finding audiences on street corners, WPA work camps, jails, brush arbors, and Heming Park in downtown Jacksonville, Fla. Their enthusiasm could not be contained.

After he was “better trained” by local preachers in Jacksonville (men who later founded Luther Rice Seminary), Daddy objected to his mother’s preaching, saying the Bible forbade such. I remember their arguments about that. I can see Daddy standing in our hall where the telephone sat on a small table, next to the kitchen. It was easy to hear her talking loudly into her phone and, of course, my daddy was always easy to hear. I remember his leaning against the wall, angrily saying, “Mother, it’s just not right! The Bible says only men can preach!”

Grandmother, just as loudly, said “You’re wrong! My calling does not come from you and I don’t need your permission. My calling comes from God!”

When she persisted in preaching wherever she could, Daddy’s friends joked and ridiculed the both of them, saying, “God called him to preach, but she answered!”

When the Baptist church leaders in Jacksonville refused to allow her to preach in churches, she loaded her car and went to Harlan County in Kentucky, having heard that preachers up there were scarce. She preached to coal miners and mountaineers in areas too far from towns and too hostile to outsiders for the numerous timid men preachers to risk it.

I remember hearing stories years afterward of her having modified an abandoned chicken house into a church building and preaching in regular services. She baptized men, women and children in a local stream.

Then, somehow she heard of people in the bayous of Plaquemine Parish in Louisiana who lacked proper medical care and who the preacher-men had decided were too isolated and too troublesome to preach to. So, she took her message and some medicines in a small pirogue into the tributaries of Cajun Country and ministered to both bodies and souls.

Then, when I was a small boy, she returned to Jacksonville. In failing health, she found a hospitable congregation in the Church of the Nazarene, and it was there she preached until she was overcome with cancer and died in 1959 at the age of 60.

I do not remember arguments about the impropriety of a woman presiding over the ordinances of baptism and the “Lord’s Supper,” but that too must have been a bone of contention for my father and his preacher friends. The very idea!

Grandmother, just as loudly, said “You’re wrong! My calling does not come from you and I don’t need your permission. My calling comes from God!”

I wish I could talk with her today about this zombie issue. I could not participate in the discussions (arguments!) between my grandmother and my dad at the time, as I was too young. I am sure she pointed out the various Scriptures alluding to women preachers. They have settled the issue I imagine in the Land Beyond, now that they are reunited there, but I would love to hear them on this issue.

Catholic prelates and their equals in Southern Baptist life proclaim inanities such as, “We are all preachers, but the role of senior pastor is for men only.”  Senior pastor?  The title was unknown in my grandmother’s day and will be found nowhere in Scripture. Pastors were called preachers in my grandmother’s day. The parsing of terms which places new wrinkles on suppressing women called by God would be lost on her. But one thing is for sure: she would not be intimidated by them.

In a salient example, once in a Southern Baptist church in a place far away, after the sermon and during the singularly Baptist invitation time, an increasingly restless congregation stood singing innumerable verses of Just as I Am while the preacher-man stood on the main floor in front of the pulpit, urging congregants to respond to God’s call. He appeared to be in earnest conversation with a young woman who had walked the aisle. She whispered in his ear that she was responding to the call of God in her life to preach. The perplexed preacher-man replied to her offer of surrender to that call by saying, “Surely you must be mistaken. You must feel God calling you to be a preacher’s wife!”

My grandmother was strong enough in her mature body and young faith to withstand such intrusions between the Holy Spirit and free persons. My wife, my daughter, and my granddaughters, if feeling the call to preach, would be strong enough as well. And, I pray that if God should call any one of them to preach that she would be strong like my grandmother and say to any self-absorbed preacher-man standing in her way, “My calling does not come from you and is not dependent on your permission. My call comes from God and I can do no other!”

The women in my life can be anything they want to be: writer, scientist, doctor, lawyer, judge, astronaut, senator, CEO, police chief, plumber, fighter pilot, diplomat — you name it. Any of them can do whatever her inclinations and abilities permit. Who among us would tell her, “No, young woman. Your gender prohibits that aspiration.” But if God Almighty calls her to serve as a preacher (and what a gifted preacher any of them could become!), she would first have to hear objections from men in Southern Baptist or Catholic life which would seek to dissuade her, to convince her that she was not qualified for God to give her such a calling. What arrogance to dispute God’s call!

What foolishness!  The world is literally on fire and Catholic bishops and Southern Baptist preacher-men are declaring whom God can use and whom God cannot use.

Sometimes I imagine a newly deceased gender-limiting preacher reaching the portals of heaven and being asked by the Savior, “What have you done for me while you were on earth?” I imagine that preacher-man thrusting out his chest and replying proudly with a wink and a nod, “I kept the women from preaching, Lord!” The preacher-man would expect to be congratulated, patted on the back and told, “Well done! Come on in! I’m proud of you, son!”

That’s what he would expect. But somewhere along the streets of glory he will meet a preacher-woman named Betty Anderson. She will help him understand the error of his ways.

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