The Rev. John O. Peterson nominated Mary Williams Wair as a deacon at the South Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria because of "her dedication to God and the community." But Peterson knew he was bucking tradtion.
After Wair's nomination, and during the three months of instruction and prayer leading to ordination, Peterson even warned Wair that, because of her sex, some people "would like to know just who she thinks she is."
Peterson ordained Wair as a deacon this fall, making her the first woman to hold that post in a black Baptist congregation in Northern Virginia. Soon afterward, Peterson became the center of a controversy that has focused on equal rights and biblical interpretations.
The controversy climaxed last week when Peterson was ousted from the Alexandria Baptist Ministers' Conference, a group of 17 ministers from Alexandria and Fairfax County that Peterson helped found 14 years ago. f
In a letter dated Dec. 5, the Rev. Arthur Preston, president of the conference, told Peterson that he was being ousted "specifically because of (your) ordination of a woman as a deacon, and added that the "conference considers it unorthodox and contrary to the teachings of the Baptist Church." c
Preston, who is pastor at the Oakland Baptist Church in Alexandria, said this week that the vote was 10 to 3 to expel Peterson. He said the expulsion was based on two factors: Peterson's ordination of Wair and his "refusal to cooperate with the conference members."
The conference, according to both Preston and Peterson, tried three times to meet with Peterson after the ordination. Each time, Peterson said, he objected to conference members' reluctance to meet at the Alfred Street church.
Preston said Peterson's refusal to meet anywhere except at the church was a "totally unreasonable attitude on (Peterson's) part."
The conference, Preston said, based its decision, in part, on First Timothy 3:12, which states, "Let the deacons be the husband of one wife, ruling their children and their houses well."
Peterson disagrees with the conference interpreatation, and points out that the question of literal versus figurative interpretations of the Bible has been a hot topic among theologians for several centuries.
"You have to remember," he says, "that God didn't come down and write anything.He inspired men to write -- in a male-dominated world.
This whole thing comes down to equality. Is any part of humanity any less equal than any other part of humanity?
According to state and national Baptist leaders, the problem of the role of women in the church has long been resolved in favor of equality for women. "We have had women pastors and deacons in the Baptist church for some time," says Bob Tiller, a policy advocate for the American Baptist Conference.
But church leaders also point out that, in the Baptist community, each congregation is "fiercely autonomous," leaving many decisions, such as Wair's case, up to local churches.
Wair says there was no opposition to her ordination from her fellow church members and believes the conference decision was regrettable and unfair to Peterson. "The people (in the church) just love (Peterson)," she says. "I think the conference will suffer by losing his leadership."
William M. Willis, chairman of the church's Board of Deacons, agrees that Wair's ordination was supported by the congregation.
"There is complete harmony among the church membership on her appointment," Willis says.
Wair's case does not mark the first time Peterson has put his beliefs about equal rights into practice. Last year he licensed Doris Ashton, a 21-year-old member of the church, to preach. Although licensing gives Ashton no official duties, such as serving communion, she is allowed to present sermons when requested by Baptist congregations. Ashton now is studying for the ministry at Virginia Union College in Richmond, where Peterson serves on the board of trustees.
Peterson said he believes the Ashton case helped pave the way among his own church members for Wair's ordination. "Most of the questions the congregation had about the role of a woman in a church were answered when Doris was licensed," he said.
The local Baptist conference, however, had several questions about Wair's ordination. Peterson said he first sensed the conference opposition to the appointment after conference members were invited to the church early this fall and asked for their advice on the appointment.
"No one showed up," Peterson recalls.
Peterson says he is convinced that jealousy played a role in the decision by the conference. In the 15 years that he has been pastor at Alfred Street, church membership has doubled, and the congregation recently broke ground for a new $1 million church next door to its present location.
"Have heard that some people are envious of what we have accomplished here," he said.
But Preston, who says he and Peterson have been friends for many years, Scoffs at that idea. "We would still like to come to grips with him and reason it out," Preston said, "but he has really, really hurt every member of this conference deeply."
Wair, a 47-year-old teacher who lives in Landover, Md., says the controversy has not weakened her resolve to serve as a deacon.
In no case, she says, will she resign her post. "There is no reason to, just to satisfy a bunch of outsiders," she says.
Peterson says he will not appeal the conference decision. Although he does not plan to bring the matter before an upcoming meeting of the Northern Virginia Baptist Convention, he expects the convention to continue the local debate over a woman's place in the church. "I haven't been thrown out of (the convention) yet," he says, "but I expect to be."