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Southern Baptists and Their View of Women

An interview with Joe Trull

Last June 14, the SBC adopted a further revision to their doctrinal statement at their convention, this time disallowing women as pastors. Dr. Trull discussed with Priscilla Papers the history and effect of these revisions. That interview follows in condensed form.

Describe The Historical Factors Behind The Recent Revisions To The “Baptist Faith And Message” Document.

Historically, Baptists have pretty well reflected culture on this issue as they did on the race issue. Baptist women, as in most denominations, are vital to the church. Nevertheless, they have been pretty much relegated to a secondary role, To some degree, the movements of the late 1800s and 1900s gave more freedom to Baptist women, though—being mainly in the South—the Abolishionist movement affected Baptists less than the rest of the culture.

A few years ago, the group now in control tried to force our largest women’s organization, the Woman’s Missionary Union, which has always been independent of the Southern Baptist Convention, to become a part of the SBC so they could control them, and the WMU just flat refused.

The WMU began around the turn of the century when only men could vote in the SBC and, of course, before women had a right to vote in the U.S. The wives would come with the men but couldn’t attend the convention. When they didn’t have anything to do, some of the women suggested they get together to study missions and form a missions organization. And the men said, “No, that’s not your job” and wouldn’t let them have a place to organize. So the wives met secretly in Richmond, Virginia—in the First Methodist Church. And that’s how the Woman’s Missionary Union got started.

Is The WMU Related To The Lottie Moon Offering?

That’s another story. Our mission offering brings in millions of dollars; half of our foreign mission budget is supported by this offering yearly at Christmas—around $100 million annually, I think. It’s something every Southern Baptist church does, and they give sacrificially.

But since you brought her up, Lottie Moon was a single woman missionary to China. She is a good example of a missionary who became identified with the people, going to live amongst the Chinese people, wear their clothing, and so on. She sailed for China on Christmas Day in 1873, I think. She is an example of single women missionaries, who’ve always been sort of an oppressed class. I read an article just the other day that asked, “Would Lottie Moon be appointed today?” At a time when she felt limited and oppressed by what she could or couldn’t do, the author of that article asks: “Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure? She comes as a woman when, instead of the ever-broadening activities that she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls.”

Eventually she began to teach men, plant churches, evangelize—things women at home, and even missionaries, were forbidden to do. But she did all three in the late 1800s and started one of the largest evangelical movements in the villages where she worked until she completed her work in 1912. It’s interesting that she’s kind of a hero today. Yet her approach to missions was “unladylike” in that day.

But Baptists by and large have reflected the culture rather than challenged it. In my opinion, what we’re going through on this issue of women is similar to what we went through in the middle 1900s on race. We were using the same passages of Scripture then to defend, if not slavery, at least keeping black people in their place. These same arguments are used about keeping women in their place. Interestingly, though, we seemed to be getting beyond that slowly as we came of age on the race issue,

For example, when I was in college in the late fifties I had a woman Bible teacher at Oklahoma Baptist University named Rowena Strickland, one of the first women to get a doctor of theology degree from one of our seminaries. Among those she taught at OBU are some of the leading pastors of large Southern Baptist churches today. Some are very conservative. But nobody questioned or thought twice about it, or raised the issue. Now, forty years later, friends who teach at OBU tell me they have been needing some professors. But they say there’s no way a woman could even be considered as a Bible teacher there today.

Likewise the seminaries. Southern Seminary (Louisville) was probably the most progressive on this issue; they had a lot of female theology teachers, like Molly Marshall and others, who have since left. It wasn’t intentional as much as it happened in the normal way, as with gender-inclusive language, at the more conservative seminaries. Leaders were not speaking out against this or prohibiting it, but in the seminary where I formerly taught, we basically had one missions teacher who was a woman; but I’m not sure that could happen now. The only women teachers were in music, social work, youth ministry, or children’s ministry. There was no way a woman could be considered for teaching anything else—there were unwritten laws. Often the dean would say, “We don’t think that’s wrong [to have women], but our trustees just wouldn’t want it, and we don’t want to create a problem.”

We have regressed in the last forty years, and it’s been due largely to the influence of the ultraconservative leadership who took control of our convention, starting in 1980.

Baptist Faith and Message Article XVIII. The Family

God has ordained the family as the Foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to another by marriage, blood, or adoption.

Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God. Both bear God’s image but each in differing ways. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being “in the image of God” as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his “helper” in managing their household and nurturing the next generation.

Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth. Children are to honor and obey their parents.

Gen. 1:26-28; 2:18-25; 3:1-20; Ex. 20:12; Deut. 6:4-9; Josh. 24:15; 1 Sam. 1:26-38; Ps. 78:1-8; 127; 128; 139:13-16; Prov. 1:8; 5:15-20; 6:20-22; 12:4; 13:24; 14:1; 17:6; 18:22; 22:6, 15; 23:13-14; 24:3; 29:15, 17; 31:10-31; Eccl. 4:9-12; 9:9; Mal. 2:14-16; Matt. 5:31-32; 18:2-51; 19:3-9; Mark 10:6-12; Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 7:1-16; Eph. 5:21-33; 6:1-4; Col. 3:18-21; 1 Tim. 5:14; 2 Tim. 1:3-5; Titus 2:3-5; Heb. 13:4; 1 Pet. 3:17

How Did That All Come About?

A lot of conservative people who use inerrancy differently thought it was great that Southern Baptists were affirming the innerancy of Scripture. But they didn’t understand the politics or that for the leaders who took over the convention, inerrancy meant “Interpret everything the way I interpret it, or you don’t believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.”

In 1980, Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler, from Houston, looked into the SBC organization. Up to that time the presidency was more of a popular vote. Though the president had some duties, nobody thought of that as a political position. It was more finding someone to represent us. In 1980 they said, in effect, “If we can elect our person for ten years, and that person appoints a certain committee, which in turn the next year appoints another committee that in turn the next year appoints trustees—one-third of the trustees—then in ten years we can have the majority votes of all institutions.” And their plan succeeded. In essence, this ultraconservative faction, who had not been ostracized or excluded—they had been included at many levels, but never did they have the majority—figured out a way whereby they and those like them could take over. And they did. Their viewpoints first came out in 1984.

Remember, the Southern Baptist Convention is made up of autonomous churches who voluntarily decide to participate, and the SBC has no control over the churches. Most other denominations have some major control—credentials of pastors, or whatever. If you were to put the SBC organization on a graph, the local church would be in the center circle, and everything else—the state convention, the local association (like a county, a local area of churches)—in the outer circle. Some people think the SBC is a hierarchy, with the convention at the top, and that it controls the states, and the states control the associations, and the churches are at the bottom. But that is totally erroneous.

Some Southern Baptist leaders, in this takeover, began to issue their own statements about this. One Texas pastor said, “Listen, I want to tell you guys something. We don’t work for you. You work for us.” But the leaders have a lot of power. Through their trustees they control the budgets— millions of dollars—for home missions, foreign missions, seminaries, and other agencies. Yet having control of the trustees, they say, “This statement of faith has absolutely no binding power over the local churches.” Which is true.

But what they’ve done is take the statement of faith, once approved, and make it part of the policy of all the SBC institutions. So you can’t work for or be appointed by any institution—in foreign missions, home missions, seminaries—unless you agree to the statements. In essence, they’re indirectly affecting the churches, because they’re affecting seminary students; they’re affecting missionaries and missions. Their concern is the vote—not just the for the short term, but the long-term effect.

When the Southern Baptist Convention meets and acts, it approves budgets for these institutions and other things. But it also passes resolutions. Again, they’re not binding on any church. A resolution is an expression of that group of Baptist messengers, and they’re not told by the churches how to vote. Each person is supposed to vote his or her conscience. The resolution then is really just a statement by those attending of their conviction or belief about a subject.

What Happened In 1984?

The 1984 resolution was the beginning of a radical change in Southern Baptist attitudes toward women. At the 1984 convention they adopted a resolution that said Scripture excludes women from pastoral leadership. But a volcano erupted when they gave their justification. They said this rule was to “preserve a submission that God requires because man was first in Creation, and woman was first in the Edenic Fall—blaming women for initiating original sin in the Garden of Eden. They blamed women for sin! And the letters started rolling in, quoting Paul when he said, “In Adam all sinned.” They got into that whole debate about how sin came: Who caused sin, women or men? But it showed their superficial theology.

That was the first sign of where they were headed. It seems to me that one of their key concerns is to establish in Southern Baptist life a very definite role for women and their place in home, church, and society. Their rationale— so they say—is to uphold the inerrancy of Scripture. And I believe there are many who tend to think that if you don’t interpret all of these Scriptures rather literally, the first thing that happens is that you’ve lost the authority of the Scripture, and then you start interpreting everything not literally. They’ve often said that if you allow women, you’re going to allow homosexuals, and on and on.

The leadership in 1984 included Richard Land, director of what was the Christian Life Commission, now the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; he’s been on both committees. He was dean at Paige Patterson’s Criswell School of Theology, then for a year he was religious liaison for the Republican governor of Texas [William P.] Clements. Land was on both committees along with, of course, Rogers and Patterson and Patterson’s wife, and Al Mohler, the young Southern Seminary president, who’s a strong Calvinist. Patterson doesn’t like his Calvinism, but they’ve learned to live with each other. It’s a sad thing, but our convention is more like politics than it is like religious agreement.

In 1998 the family amendment to the “Baptist Faith and Message” was sprung on the convention. Before that, for the first three or four years, the moderates and middle-of the-road people—mainstream Baptists—said, “We don’t like all these politics and power plays. We don’t even want to get involved in it,” and they just stood on the sidelines. After about six or eight years they said,” It’s happening, and we’d better oppose this.” course, they started too late.

Finally they said, “We don’t like to play that game, but if that’ s the only way we can save our convention, we’ll do it.” For about five years, about 35,000 delegates attended the convention; now there are about 8,000 to 10,000. But every time the moderates raised up a large number to come, the conservatives had a person in most local associations in the area where the convention was being held, so they’d line up people and bus people in. Finally the moderates said, “It’s over. We’re tired of fighting all this. Just let them have it,” and they backed off.

Ever since then the conventions have been peaceful. That means the leadership makes a motion, everyone agrees, and there’s no more discussion.

Describe How Article XVIII Came To Be Adopted In 1998.

They came with this family amendment. And it’s subtle, because—if you read it quickly—it doesn’t sound all that bad; it has these nice statements. Their commentary on the statement is even more interesting. The statement isn’t that long, but the big one is the third paragraph (see p. 9). This statement on the family was published with commentary intended, they claim, to clarify and explain. Sometimes the commentary is even more revealing.

When you look closely at that paragraph, it obviously is attempting to define very specifically male and female roles. They always try to say that men and women are of equal worth, but in different ways. They say the wife is to “submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband,” while the previous sentence says the husband has “the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family.” In other words, the man is the provider, protector, leader. And the wife, after submitting graciously, is to respect her husband and serve as his “helper.” It’ s that Genesis thing. In the commentary, it says: “The term ‘helper,’ which is also used by God to identify Himself,” says the woman is “created to become a partner with the man. . . . There is no hint of inferiority,” but the term “describes function, rather than worth,” and so on.

It goes on to say the helper is to serve “in managing their household and nurturing the next generation.” So the wife’s role is to manage the household, take care of the home, and nurture the children. Basically, they’ve quickly defined that the wife belongs in the home, the husband belongs out providing, protecting, leading. Suddenly that lays the groundwork for men only in pastoral leadership.

Of course, they’re saying they are being “biblical,” though the word graciously is not in the Scripture, which just says “submit in everything.” I think that’ s their way of saying wives don’t just say “I’ll do it” and frown. They need to smile and be sweet about it.

Dorothy Patterson was asked, “What if your husband tells you to do something or not to do something you feel you ought to do?” and she said, basically, that even if her husband tells her to do something or not to do something she really feels she should do, she must obey him. And if it’ s right for her to do it, he will have to answer to God. If I’d been there, I’d have said, “Then you’re saying if God led you to witness tonight to a neighbor who needs Christ but your husband said, ‘No, I want you to stay home with me. Let’s have an evening together, and you can do that some other time,’ but if you really felt God wanted you to go witness and you think he’s wrong, you would obey him and not go.” I think she would say yes.

What she is saying is that she’s not accountable for the decision. That’s a wonderful position to be in! Let your husband answer to God; you don’t stand before the judgment seat of Christ—it’s your husband who made you do it rather than the Devil.

That’ s flawed theologically, and it’s flawed biblically. On both the 1998 statement and the new one [denying women pastoral ministry], this group will never acknowledge that the Bible needs to be either interpreted or understood in the context of that day. They hate the words cultural accommodation. For example, this new statement has some changes on the statement about the Bible. The 1963 statement says “all Scripture should be interpreted by Christ, and it is the record of the revelation.” They took out the word record—they said the Bible is not the record of God’s revelation, it is the revelation, that every word is a revelation, so you’ve got to obey every word.

In the Ephesians 5 passage, I think the key is understanding the context of that world and asking, “Are these permanent principles to be forever obeyed in the home and in the church? Or are these temporary cultural accommodations?” Of course, I think it’s the latter. But they would say that’s taking away from the Word of God, and that it doesn’t apply today. Interestingly, they left out slave and master. They had wife and husband and parent, but they didn’t go on to slave and master. If you look at that passage, the principle is Ephesians 5:21—mutually submissive to one another as unto the Lord. There is no verb in verse 22. Then the principle of mutual submission in verse 21 is illustrated in three categories: husband-wife, parent-child (in chap. 6), and slave and master.

Which You Pointed Out In The Preceding Article.

That is a key, because if you interpret this statement as a permanent principle, then you have to say slavery is affirmed, because Paul is giving words to slaves on how to obey their masters. It is as if he were saying: If women are to be submissive to their husbands, slaves must be submissive to their masters. Obviously, when you look at the total picture, it’s meant to be for Christians living in the first century. In these circumstances there was a certain household code that applied to husbands, wives, children, parents, slaves, and masters. “Here’s how to act in this world, in this day, in this circumstance,” Paul is saying: “as Christians. Here’s the kind of attitude you’re to have, here’s the kind of behavior that is Christian behavior in this circumstance.” So, biblically, it is flawed! In the June revision they talk about the office of pastor being limited to men as stated in 1 Timothy. In Catherine Kroeger’s book [I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence], she notes the key question is: Are these permanent principles for pastors for all time?

Of course, where it says women are to keep silent in the church, we do not obey this literally. But more than that, this passage was dealing with a local gnostic heresy in which female religious leaders in the Eve of Ephesus cult were claiming that Eve was created before Adam and women had a superior gnosis, a superior knowledge about God. Church women were going to these women priestesses to learn this deeper knowledge. So was Paul—which I think he was—trying to correct and confront this gnostic heresy that was threatening the Ephesian church? And in doing that—in the whole book you see it, particularly in this passage—he was saying Eve was not created first, Adam was created first. He uses that to illustrate how this heresy is false. So, biblically, I think it’s misinterpreted; theologically, it’s flawed. And practically, this returns to the ultraconservatives’ politics.

In 1962 the convention president selected the 24 presidents of the various conventions of the SBC, a pretty representative group. In other words, each state convention had the person they had already elected president appointed to this [study] committee, which spent a year looking at the 1925 “Faith and Message,” which had been based pretty closely on the New Hampshire Confession of Faith. They spent a whole year studying it, revising it some, and getting feedback. They sent copies to seminary people and asked, “Is this theologically correct? Is this biblically accurate?” They got a lot of feedback and information. They were very open, and they kept everyone informed. Finally, many weeks before the convention, they produced the document, which in 1963 was adopted as the 1963 statement of the “Baptist Faith and Message.”

At the beginning it says:

1. This is just a consensus of opinion of a Baptist body,

Lament for Eve

I really think it’s very sad
No! Not just sad, extremely bad
That Eve alone was blamed for years
And women oft reduced to tears,
Because she boldly took the fruit
And ate it, when the serpent spoke.
The Hebrew scriptures make it clear
Adam was with her, standing near.
Do you think that thus she would have dared
Had he her lust not fully shared?
Poor Eve, condemned thenceforth to bear
Within herself the painful share
Of ordained consequence! Yet worse
By far what men then did.

Earth cursed via Adam wrought corruption,
Hard work, much sweat and life’s destruction.
‘Tis clear that God assigned the blame
To him, as much as her, by name.

Yet men forgot that he stood by.
Conveniently there came a lie:
Eve was the temptress, she alone
Ever and always must atone!

—Olive Regina Anstice ©1989 meeting in 1963, of a compilation of Baptist beliefs—a confession, not a creed.

2. It is not a complete statement of faith.

3. Any group of Baptists, large or small, has the right to draw up their own confession. [The 1963 statement warned against using this statement as a creed or doctrinal requirement, recognizing the document was simply that committee/convention’s idea.]

4. The sole authority for faith and practice are Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, but confessions are only guides, have no authority over conscience, and certainly don’t supersede the Scriptures or the revelation of God in Christ.

5. They are statements of religious convictions drawn from the Scriptures and [notice this wording] are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life.

They go on to say these should never be used as doctrinal tests. This group has always said, and they say now, “We know these do not have any binding power on the churches.” But then they turn right around and use them as a prerequisite for employment, mission service, and so on. Every agency is now using these as litmus tests. You cannot get a job, you cannot work, you cannot be appointed a missionary unless you abide by and agree to the Baptist Confession of Faith.

And This Had Implications For You Personally.

There are various ways to word “you are leaving.” When I left New Orleans Seminary, I wasn’t fired; I was encouraged to consider or accept “early retirement,” and it was over this issue. The president of our seminary was on this new committee, and so when I left the seminary, I was just called in the day before my sabbatical was to start, and the president presented this possibility. It caught me off guard, because this was just before the 1998 family amendment came out, and he knew it was coming.

The president knew what I had written in my basic introduction to Christian ethics textbook. At the end of a chapter on gender and race, after looking at the biblical and theological and historical material, I deal with the issue of authority and submission in marriage. All of the seminary teachers had to come in and sign this new statement, and he knew if I came back a year later that some trustees would bring this issue to a head. He knew I’d either have to say I was wrong in my book or lie. So this all has a personal side for me in that it led to the early conclusion of my teaching.

But coming back to Article XVIII, adopted June 9, 1998, President Tom Elliff, who is pastor of a large Southern Baptist megachurch in Dell City, Oklahoma (where several ultraconservative leaders have been pastors, including Jimmy Draper of the Sunday School Board; Bailey Smith, who once had some words about Jews; and several others), appointed seven people—not twenty-four as in 1962. And how representative were they? The two women were the wives of the two most conservative seminary presidents, Patterson and Mohler; the chairman was Anthony Jordan, newly elected head of the Oklahoma Convention, one of our most conservative. Tom Elliff also appointed his brother, Bill Elliff—out of 30,000 other Southern Baptist pastors!

Besides The Recent Change To Disallow Women As Pastors, I Understand The Wording Of The Preamble To The “Faith And Message” Was Also Under Consideration For Revision.

Yes, they proposed deletion of phrases in the preamble that emphasize “soul competency” and the “priesthood of every believer,” which are basic to traditional Baptist belief—that every Christian has the right and responsibility to search the Scriptures, seeking the mind of God with the aid of the Spirit. Obviously, the present sbc leaders are nervous about any Baptist who does not interpret the Scripture the way the leader does. Their method is a new Baptist confession which has all the earmarks of a creed— something Baptists have always opposed.

I recently heard of a seminary president who told a faculty member that, on this issue of female pastors, there are no interpretations, only a “biblical” view and a “nonbiblical” view. Of course, the president held the “biblical” view, and all others were “nonbiblical.” That is the trend. To disagree is to be “unbiblical.”

The defense they are using is that egalitarian interpretations are a concession to “political correctness.” What is sad is their inability to realize they are the ones who have been captured by culture—the post-Fall culture of subordi-nation of women as seen from Genesis 3 onward, and reinforced by generation after generation. (Our modern patterns are more Victorian than biblical.)

A local pastor here in Austin has claimed that the changes are needed, lest Christians have too much room for interpretation! Can you imagine a Baptist saying that! So, the omission of the belief that each Christian can go directly to God and can interpret Scripture individually is a threat to traditionalists, who fear some soul may discover a truth of Scripture not taught by the Baptist hierarchy—-how dangerous!

Baptists received their name through the Anabaptists, who believed, lived, and died for the right to interpret Scripture for themselves. Many Baptists are finally waking up to realize the issue in Southern Baptist Convention life is not belief in the Bible, but rather control of biblical truth by enforcing the views of the few over the lives of the many.

Baptist distinctives are being challenged; but thanks be to God, a remnant of believers in every state is standing up to the Baptist “popes” who are trying desperately to draw the lines narrower so women will be kept in their place—-which of course is not in positions of leadership, but in subservience to men, who alone know what God allows women to do.

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