A church historian discusses her perception of recent SBC actions
Priscilla Papers thought it would be helpful in this discussion of the Southern Baptist Convention and women to ask for her perspective on issues that are related to the recent changes to SBC faith statements.
What Practical Effect Has The Southern Baptist Convention’s Call For A Wife To “Submit Graciously To The Servant Leadership Of Her Husband” Had?
Too little time has passed to quantify the effect of the 1998 amendment on Southern Baptists. From a study of church history, though, I reckon the effect will be gradual, but real. The emphasis in structuring homes will be on submission rather than on servant leadership. Whenever the “headship” scriptures get trotted out to support a hierarchical family structure, lip service is given to the role of the man, but the focus is on the submission of the woman.
While recognizing that real differences exist between men and women, using Scripture this way affirms the traditional view that women are inferior; therefore, they must be submissive. High-sounding rhetoric covers pages and pages of justification for a strong stance in favor of a strict hierarchical model, but the words boil down to God made men better than women. As youth grow up in a church with this teaching, they will accept it and create a hierarchical family structure.
Now The SBC Says, “While Both Women And Men Are Gifted For Service In The Church, The Office Of Pastor Is Limited To Men As Qualified By Scripture,” Based On 1 Timothy 2:9-14.
Using this passage to justify restricting the pulpit to males highlights a major issue in the debate over what the differences between men and women mean before the Lord. A basic hermeneutic I learned at seminary was that you don’t base a major doctrine on a disputed passage, and this is certainly a disputed passage. I find it interesting that the committee chose not to include verse 15, in which you learn that women earn salvation by having children who grow to adulthood in the Lord. At least that is the “literal” interpretation of this verse.
Each fall I give the students in my “Women in Christian History” class a copy of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 from the CEV, and ask them to explain verse 15, which is the natural closure to the passage and the climax of verses 13 and 14. They hem and haw and finally come up with good allegorical interpretations, because they know salvation is not based on making babies. Interpreters through the years have played with this verse to make sense of it. Verse 15 is crucial to this passage, but the SBC committee left it out. To me, that makes the entire passage problematic—not just because of the committee’s sexist interpretation, but because the passage itself needs careful study and interpretation. You don’t base doctrine on unclear, disputed, strange Scripture.
Furthermore, everyone ignores or de-emphasizes what doesn’t fit with their personal theology and stresses what does, even when reading the Bible. In our world, women wear jewelry and don’t braid their hair; but those are not issues in most SBC churches. Those injunctions can be safely ignored. The injunction for women to keep silent, verse 11, is also ignored in Sunday school, children’s programs, and music programs. Only when speech is seen to carry authority, as from the pulpit, is it restricted to men—by this interpretation.
I often ask my classes what would happen to the local church if women took injunctions to silence seriously. Without exception, the students respond that the churches would collapse with no women teaching, singing, or doing anything else that calls for vocalization. If you intend to interpret the text literally, then do so—women should have no vocal part in church, not just “no preaching.”
First Timothy 3:2 Is Also Used To Deny Women As Pastors.
A crucial hermeneutic I try to teach my students is that they must gain the skill necessary to evaluate when a text presents an eternal principle imbedded in the culture of the first century and when the text is stating clearly an eternal principle, period. I read 1 Timothy 3:2 as an eternal principle imbedded in the verse rather than on the surface. For me, the verse means that a church overseer should exemplify faithfulness and moral rectitude, as the spouse of one person and faithful to that one person; and the use of the terms “husband of one wife,” in the Greek, simply gives us the accepted mode of conveying instruction in the first century. The point is the principle of faithfulness. The SBC committee understands the verse to mean a man, of one wife.
I have asked folks who hold to the male leadership model why they ordain unmarried teenage boys to the ministry when the text says they should be married. They respond that the boy has the “capacity” to be married to a woman. When I point out that their understanding is not a literal reading of the text and ask why the text cannot focus on the issue of faithfulness, they tell me I just don’t understand the passage. Somehow, movement away from a literal reading is okay, but moving to a principle of faithfulness is not!
It Would Appear That Women Are Excluded From Ephesians 4:11.
The gifts of the Spirit are gender blind. From Joel 2:28-32, echoed by Peter in his Acts sermons, we know this. The sbc committee interprets
Ephesians 4:11ff. through the lens they created to interpret 1 Timothy 2:9-14—one that prohibits over half of God’s children from exercising their spiritual gifts. The text gives no justification for assignments of gifts by gender. To say that God wouldn’t give the gift of prophecy or evangelism to a woman is ludicrous, because God can do what God chooses to do, and the Bible tells us so. We humans assign authority to certain positions in the church—God does not. God assigns responsibility, not authority. God gives gifts, not secular power. God equips the saints as needed, and that equipping is gender-blind.
Do You See Long-Term Effects Of This That Could Affect The Size Of The Denomination Overall?
The attitude toward women makes up only one part of the changes in the denomination that will affect its identity and size. Many bright, committed ministers, of both sexes, have left because of the intransigence of the leadership and the movement away from mainstream Baptist life where each person is responsible and accountable to God for understanding Scripture, exercising his or her spiritual gifts, and witnessing to the truth. I doubt overall numbers will drop much, if at all. Being part of a creedal church, with only certain interpretations of Scripture accepted as “truth,” being told exactly what to believe and do—characteristics of the new SBC model—attract some folks. They repel others. At the end of the day, I expect the SBC will stay about the same size; it will simply have a sizeable chunk of new folks and lost a lot of mainstream Baptists to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and other denominations.
I feel most sorry for girls growing up in the new denomination because they will be denied role models. As long as the “women’s issue” remains a flashpoint for sbc leaders, the literature, preaching, public pronouncements of that leadership will target the issue. In other words, benign neglect of girls will be replaced with overt training of girls and boys in this new way of relating to God: men as leaders and women as subordinates.
I may be paranoid, but I think a deliberate effort will be made to implement church education, to instill the current
Quoted without comment
“In recent years, our enemies have clearly demonstrated the disaster which follows when freedom of thought is no longer tolerated. Honest minds cannot long be regimented without protest.”
—Harry S Truman, April 25, 1945
Court: Women May Pray from Torah
JERUSALEM—In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that women may read aloud from the Torah at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.
A panel of three judges reinterpreted a law governing Jewish holy sites and lifted bans on women praying from the Torah scroll, the Jewish holy text, and wearing the prayer shawl traditionally worn by men at the holy site. Before the ruling, a woman could face a six-month jail sentence for violating the ban.
—Quoted in The Ledger, May 23, 2000 leadership’s understanding of men and women in the minds and hearts of the church members. The “uppity” women’s issue is easily seen as a litmus test for being a “real” Southern Baptist—or a “liberal” who doesn’t believe the Bible! In the hardline churches, and from the denominational press, I expect to hear and read the negative ramifications of these decisions for years.
What Implications Do You See In The Revised Wording Of The Preamble To The “Baptist Faith And Message” To Remove Belief In “Soul Competency” And “The Priesthood Of The Believer”?
As an advocate for religious freedom, and as a church historian, I abhor the direction the sbc has taken on this issue. In 1985, the San Antonio SBC messengers, in a close vote, passed a resolution [#5] claiming that the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible held more validity than the church member’s. The SBC leaders, and many “want-to-be” leaders, years ago adopted the corporate America model for running the church; they became the CEOs of their congregations. Growth and wealth defined success, and financial size became equated with the size of God’s blessing on a church, its leaders, its ministry. The mainstream Baptist doctrines of soul competency, and the priesthood of the believer/s, go against the CEO model. In some other Christian traditions, the pastor or priest is the only interpreter of Scripture, not the average layperson. This is not the historic model for Baptists. But then, the current SBC has few and tenuous ties to mainstream Baptist heritage.
The movement toward authoritarian control of the church by the pastor, both in fiscal and spiritual areas, goes against Baptist doctrine and life, but it is understandable if the laity refuse to accept responsibility for their church and its work. For many folks, it is easier to pay someone to do the work and make the decisions than it is to accept personal responsibility for the church. Adrian Rogers’s statement of “clarification” affirms the CEO mentality.
As A Historian, Where Do You Think This Is Coming From? And If Women Have A Call To Pastoral Ministry, What Might They Do If They Want To Follow The Will Of God?
I think this current movement arose from real theological and polity concerns that stretched across the religious landscape of our country in the 1970s. The break-off of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the redirection of the SBC echo one another as efforts to “make” the church what it is supposed to be. Martin Marty and Edith Blumhoffer’s work on the fundamentalism project shows a shift toward conservatism in all major world religions, not just Protestant Christianity.
Women ministers in the SBC will have to decide if they can do their God-given task within the new framework. Many will believe they can and will continue to be ministers with labels of “director.” The women who pastor Southern Baptist churches already work with folks who reject the current standing of the sbc; I don’t see their lives changing much. The churches they pastor must now decide whether to remain with the sbc or align with the CBF or another denomination. These are tough and painful issues that some churches will face. Others, because it is easier to be told what to do than figure it out for yourself, will continue to fund the national organizations because that’ s what they’ve always done. And those that don’t buy into the new “Baptist Faith and Message” will do nothing until they are told they cannot be Southern Baptist churches unless they sign on the dotted line, and implement these teachings at the local level.
A friend reminded me recently of an old adage that seems appropriate. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and slowly increase the temperature to boiling, it will stay in the water and die—it doesn’t perceive the change as dangerous. The temperature in the SBC is slowly rising. I don’t know how many frogs will die and how many will jump out.
What Long-Term Effects Of All This Do You See?
I believe the long-term impact of the revisions will prove deleterious to the women in the SBC. As a freshman at the University of California at San Diego, I took a seminar on social justice. One day a student commented, “You can’t legislate morality.” The professor looked at the student and said, “No, you cannot legislate morality. But law becomes habit and habit becomes morality.” In the future, people in the SBC will accept the restrictions placed on the expression of women’s spiritual gifts as “God-given,” because “we’ve always done it that way” will be their major criterion for judging these restrictions. Habit becomes morality or, in this case, propinquity over time becomes theology. Over time, men and women—never forget that anything affecting one sex automatically affects the other—in the SBC could surrender their responsibility to “rightly divide the word of Truth” for themselves, give up their accountability to God for their own decisions and beliefs, and refuse to use their spiritual gifts if the sbc says those gifts cannot be used. This is, of course, a worst-case scenario, and no one knows where the sbc will eventually end up.
For the immediate future, I hurt for the girls, young women, and women of the denomination who feel the slightest “call” to ministry. I hurt for the couples working to honor God in their lives, not allowed to enhance the strengths and shore up the weaknesses of one another because the sbc understands families can only operate in one way, God-husband-wife-child. The autonomy of the local church may or may not be compromised by the shift in the sbc. In churches with pastors who see themselves as CEOs—and the churches accept this model—if the pastor goes along with the sbc, the church will. If the church has a traditional servant-leader model for pastor, the congregation will have to decide whether to stay in the sbc to support missions or to join cbf or another group, or to become independent. Churches that support the theological position of the sbc leaders have already given up their traditional autonomy. They have accepted the idea of a hierarchy of authority, ability to interpret Scripture, and to order the church. So, the step to subscribing to the 2000 “Baptist Faith and Message” as a creed, to accepting the dictates from Nashville as “gospel,” is a short one. Within the new environment, if a church does not conform to the leaders’ theological position or understanding, then the church is not truly “Baptist.” I perceive an undercurrent going all the way back to the Landmark movement in Baptist life in the 1800’s, a current that teaches that if you aren’t “Baptist” as I define “Baptist,” then you aren’t really Christian.
Is There Hope For Leadership From Future Generations?
I am pessimistic about the possibility of the younger generation channeling the current movement into the direction of mainstream Baptists. If church leadership and congregations commit to the theology, polity, and sexist positions of the current sbc leadership, then a younger generation that thinks differently would not be comfortable in the system. Such a generation would have no support for their position, and would not know enough of the mainstream Baptist heritage to draw upon people like Luther Rice or Kathleen Mallory for inspiration or teaching. The current SBC has no mechanism to teach Baptist tradition (well or badly), and if your only interpreter of the tradition is a pastor who has bought into the current rhetoric, how will the younger generation know anything different, much less feel strongly enough about the difference to try to change the denomination?
Baptist history is like a pendulum that swings from extreme to extreme, resting in the middle only momentarily. Right now, the SBC pendulum-arc is at the extreme of control and fundamentalism. How far the pendulum will swing in the other direction is impossible to say. What can be said with certainty is that the issue of who women are and what they can do in the work of the kingdom of God will, with many other issues, continue to be a point of disagreement between people who call themselves Baptist Christians.
I can also say with certainty that the whole argument grieves the heart of God. But because God’s interaction with us, as one of love and grace, moves us from brokenness to wholeness, from separation to cooperation, from darkness to light, from barriers to wide-open paths, from difference = subordinate/supraordinate to difference = equal freedom to express God’s gifts.