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Women Preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention: But Wait, There’s Moore (Part 2)

In his 2006 article, “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians are Winning the Gender Debate” (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 49, no. 3, September 2006, pp. 569–76), Russell D. Moore describes how, “Egalitarians are winning the evangelical gender debate, not because their arguments are stronger, but because, in some sense, we are all egalitarians now.” (576) The current state of the SBC is even worse than Moore predicted. In fact, Moore seems to have not only given up on resisting what he calls a feminist movement, but may have contributed to it.

Egalitarian Homes

In his article, Moore notes that, according to sociologists Christian Smith and Sally Gallagher, most evangelicals are actually functional egalitarians – even feminist – at the very least when it comes to the ‘mutual submission’ of husband and wife in the home. (570-571) This position is held, for example, by Rachael Denhollander, who has worked alongside of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission led by Moore. In one interview, Denhollander explains why she no longer claims to be a complementarian, but believes in “gender difference.” She advocates for “mutual submission and mutual responsibility” in the home.

Denhollander and her husband, a seminary student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the country’s largest seminary, embrace the idea of gender difference but say the term “complementarian” has become so widely and, in their view, incorrectly used that they don’t use it.

“Scripture teaches mutual submission and mutual responsibility,” she said. “I’d say Jacob is the head of our household. What that means in our marriage is that he bears an incredible amount of responsibility, but that doesn’t mean women don’t. What it means is that Jacob is the one to come and say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t handle this well,’ for example. He is the one who takes leadership in setting the pace for doing what’s right.”

Although Denhollander is no longer a Southern Baptist, it may be helpful to contrast this view with the one taken in XVIII, “The Family,” in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, the confessional document for the Southern Baptist Convention:

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. 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 herself 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 the household and nurturing the next generation.

Denhollander’s quote is provided because it so clearly articulates Moore’s earlier description of functional egalitarianism in the home, and how that view is in clear conflict with what Southern Baptists say they believe. According to Denhollander’s view of how the home should operate, responsibility only falls on the husband when trouble is afoot, essentially emasculating men as the head of the household but blaming them when sin is present. And yet, according to those Moore cites in his article, very little practical difference is found in almost any other evangelical home. What’s more, since Denhollander is known for her advocacy on behalf of abuse survivors but also speaks to this theological issue, it’s easy to see how someone might conflate the complementarian view of the home with abuse based on what Moore calls the, “fallacious egalitarian charge: that male headship leads to abuse.” (576)

Egalitarian Pulpits

As we’ve seen above and in the previous post of this series, egalitarian and even feminist thought has become a given in society and the home. So what sets the Southern Baptist Convention apart? Some think it’s the SBC’s approach to women preachers. Concerning women in the pulpit, Moore writes, “the very notion seems foreign and strange. It is less and less strange as conservative evangelicals, and Southern Baptists in particular, are seeing a woman in the pulpit—at least on videotape—in the person of Beth Moore, preaching at conferences and in their coeducational Bible studies on a weekly basis.” (571) When Russell Moore wrote his article in 2006, there was no hiding this fact that Beth Moore was teaching men from the pulpit at conferences and through Bible studies. But since then, the SBC has learned that Beth Moore also occasionally preaches to men on Sunday mornings. And since then, many others have spoken up to say that they don’t see anything wrong with women behind the pulpit.

This idea that women can teach men and even preach in Sunday worship is no longer thought of as something to hide in the SBC. And it’s becoming ever more pervasive inside (and obviously outside) the SBC. As just one of many examples, SBC pastors Joe Thorn and Jimmy Fowler argue that while they are open to correction, and see some practical problems because of possible confusion, they are not, in principle, opposed to women preaching on Sunday morning:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Y078zAR9ys?start=732&w=560&h=315]

Russell Moore was right that the notion of women behind pulpits, which once seemed “foreign and strange,” is clearly becoming less so. (571) Prominent figures in the SBC are quite open about their acceptance of women preachers and see no biblical prohibition of the practice. What’s more is they seem increasingly open to testing it out. These egalitarian principles playing out in the home and pulpit are the kind of reasons Moore claims, “complementarian Christianity is collapsing around us.” (572) And yet, these principles and practices are being justified based on the supposed need to hear women’s voices which is also illogical as well as unbiblical. Intersectional ideologies can be blamed here for that somewhat, but I think the bigger issue is that Southern Baptists can be so easily and quickly swayed to abandon their core beliefs.

Egalitarian Accusations

One of the reasons for an emphasis on the importance of hearing women’s voices, even in the pulpit, is related to what Russell Moore describes as the, “tacit acceptance of a fallacious egalitarian charge: that male headship leads to abuse.” (576) Not only that, but any criticism of women in the SBC whatsoever is regarded as sexist and uncharitable. This is an important distinction to point out because we see this frequently in egalitarian circles: when approached with fallacious arguments regarding women in leadership, the response is almost always emotionally charged and rarely logical.

Related to this issue, Russell Moore recently had Beth Moore speak at an ERLC conference regarding Caring Well for victims of abuse. In her address to those in attendance, and by extension, the SBC as a whole, Beth Moore asked, “Does complementarian theology cause abuse?” Although she gave a negative answer, she circled back to an argument exactly like the one mentioned by R. Moore above.

However, has a culture prevalent in various circles of the SBC formed and burgeoned out of [complementarianism] contributed to [abuse]?

Absolutely, and heavily.

[…]

Complementarian theology became such a high, core value, that it inadvertently, by proof of what we have seen – look at the fruit of what happened – became elevated above the safety and well-being of many women. So high a core value has it become that in much of our world complementarian theology is now conflated with inerrancy. Case in point: notice how often our world charges or dismisses egalitarians by saying they have a low view of Scripture, because unless they think like us about complementarian theology they do not honor the word of God.

[…]

Far too many SBC congregations and SBC seminaries…so few women are in any visible area of leadership, that women who are being abused by the system itself or within it by people that are in places of power don’t even have a female to turn to. They don’t even know where to go.

(For a good response, see here.) This was not the first time Beth Moore had spoken out against complementarian culture. For example, she also wrote a post where she cites various instances of misogyny and objectification within the complementarian camp, although she doesn’t provide names:

Then early October 2016 surfaced attitudes among some key Christian leaders that smacked of misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women and it spread like wildfire. It was just the beginning. I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.

For many, even these anecdotal associations of complementarian theology with abuse provide a greater ‘argument’ against complementarian theology than arguments that are supposedly based on the Bible. Since emotionally charged ‘arguments’ that in any way connect complementarian theology to misogyny, objectification of women, and abuse have bite, Biblical arguments seem to fall by the wayside. In fact, Biblical arguments tend to be taught then as merely ‘cultural’ or irrelevant to our current state of affairs.

More on this egalitarian hermeneutic in the next post.

2 replies on “Women Preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention: But Wait, There’s Moore (Part 2)”

We love to take surveys and poll people in the SBC, yet there is one question I have yet to see asked anywhere, that would, I believe, go a long way toward explaining why we see the rapid downgrade in the convention. Here is that question, to be asked of both laity and pastors/staff:

Have you ever read the BF&M2000? Have you ever studied it, checking the scriptural references listed therein?

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