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Women Preachers in the Southern Baptist Convention: We Should Be Worried (Part 1)

There’s a common misconception going around in some circles that anyone who professes Christ yet believes women can be called to the pastorate or preach to men cannot be a true Christian. This is demonstrably untrue. When people believe that women can be preachers called by God it doesn’t necessarily mean those people aren’t Christian, it just means they’re wrong.

But what do the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention think? Southern Baptists reached an agreement about this issue a long time ago and they believe it’s not only theologically incorrect to have women preach, but sinful for women to take up the role of preaching as it goes against explicit commands given in God’s word. This is why women preaching in the Southern Baptist Convention is such an obviously divisive issue.

Functional Egalitarianism

Complementarians do not believe it is okay for women to preach while egalitarians say they can (more on this in a future post). 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, current head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission,  claimed, “complementarians will have to admit that the egalitarians are winning the debate.” (569) Moore cites Christian Smith and Sally Gallagher. According to these sociologists, 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) But that’s not all. This functional egalitarianism is working its way up into the academy. It’s also pouring over into the related issue of women preachers. Some people just don’t consider it a big deal for men to be taught by women. Beyond that, some support and encourage women to teach men because, well, why not? Women can do anything men can do, right? After all, women already do teach men all the time, don’t they? In schools, as mothers, even as Sunday School teachers and Bible Study leaders for young children, youth, and college aged adults.

Unlike some other ideas within evangelicalism that begin in the academy and “trickle down” to the grassroots of congregational life, evangelical views on gender may have a reverse effect: a thoroughly feminized grassroots theology may be “bubbling up” to the academy and the denominational leadership. Baptist feminist theologian Molly T. Marshall, for instance, claims that most Southern Baptists oppose women in the pastorate, not because of some exegetically or theologically coherent worldview, but because they have never seen a woman in the pulpit. Thus 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)

Based on that, Moore claims, “complementarian Christianity is collapsing around us.” (572)

Moore claims, “Traditionalist evangelicals should worry in light of the Wilcox, Gallagher,and Smith studies.” (572) He mentions the need for a traditional family and theological consensus before summarizing the argument of scholar Pamela Cochran from the opposite end of the egalitarian project. Moore explains, “To make the feminist project fly, she argues, evangelicals needed a more limited understanding of biblical inerrancy and an embrace of contemporary hermeneutical trends, such as those that had made possible the liberation theologies of mainline Protestantism. The therapeutic and consumerist atmosphere of evangelicalism enabled this process because it displaced an external, objective authority with an individualistic, internal locus of authority.” (572) In other words, social justice and even feminism and functional egalitarianism are paving the way for us to throw out the authority of Scripture and send in what feels good and right in our hearts to replace it.

Given the recent Critical Theory controversy in the SBC and questions about the theology of James Cone being taught in our seminaries, Cochran’s comment about “hermeneutical trends” that allow for “liberation theologies” seems especially noteworthy here, to say nothing of feminism. So, Moore contends, “This is especially pertinent when more and more evangelical publishing houses and parachurch ministries are pushing feminism with all the fervor of a tent revival. Unless evangelical churches are willing to be counter-cultural against not just the secular culture but also the evangelical establishment itself, the future of complementarian Christianity is bleak.” (572)

Hermeneutics, liberation theologies, feminism, and the “evangelical establishment itself” are prime candidates for contributing to a Southern Baptist shift away from complementarianism. Moore is so sure of this future that he writes, “the question regarding a move toward feminism is not whether but when.” (572) He also chastises those who would view this issue as merely secondary or tertiary along the spectrum of theological importance.

For too long, the evangelical gender debate has assumed that this was merely one more intramural debate—on our best days along the lines of Arminian/Calvinist or dispensationalist/covenant skirmishes and on our worst days as a theological equivalent of a political debate show with a right – and left – wing representative. And yet, C. S. Lewis included male headship among the doctrines he considered to be part of “mere Christianity,” precisely because male headship has been asserted and assumed by the Christian church with virtual unanimity from the first century until the rise of contemporary feminism. (573)

Regardless of whether or not we agree with Lewis about the relative importance of male headship at home and in church for ‘mere Christian’ belief, the SBC agrees with its importance as a denominational distinctive.

Moore writes, “Not all complementarians can agree about the larger themes of Scripture—only broadly on some principles and negatively on what Scripture definitely does not allow (i.e. women as pastors).” (573) And yet, since the time Moore wrote this statement, he has not only given up on resisting this feminist movement, but may have contributed to it. The current state of the SBC is even worse than Moore predicted.

It’s true that ‘complementarians’ can’t seem to agree on any of the issues Moore mentions in his piece. But not only are they divided over issues related to women’s roles in society and in the home, they are divided over simple issues like whether or not a woman can preach and pastor! The supposedly ‘complementarian’ Southern Baptist Convention is losing the gender debate to egalitarianism masked as ‘soft-complementarian’ theology.

Patriarchy

When Moore wrote his piece, he believed, “the way to reclaim the debate is by taking on the mantel [sic] of patriarchy.” (573) Since Moore doesn’t seem preoccupied with Calvinism, let’s just say, “Good luck with that!” It’s not exactly popular right now to claim that “Patriarchy is good for women, good for children, and good for families.” (576) While some outside the SBC are claiming more traditional Reformed approaches to creation order, the label of ‘patriarchy’ isn’t really being used as an encouragement to them. And those inside the SBC are fleeing from such movements for fear they’ll be lumped in with the Calvinists and the chauvinists. But I would argue that patriarchy is not only necessary to save the SBC from full scale implosion, it is good and it is from God. Standing firm on the authority of God’s word will require us to see God’s created order, the way men have been ordained to uphold the responsibility of the entire family and the way that responsibility and love mirrors the love of Christ for His Church, as something vastly superior to any order we could create for ourselves. In this regard, women and their roles are not second rate just because the Patriarchy is not intended for us. Rather, in a version of the patriarchy that seeks to glorify God above all, women are respected, protected, provided for, and loved well.

So why are those promoting patriarchy being punished? For the same reason complementarians also face being ‘canceled.’ This debate isn’t about orthodoxy anymore, but orthopraxy. Moore predicts the argument, but not the awful reality, of what’s happening in the SBC.

There is a growing trend among the weaker segment of complementarians to seek to indict complementarianism for not writing more on the issue of spousal abuse. On the one hand, the charge is a red herring,since complementarian evangelicals speak to the issue all the time. On the other hand, the charge itself reveals a tacit acceptance of a fallacious egalitarian charge: that male headship leads to abuse. This is akin to an evangelical theologian saying, “I believe in penal substitutionary atonement but I wish to make very clear that I also oppose child abuse.” Such a statement assumes the liberationist critique that penal substitution is cosmic child abuse. Instead, patriarchal evangelicals should speak loudly against spousal abuse precisely because, as Wilcox’s study demonstrates, traditional views on gender roles actually protect against spousal and child abuse. (576)

We need to agree with Moore that we should speak out against abuse of any kind. Had the SBC done this thirty years ago and more, many abuse victims could have been spared their suffering. The SBC might not have become the subject of the Houston Chronicle, which highlighted over 700 cases of abuse in the SBC over the past 20 years. Patriarchy is just plain out of the question now, as complementarianism faces a serious critique along the lines of Moore’s observation above. But Moore’s point still stands, even if he is no longer making the same one: it is unbiblical and illogical to suggest that patriarchy in and of itself is to blame for abuse of any kind. Yet we find ourselves here defending male headship against this very suggestion.

More on that in the next post.

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