WASHINGTON -- President James T. Draper of the Southern Baptist Convention, trying to bring some measure of unity to the oft-feuding and always contentious denomination, says Baptists should agree to disagree on the issue of women's ordination.
But as local associations and state conventions of the nation's largest Protestant denomination meet, the issue of ordaining women as deacons and pastors is increasingly coming up -- always intensely, sometimes angrily.
An effort was made in the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association to exclude messengers (delegates) of the Cornell Baptist Church because it had recently called a woman, Susan Wright of Louisville, Ky., as its pastor.
The effort to exclude was blocked in Chicago, but in Oklahoma City, the Capital Baptist Association did vote not to seat messengers from Oklahoma City First Baptist Church because the church allows women to serve as deacons.
And in Vallejo, Calif., messengers from three Southern Baptist churches were denied seating at the Redwood Empire Baptist Association meeting over the ordination issue.
'I don't believe the Lord requires me to have an opinion on that in order to be saved,' Draper said of the women's ordination issue.
'We are going to have differences at some points, but those differences should not and must destroy the unity of spirit that is ours as born-again believers,' Draper told 13.8 million-member denomination's Home Mission Board.
As with other major Protestant bodies, the issue has been simmering in Baptist circles for years and involves questions of local churches' authority over their own affairs, the nature of Baptist fellowship at the association and convention level and how the Bible is variously interpreted.
'I see no place in the Bible where it speaks of ordaining women,' said Robert Oldham, a professor at Moody Bible Institute and the author of the motion against Cornell Baptist Church at the Chicago meeting.
The challenge to Cornell and Ms. Wright was also carried to the Illinois State Baptist Association meeting in early November, but again defeated.
In California, however, the vote not to seat 18 messengers from three churches went 'about 84-54,' according to Bill Ryan, the associational missionary.
He said that in 1982, the association agreed ordination of women deacons by a local church would not be a test of fellowship (membership) in the association but it went on record as saying it did not believe in or promote such ordinations.
The decision to reverse itself and make the women's issue a test of fellowship caught at least one of the three California churches by surprise.
'Our practice was well known in the association,' said Fred Grissom, interim pastor at Tiburon Boulevard Baptist Church in Tiburon. 'We thought since the association did not make it a test of fellowship last year there would not be a problem this year.'
Tiburon, which has two women deacons on its staff, draws much of its membership from Golden Gate Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif.
Ryan, in commenting on the California association's reversal, said women's ordination has never been a practice of Baptists. 'We better come back to the Biblical norm of practice. I'm against ordination of women.'
In the Oklahoma case, the controversy erupted despite efforts by the involved church and some association executives to avoid the issue.
The 209-101 vote not to seat messengers from Oklahoma City First Baptist Church was taken even though the church did not ask to be seated, deciding it wanted to 'avoid emotional conflict, debate and division,' according its pastor, Gene Garrison.
First Baptist was charged with 'deviation from the faith and order position of Southern Baptists' and with creating 'a rift in the fellowship of the churches of the Capital Baptist Association.'
But Don Rogers, pastor of Kelham Baptist Church, a supporter of the church, said the argument that 'traditional' Baptist doctrine is against ordination of women is simply rhetoric because Southern Bapitst churches have been ordaining women deacons for more than 100 years.