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Published Date: June 22, 2023

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The Bias of History and the SBC

As summer launched, my husband and I ramped up our binge on history. We’re relishing podcast episodes of The Rest is History,[1] and loading up on the classics. Because of their enduring impact for good, we also sent copies of Christian classics to family members. Our niece received an unabridged Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and our nephew is enjoying Adam Mako’s Devotion. Fingers crossed and praying the leading characters mentor their lives by example.

As you can sense, we’re on a crusade to learn from the past. After all, Scripture itself is an account of God acting in the lives of ancient peoples, an ever-present God that moves among and speaks to women and men throughout history. Even so, there is a growing trend towards thinning and even silencing God’s nearness and power in every age. Here’s what I mean.

Too often, historical accounts of biblical leaders are cited as if they’re mere wise sayings, fictitious stories, or fables to get us through tough times. Women are particularly subject to the “bias of history”—that women were minor rather than major figures in leading movements throughout history. Consider Thecla, whose story is told in the Acts of Paul and Thecla.[2] A coworker with Paul, she was one of the great leaders of the early church. Her tomb in Turkey is one of the most treasured by Christians worldwide and was visited by Egeria[3] in the 4th century.[4] Thecla’s achievements clearly served as a model to both women and men of her day. Over time, however, her history was hidden as an apocryphal story until murals were discovered of her with Paul outside Ephesus in 1998.[5]  Imagine what Christianity would look like today if Thecla’s story had been properly preserved. The account of Thecla and others are precious windows into God’s presence, guiding lives in circumstances common to us all.

While history matters enormously, it’s gasping for air not only in churches but also in today’s colleges and universities. The New Yorker recently published an article called “The End of the English Major.”[6] Examining the defunding of the humanities, coupled with a drop of students enrolled in these courses, the article cites an English professor at Harvard who said that students arrive “at college with a sense that the unenlightened past had nothing left to teach.”

What does this have to do with egalitarians?

The neglect of history that suppresses women’s achievements to align with patriarchal assumptions is noted in denominational seminaries like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). After passing the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000,[7] SBC seminaries doubled down on their assumptions that women were not and could not have been leaders in Scripture or history based on their flawed reading of biblical texts like 1 Timothy 2:11–15. The influence of Southern Baptists at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) on this point is well noted. As I have published elsewhere:[8]

In 30 years of quarterly journals (1988-2018), only 38% of the issues had one church history article, and 24% had none. Of all the church history articles published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (JETS) since 1988, 2.0% concern women or women’s issues, a figure that shows remarkable consistency across the JETS book reviews concerning history (2.7% about women) and ETS’s history-related conference workshops (2.1% on women) and plenaries (0% on women). In all formats combined, women’s history accounts for 2.3% of ETS’s output since 1988. Of these articles, book reviews, and presentations, 80% are from an egalitarian perspective. In 30 years of scholarship, not a single complementarian has published an article in their journal concerning women in church history.[9]

Pointing to this challenge, Rick Warren published “My Apology to Christian Women” last week on Twitter.[10] Citing his deep regret for a gender bias that had held women back from their God-given calling, Warren realized the many “hermeneutical rules” he had been violating, including “Never build a doctrine on a single word that is used only once in scripture!” He eventually started reading commentaries that upended his sexist assumptions. Tragically, he said, no “seminary told me that those commentaries even existed, and Baptist Bookstores refused to carry them . . . so I accepted the interpretation that was most comfortable for me as a man with my background.”[11]

As George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”[12] An ignorance of history is fortified by an unwarranted confidence in the values of “my tribe,” which are reinforced in echo chambers disengaged from the ancient traditions that once formed vibrant Christian communities.

Consider CBE’s history. Egalitarians, among the early evangelicals,[13] and those who labored one hundred years later, recovered women’s neglected history in tandem with a robust exegetical treatment of the so-called “difficult passages.”[14] In doing so, they resuscitated and illuminated Christ’s power in women leaders, demonstrating that women in every era accomplished more than most people dreamed or imagined possible. This history is not mere fable, nor positive thoughts, nor unenlightened dogma from the past. On the contrary: it is God’s power moving in the lives of God’s people, dismantling slavery and women’s subjugation, unwinding lies and evil to further human flourishing in the Spirit’s power.

Recovering the history of women leaders, evangelists, deacons, church planters, teachers, and apostles cited not only in Scripture but also memorialized in archaeology and extrabiblical documents demonstrates how leadership is based on the Spirit’s anointing (Rom. 12:3–8, 1 Cor. 12:8–10, Eph. 4:7–13). Women throughout Scripture and history exhibit spiritual gifts and callings as leaders. God gifts believers according to God’s pleasure, and every gift comes with the duty to fan them into flames (2 Tim. 1:6).

Women worldwide continue to be demeaned because their history is not equally known or celebrated—in fact, it’s often intentionally obscured. For this reason, CBE’s next international conference will elevate women’s history and leadership. Consider this a call for papers. If you have a history of Christian women that needs telling, tell it! We’ll convene CBE’s next international conference in Denver, Colorado, July 26–27, 2024 with the theme “Tell Her Story: Women in Scripture and History.” Our hope is to inspire a renewal and trust in God’s power, active in the lives of women who did lead, and whose leadership resulted in much human flourishing.[15] Save the dates, and together we’ll follow the words of Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” In bringing women like Thecla out of the shadows of history, we celebrate God’s power working in their ministries so that together we can imitate their faith.

Photo by Nadim.alex at Arabic Wikipedia on Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, hosts, The Rest is History (podcast), accessed June 21, 2023, https://play.acast.com/s/the-rest-is-history-podcast.

[2] The Acts of Paul and Thecla, trans. Alexander Walker. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886), available at Kevin Knight, ed, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla,” New Advent Fathers, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0816.htm.

[3] Egeria was the Rick Steves of her day. She popularized early Christian heroes by visiting their ancient sites and documenting her discoveries. Her book, The Pilgrimage of Egeria, remains in print today. See Egeria, The Pilgrimage of Etheria [sic], M. L. McClure and C. L. Feltoe, eds. and trans., (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1919), Christian Classics Ethereal Library,https://www.ccel.org/m/mcclure/etheria/etheria.htm.

[4] Iza, “Saint Thecla Church and Cave in Silifke,” Turkish Archaeological News, January 12, 2017 (January 3, 2017), https://turkisharchaeonews.net/object/saint-thecla-church-and-cave-silifke.

[5] “Thecla: Fearless Apostle,” Know Your Mothers, https://knowyourmothers.com/thecla-fearless-apostle/.

[6] Nathan Heller, “The End of the English Major,” The New Yorker, March 6, 2023, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/03/06/the-end-of-the-english-major.

[7] “Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” Southern Baptist Convention, https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/.

[8] Haddad, Mimi, “History Matters,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Cultural and Practical Perspectives, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 11–35.

[9] Haddad, Mimi, “History Matters,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Cultural and Practical Perspectives, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 12–13.

[10] Rick Warren, “My Apology to Christian Women,” Twitter, June 10, 2023, https://twitter.com/RickWarren/status/1667620086251925505.

[11] The Canadian Press, “Saddleback’s Rick Warren Ramps Up Appeals to Southern Baptists to Let Church with Women Pastors Stay,” Richmond Sentinel, June 12, 2023, https://www.richmondsentinel.ca/article-detail/35418/saddlebacks-rick-warren-ramps-up-appeals-to-southern-baptists-to-let-church-with-women-pastors-stay.

[12] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949), 309.

[13] Mimi Haddad, “Egalitarian Pioneers: Betty Friedan or Catherine Booth?” Priscilla Papers 20, no. 4 (2006), 53–59, https://www2.cbeinternational.org/CBE_InfoPack/pdf_files/haddad_egalitarian_pioneers.pdf.

[14] Ruth A. Tucker and Walter L. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women in Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1987). See also Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman. One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), and Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic 2016).

[15] Even business research shows that women and men teams are more ethical, competitive, and productive. See David Rock and Heidi Grant, “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter,” Harvard Business Review, November 4, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter.

Related Resources

Fearless Women in Church History: Rereading Thecla’s Story
Video: Women at the Margins: Leaders in Christian History
It’s Time to Follow Beth Moore Out of the SBC