I REMEMBER HER green dress. She stood in center stage, shoulders barely clearing the pulpit. She was preaching, except the Southern Baptist Church didn’t call it preaching. As a missionary returning from two years in Jordan in the mid-1980s, Martha Bumpas was giving her “testimony.”
Bumpas was, I think, the first woman I heard speak from the pulpit. She sounded so full of hope. As her friendship with my family deepened, God’s calling on her life deepened too. She began to pursue a calling into full-time ministry.
Her timing proved poor. In 1988, Dorothy Patterson delivered a paper at the annual meeting of what was then the Southern Baptist Historical Association that articulated a “biblical theology of women’s submission to men’s authority,” as historian Elizabeth H. Flowers tells it. Patterson’s sharp wit—despite her historically inaccurate argument—won the Southern Baptist day. Ten years later she won again, this time on the floor of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting as she fought for the inclusion of language on women’s “gracious submission” in the Baptist Faith and Message, the repository of doctrine for Southern Baptists. Patterson succeeded in narrowing options for SBC women like Bumpas: Baptist seminaries deterred women from master of divinity degrees and, by 2000, pushed them out of preaching classes. Only men were deemed biblically fit to serve as pastors.