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Eva Henley

Commentary: Mother—a deacon in heaven

For more than 30 years, my mother, Eva Aldredge Henley, advocated for the ordination of women deacons and pastors in her West Texas Baptist church. But that still hasn’t happened. She didn’t live to see this happen—at least not on earth. One of her church friends wrote in the memorial service guest book, “She’s a deacon in heaven!”

Jann Aldredge Clanton 185Jann Aldredge ClantonFor 90-plus years, Mother prayed, along with Christians around the world, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our Creator’s will for her finally was done in heaven.

But why not on earth as in heaven? Why didn’t the churches she served so faithfully for so many years give her the freedom to become all she was created to be in the divine image while she was on earth? Far too many churches still deny the divine image in women by denying them the right to be deacons, pastors or priests.

Dedicated Christian, faithful church member

All her long life, Mother was a dedicated Christian and faithful church member. She taught Sunday school 82 years. The Sunday before she went to heaven, she taught her class. That class, “Any and All,” is aptly named, because she not only welcomed all to her class but actively sought them out. She invited anyone she saw—from the grocery store cashier to waiters at restaurants. Her class members have been of five races, various ages, genders and economic backgrounds—many who don’t feel comfortable in other Sunday school classes and churches. She lived Jesus’ words: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

She ministered to a diversity of people also in her role as pastor’s wife in four churches. Like my father, she had a seminary degree and abundant pastoral gifts. Her gregarious personality, dynamic speaking voice and exceptional leadership skills made her every bit as qualified as my father to pastor a church.

But she served churches as an unpaid, untitled outreach worker, events organizer, educator and development officer. She co-founded a missions organization and led mission trips to eight countries, including 46 mission trips to Ukraine. She raised money for missions around the world. In addition, she ministered to students 25 years in her position as a high school English teacher.

Not “qualified” to be ordained

In spite of her long, faithful service, churches did not consider her “qualified” to be ordained as a deacon or a pastor because she was a woman. They ordained men half her age and younger with far fewer gifts and far fewer years of dedicated service. They counted them worthy and qualified because they were men. But no woman, no matter how gifted or called or how faithfully she served the church, was deemed worthy and qualified—simply because she was female.

Sadly, churches’ discrimination against women is still widespread. This discrimination has consequences. In a Baptist Standard article titled “How Do Evangelicals Enable ‘Locker Room Talk’ about Women?” Editor Marv Knox calls out “male-dominated patriarchal” evangelical churches that contribute to “rape culture” by treating “women as objects” instead of as “creatures of infinite worth who bear the image of their Creator.”

He writes: “Women are the backbone of the church, but in most congregations, they are not allowed to exercise leadership equal with men. Few allow women to be deacons; fewer still allow them to be pastors. So, no matter how many times they tell their daughters, ‘God made you, and you can be anything God wants you to be,’ they don’t mean it. Girls and women have their limits.”

Human rights violation

President Jimmy Carter writes in A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, “Discrimination and violence against women and girls is the world’s most serious violation of human rights,” and he points out the religious basis for this discrimination and violence: “There is a system of discrimination, extending far beyond a small geographical region to the entire globe; it touches every nation, perpetuating and expanding the trafficking in human slaves, body mutilation and even legitimized murder on a massive scale. This system is based on the presumption that men and boys are superior to women and girls, and it is supported by some male religious leaders who distort the Holy Bible and other sacred texts to perpetuate their claim that females are, in some basic ways, inferior to them, unqualified to serve God on equal terms.”

A Baptist Sunday school teacher more than 70 years, Carter gives thorough biblical support for the equality of women: “There is one incontrovertible fact concerning the relationship between Jesus Christ and women—he treated them as equal to men, which was dramatically different from the prevailing custom of the times. The four Gospels were written by men, but they never report any instance of Jesus’ condoning sexual discrimination or the implied subservience or inferiority of women. It is ironic that women are deprived of the right to serve Jesus Christ in positions of leadership as they did during his earthly ministry and for about three centuries in the early Christian churches. It is inevitable that this sustained religious suppression of women as inferior or unqualified has been a major influence in depriving women of equal status within the worldwide secular community.”

Discrimination has consequences

Churches’ discrimination against women has consequences. Our recent presidential election is a striking example. The majority of evangelicals and Catholics voted for a man who denigrated and abused women through his words and actions, even bragging about sexually assaulting women. This majority of evangelicals and Catholics didn’t value women enough to find this candidate’s behavior reprehensible enough to keep them from voting for him. Their churches have taught them that women are not really worth that much, not worthy enough to be ordained deacons, pastors or priests.

So, it’s little wonder they don’t think a presidential candidate’s misogynist words and deeds are a big deal. And since their churches have taught them women are not qualified and worthy to be deacons, pastors or priests, they don’t believe a woman, no matter how qualified, is worthy to be president either. They have learned well what churches, through words and actions, have taught them about the inferiority of women.

How long, how long will churches contribute to discrimination and violence against women by denying them freedom to fulfill their calling to be deacons, pastors or priests?

Now more than ever, I feel the urgency of the mission of Equity for Women in the Church, an organization I co-chair with Sheila Sholes-Ross. Equity for Women in the Church is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society. Since the fall of 2013, this ecumenical, multicultural organization has been working toward justice and equality for women and girls.

We work to tap all the unused talent and training of culturally diverse women. We advocate and network for women across denominations and cultures so that they have opportunities to fulfill their calling to be deacons, pastors or priests. We work to change churches so they affirm the divine image in women and girls as making them worthy and qualified to be included as equals in every aspect of ministry.

Love demands it. Scripture teaches it. Jesus modeled it.

As a “deacon in heaven,” Mother continues to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—our Creator’s will for women to have equal freedom to become all we’re created to be. I’d like to believe that as Mother now has this freedom in heaven, she may be able to help make it so on earth.

Jann Aldredge Clanton is a retired hospital chaplain and former university professor.

Editor’s note: Eva Henley would have celebrated her 99th birthday July 16.

       
 
 
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