Pastor Susan Sparks: From Law to Grace

There aren’t many of us out there — lawyers who are now pastors.  Please try to refrain from thinking about a lawyer joke at this point!  To go from practicing law to preaching grace is a hard transition.  Just ask my wife, and she’ll be more than happy to let you know how hard.  So when I read about other lawyers-turned-pastors, I’m always intrigued by their journey.

One such journey involves Susan Sparks, Senior Pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.  I must confess that I had never heard of Pastor Sparks prior to reading an article she wrote which was posted on the ABP website on Friday.  Her post, “Opinion:  Female jet pilot?  Sure.  Preacher?  No.” analyzes the Southern Baptist Convention’s current stance on female pastors in light of the recent disfellowshipping of Flat Rock Baptist Church in Mt. Airy, NC from the local Baptist Association.

The church, which had been a part of the local Baptist Association or fellowship of churches since 1905, was kicked out two weeks after the church called a woman, 28 year-old Bailey Nelson, as their pastor.  In Baptist life, that’s quicker than a Baptist preacher can say, “pass the fried chicken!”  That’s pretty darn quick.  Rev. Sparks laments what she sees as the plight of many women within the SBC who, like Bailey Nelson and Susan Sparks, herself, were told that they were not welcome in the Southern Baptist Convention, at least not as Pastors.  Pastor Sparks shares one such childhood memory that has stuck with her, even after all these years:

I remember at an early age telling a vacation Bible school teacher that “I was trying to decide between being a minister or a jet pilot.” She smiled and said, “Well, girls can be jet pilots, but God only calls men to preach.”

While I personally believe that God limits the office of pastor to men (as qualified according to Scripture), I find it sad that Pastor Sparks is not welcome to preach share a testimony in her home church in Charlotte where she grew up.  Even though many SB churches “allow” women to share testimonies or sing in the choir or otherwise make noise in church services, the thought of having Susan Sparks (or any woman pastor) behind the pulpit would be too much to bear.  Who knows?  She might stop testifying and go on to preaching.  There’s a bright line that we must protect at all costs!  We wouldn’t want anyone who is not qualified (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) to deliver God’s Word in a worship service, now would we?

Within Southern Baptist life and culture, there is no question that women in ministry — particularly women serving as Senior Pastors — is one of the most highly contentious issues that we find ourselves arguing about.  And, while I may argue for a male-only pastorate, there is at least one female pastor that I would not want to get in an argument with — Susan Sparks.

Whether you agree with her or disagree with her, Pastor Sparks persuasively argues for the full inclusion of women in the life of the church, including serving as Senior Pastors.  Even though she does not tackle 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 directly, she nevertheless addresses a few passages of Scripture that often times make for some of the most convoluted and pretzel-like arguments used against women serving as pastors.  Pastor Sparks critiques the inconsistent application in one such passage, 1 Timothy 2:11-12, where Paul says:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Not even addressing the historical context of this scripture which demonstrates these words were directed at marital issues and not ministry, there is a larger problem of selective enforcement. For example, that same passage also forbids women to wear gold jewelry or pearls. We don’t hear much about that section. I guess the SBC decided that would be too much to enforce on us bling-lovin’ southern sisters.

Some will argue that Susan Sparks should not be referred to as a Pastor or Reverend.  It seems that calling her “the lady” is all that Christian charity and grace require for some of the brethren.  I suppose that’s because she’s not qualified to be a Pastor according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.  If we want to start enforcing all those Scriptural qualifications before referring to someone as “pastor,” there are probably a lot of male pastors that would lose the title fairly quickly over issues unrelated to gender, but I digress.

I gotta say, I don’t know that I would want to try to enforce anything on such a “bling-lovin’ southern sister” who has been transplanted to NYC.  What a combination.  And, what a combination that Pastor Sparks brings to her calling — a lawyer-turned-pastor.  You just never know who God will bring from law to grace!


8 comments for “Pastor Susan Sparks: From Law to Grace

  1. August 14, 2011 at 11:41 PM

    “To go from practicing law to preaching grace is a hard transition.”
    – I know someone who became a pastor. According to him, its not difficult

    • August 14, 2011 at 11:54 PM


      That maybe true, but the hardness of the transition happens when spouses or families do not understand how you could give up the practice of law to enter into full time Christian ministry. In one sense, my transition from lawyer to pastor was easy. When I surrendered to God’s call, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off of me and I had a sense of peace that only God could give. In another sense, the transition was hard because my wife and I left our home town, our families, and moved 1,000 miles away to attend seminary. That’s what I was getting at. But, preaching grace — that is easy and a joy! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. God bless,


  2. Tom Parker
    August 15, 2011 at 6:19 AM


    I think it would be interesting to know how the exclusion of women in most positions of leadership in the SBC was achieved.

    How many people were at the 2000 SBC, how many voted on the 2000 BF&M, etc?

    As the Mayberry situation showed even some Association are willing to use the 2000 BF&M to disfellowship churches, but it seems only when they call a woman Pastor.

    • August 15, 2011 at 1:09 PM


      Of course, this gets into the whole “confession vs. creed” debate. I well remember one of the Deacons in my home church in Florida (a conservative, non-fundamentalist First Baptist Church) who was a history professor at the local community college. He would often tell me that Southern Baptists are “not a denomination and that we are not a creedal people.” It took me a long time to understand what he meant, but I think I know now better than I ever have. I was one of about 10,000 messengers (I’m guessing) who attended the SBC meeting in 2000 in Orlando. I was serving as an Associate Pastor of a church in the Kissimmee area. Although I voted for the passage of the BF&M2000, I have reservations about how it has been used at times like a creed. I suppose if it is going to be used like a creed for doctrinal conformity or “purity” at every level, including the local Association, it should at least be used consistently. However, were it to be employed in situations other than female pastors, I think that you would have such a mess on your hands that it would make the average church business meeting look like a tea party! 🙂 Thanks and have a great day,


      • Tom Parker
        August 15, 2011 at 2:06 PM


        If you knew the 2000 BF&M was going to be used as a creed like it currently is would you have voted for it?

        BTW, it can be used against women preachers but nothing else that sure seems inconsistent to me.

  3. Lydia
    August 16, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    Howell, Like your new look, btw.

    But I cannot find the “office” of pastor in the NT. It must be important so I was wondering if you could name the “pastor” of each church from the Epistles. (wink)

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