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Local church . The center of Baptist faith lies in the heart of the individual believer; the denomination has a weak theological basis for forming institutions. Of the several large active fellowships into which Baptists paradoxically join, only one is thought to be essential, based on biblical directive and example: a local congregation of the church. A primary function of this body is to bring like-minded people together for worship, which includes the proclamation of the gospel, singing, prayer, the observance of the Lord's Supper, and the recognition of new Christians by confession of faith and baptism. Historically Baptists have practiced other ordinances of worship (love-feasts, laying on of hands, feet-washing, the holy kiss, the right hand of fellowship, the dedication of infants and anointing of the sick), but these had fallen into disuse or had been abbreviated by mainstream Southern Baptists in the late nineteenth century.

Women's place in Southern Baptist worship services was described in a 1977 analysis by James and Marti Hefley as that of a

discriminated majority.
By preference of the men who run things, the women are to be seen modestly dressed in church and not heard,
the Hefleys explained, concluding that
about all women do [is] pray among themselves and collect money for missionaries.
James and Marti Hefley, The Church That Produced a President (New York: Wyden Books/Simon and Schuster, 1977), pp. 114, 116. This book was a response to Jimmy Carter's election to the presidency. The authors are correct about Baptist women's faithful attendance and about their comprising a majority of the congregation, if somewhat short-sighted about their contribution to the service.

Although Baptist women have always been visible in the local church as worshipers, their level of participation has varied. The earliest Baptists—left-wing English Protestants—were thought heretical for their extreme doctrines of personal liberty and congregational autonomy; some of them embraced total freedom in the Holy Spirit and elevated the rights of the laity to such an extent that women preached and served as deaconesses (ordained church officers or ministers). Particularly was this true during the 1600s when the conflict between state and free churches was most intense. During the 1700s, women were not as likely to take public roles, and they were even less likely to do so in the 1800s. Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), pp. 28-37. By that time the denomination had moved closer to the center of the culture and the culture defined women's proper sphere in terms of Queen Victoria's prim, maternal model.

Baptists in the United States represented both Arminian and Calvinistic wings of the Reformed tradition; in the South, "General" Baptists held to free-will convictions and "Particular" Baptists stood firmly for Calvinistic theology. By the mid-eighteenth century the latter group had prevailed in imposing the discipline and order of their tradition on the oldest congregations in the middle colonies and along the southern coast. These groups, who became known as "Regular" Baptists, generally limited the church functions of women to voting and giving their testimony of conversion. Ibid., pp. 39-40.

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Source:  OpenStax, Patricia martin's phd thesis. OpenStax CNX. Dec 12, 2012 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11462/1.1
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