As the Southern Baptist Convention met in Dallas, stories of sexual abuse raised questions concerning the denomination’s teachings about women.
The signs said “Jesus Never Shamed Women” and “Misogyny is Bad Theology.”
Under an oppressive noonday sun, 40 to 50 people, mostly Baptist women, gathered last week for a protest outside the Dallas Convention Center, where the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was holding its annual national meeting. The rally was organized around a simple demand: that the SBC honor and respect women “as Scripture teaches.”
Inside the convention center, the treatment and role of women was also on the minds of the nearly 10,000 messengers (SBC parlance for delegates). A top agenda item was a resolution titled “On the Dignity and Worth of Women.”
It might seem strange that such a resolution would be needed in a denomination where women outnumber men. But the male-led SBC — the second-largest Christian group both in Texas and nationally — finds itself in what one conservative leader, Albert Mohler, called “its own horrifying #MeToo moment,” precipitated by allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse levied against church leaders. The scandal is raising hard questions about how the denomination treats women, and especially its teaching about their “biblical” roles.
In April, SBC executive committee president Frank Page abruptly announced his retirement, reportedly due to a “morally inappropriate relationship” with a female member of a congregation he had pastored. In May, evangelist Beth Moore published a widely discussed open letter describing misogynistic behavior she’d encountered among men in the evangelical community. Then allegations surfaced that Paige Patterson, president of Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, had made “objectifying” comments about women and had mishandled cases of rape and domestic abuse. He reportedly wanted to “break down” an alleged rape victim and told her the sexual assault was a “good thing.” Though Patterson apologized for the comments and denied the allegations, he was ousted from his post on May 30.
Along with his mentor, retired Texas judge Paul Pressler, who now faces allegations of sexual misconduct toward several young men (allegations he too denies), Patterson helped to spearhead the conservative takeover of the SBC beginning in the 1970s.
The “conservative resurgence” culminated in the adoption of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. This belief statement declared the Bible inerrant, “totally true and trustworthy.” It also enshrined the doctrine of complementarianism, which holds that God created men and women to play different but “complementary” roles. The husband is to “provide for, to protect, and to lead his family”; his wife “is to submit herself graciously” to his leadership. And while other Protestant denominations, including United Methodists and my own Episcopal Church, began ordaining women pastors in the 1970s and 1980s, the Baptist doctrine states that only men can serve as pastors, though women can work in other ministries.
In the wake of the Patterson controversy, some Baptists are asking whether complementarianism is at least partly to blame. As Mohler wrote recently, is the doctrine “just camouflage for abusive males and permission for the abuse and mistreatment of women?”
Mohler argues that it’s not. Though the SBC must “realize there are unbiblical and toxic forms of complementarianism,” it won’t abandon the doctrine, he declared. Leaders of other Baptist seminaries doubled down on complementarianism last week, as did the newly elected SBC president, J.D. Greear.
Why the intransigence? Complementarians answer that they’re just following what the Bible teaches — especially “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22-33) and another passage (1 Timothy 2:12) that says women cannot teach or “have authority over a man.” Let’s call these the “complementarian passages.”
But the Bible is a big and complicated book, and Christians must often balance what it says here with what it says there. Another biblical passage declares that in Christ “there is no longer male and female.” This suggests to many Christians, including some evangelicals, the basic equality of women and men. And the New Testament lists numerous women in the early Church who may have worked as pastors.
For Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior, interpretation — not the Bible — is behind SBC’s current #MeToo moment. Though she and her husband try to live by the complementarian passages, she believes some SBC leaders have taken the doctrine too far. “[T]he church has too often assimilated the sexism and patriarchy of the broader culture rather than adhering closely to the beautiful truths of scripture,” she told me. The notion “that all women are to be submissive to all men,” she said, is simply not biblical, and “lead[s] to false teaching, misogyny and abuse.”
Rockwall author Mary DeMuth detected misogyny in the way SBC leaders organized the schedule of speakers at the Dallas SBC meeting. “Of 970 minutes of programming … only 12 minutes are allotted to a woman,” she wrote. “It’s hard to believe we are accepted and wanted when women are permitted to speak only 1.2 percent of the time.” She wants the SBC to become a place where “women have a voice and are no longer dismissed, stereotyped, or relegated to sub-committees.”
The Dallas gathering did pass the “Dignity and Worth of Women” resolution. It calls on Southern Baptists to “encourage” women’s “diverse gifts, callings and contributions” — though “in biblically appropriate ways.”
“It’s a great first step,” DeMuth told me last Tuesday. “The only thing I’m concerned about is that it had to be done in the first place. … That it even has to be said is what’s frustrating.”
“I think it’s needed,” said Jacki King, who serves in women’s ministry alongside her pastor husband in Sachse. Though she believes firmly in complementarianism, King says for too long the SBC has framed the teaching in negative terms. As she put it, instead of focusing on how women are using their gifts in the church, the SBC’s message has too often been “OK, you’re a woman, God loves you, but this is … your box” — her hands formed a small box shape — “and don’t go out of the box.” She hopes the SBC’s focus on women is “not just a talking point … not just something like ‘OK, we’re going to talk about it at convention and then go home and do nothing about it.’”
It’s unclear whether the SBC will move to fuller inclusion of and equality for women. But there is a precedent for a change in doctrine.
When the SBC first formed in 1845, it endorsed slavery on biblical grounds. And as Jeff Jacoby notes, “Well into the second half of the 20th century, Southern Baptist preachers defended Jim Crow and preached white supremacy.”
In 1995, however, the SBC denounced racism and apologized for supporting slavery and discrimination. Seven years later, it elected its first black president, Fred Luter Jr.
The denomination’s progress toward racial reconciliation was evident last week. An African American, Kevin Smith, executive director of the Maryland/Delaware Baptist Convention, opened the Dallas gathering with Bible reading and prayer. And the SBC disfellowshipped a mostly white Georgia congregation that had shown clear evidence of racism.
The SBC has repented of its past sins toward African Americans. But it’s taken more than a century.
I doubt that Baptist women are willing to wait that long.