Susan Shaw: A struggle for equality at the pulpit

##Susan Shaw
##Susan Shaw

During its two-day annual meeting earlier held over the summer, the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed the ouster of its largest congregation over its ordination of women and initiated a process to amend its constitution to ensure church membership “does not affirm, appoint or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind” in the future.

Saddleback Church in Southern California was kicked out of the SBC in February 2023 for ordaining three of its longtime female staff members as ministers in 2021. Saddleback founder and former pastor Rick Warren appealed the church’s ejection at the denomination’s annual conference in June.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, rebutted Warren’s appeal, arguing the issue of women’s ordination is a matter of “biblical commitment” and “biblical authority,” allowing no room for compromise. About 88% of messengers — Southern Baptists’ language for delegates — then voted to reaffirm the expulsion.

The proposed constitutional amendment to exclude any church that hires a woman as a pastor must be voted on again at next year’s annual meeting. The SBC requires a majority vote at two consecutive annual meetings for that.

These battles over women in ordained ministry in the SBC are not new.

As someone who grew up as a Southern Baptist and ordained as a Southern Baptist minister while serving as a religion professor at a Christian college, I’m not surprised to see what happened during the SBC annual meeting.

I’ve researched Southern Baptists for 25 years, and am aware that since the SBC’s founding in 1845, Southern Baptists have had a complicated history with women. In fact, women have often been maligned and mistreated within the denomination.

Historian Elizabeth Flowers explains that matters of women’s roles as preachers, teachers and deacons were frequent subjects of disagreement among Baptists from the denomination’s beginnings. And women were not allowed to serve as messengers to the SBC until 1918.

When Southern Baptist women formed a national organization to support missionary work in 1888, they had to hold their first meeting in a Methodist church down the street from the Baptist church where the SBC was meeting. Until the 20th century, only men could give the missionary organization’s report to the SBC.

Women did not have the right to vote in the U.S. at the time, so the SBC’s practices certainly reflected larger social norms around gender. But its reasoning was also theological.

Those beliefs formed a basis for gender hierarchy that ultimately triumphed over more moderate egalitarianism in the late 20th century.

In the 1970s, greater numbers of women entered the six Southern Baptist seminaries, many professing a calling to the pastorate, even though most churches still refused to ordain them.

I pursued degrees at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the 1980s. By that time, women had come to account for about a third of the student body, although very few women were ever accorded professorships.

In that setting, fundamentalists launched a takeover of the SBC, which owns publishing and missionary agencies worth billions of dollars, in addition to the seminaries. They used biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is without error in history, science or theology, as a test for theological faithfulness.

Beginning with the denomination’s annual conference in 1979, the fundamentalists were able to inspire messengers to elect fundamentalist leaders. They claimed that moderate Baptists who did not accept inerrancy did not believe the Bible.

The new leaders purged the moderates from SBC employment and leadership.

While fundamentalists claimed that takeover was about biblical inerrancy, in reality it was as much, if not more, about women. As historian Barry Hankins also concludes, the “gender issue” eventually became a central issue for Southern Baptist fundamentalists as their takeover of the SBC proceeded.

A number of Southern Baptist churches had ordained women, and some had called women as pastors. Many moderate churches espoused egalitarian marital relationships, and SBC educational literature often supported women’s equality in church and home.

Even as fundamentalist Baptist leaders claimed their movement was about the Bible, they specifically targeted women and worked to reverse women’s progress.

In 1984, as fundamentalists gained greater control, the SBC passed a resolution against women’s ordination. The resolution said that women were excluded from ordained ministry to “preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.”

In other words, because Eve was the first to eat the fruit that led to the humans’ expulsion from Eden in the Book of Genesis, they argued, God compels all women to submit to men. Furthermore, the resolution argued for the preservation of “God’s delegated order of authority” – “God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, man the head of woman.”

In Baptist polity, local churches are autonomous. They are free to ordain and call as pastor whom they will. The Southern Baptist Convention has no official control over that.

Some local churches did ordain and call women to the pastorate. Their local Baptist associations “disfellowshipped” those congregations, excluding them from participating in local association affairs.

Fundamentalists appointed Al Mohler president of Southern Seminary in 1993, and he forced Molly Marshall, the first woman to teach theology at a Southern Baptist seminary, to resign in 1994. The action was precipitated primarily by her support for women in ministry.

In 2000, the SBC changed its statement of faith, professing that while women and men “are of equal worth before God. ... A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”

In 2003, an administrator at Southern Seminary claimed that women have a desire to rule over men, and men must respond by exercising their rightful “rulership.”

For Southern Baptists, the statement of faith is not a creed, but rather a set of largely agreed-upon beliefs.

The statement is not binding on any individual or local church. Seminaries and denominational agencies, such as the International Mission Board, however, must work within the guidelines of the statement.

The 2000 statement of faith also asserts, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture.” In response, in 2004, Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board stopped endorsing women as chaplains.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary used that statement in 2007 to remove Hebrew professor Sheri Klouda from its faculty, simply because she was a woman.

Klouda was not ordained and did not support the ordination of women. In seminary leaders’ thinking, however, she was teaching men the Bible, which they forbid women to do.

They were able to remove her on the basis of gender because religious institutions are exempt from gender-based nondiscrimination laws for positions that have an explicit religious function, such as pastor or seminary professor, if their beliefs sanction such discrimination.

If the proposed constitutional amendment passes next year, it will likely lead to a purge of many other Southern Baptist congregations. Already, the pastor who proposed the amendment has compiled a list of 170 churches that he claims are in violation of the ban.

Immediately after the SBC vote, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a network of Baptist churches that formed 30 years ago when moderates left the SBC following the fundamentalist takeover, responded by reaffirming its support for women in ministry and congregational autonomy to ordain and call both women and men to pastoral leadership.

Given Southern Baptists’ history, I doubt the issue will be resolved no matter the vote next summer. Women in the SBC will likely continue to feel a call to ministry despite the convention’s actions, and there will be resistance as a result.

Guest writer Susan Shaw, ordained as a Southern Baptist minister while holding a professorship at a Christian college, serves as a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University. Holder of an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, she joined the OSU faculty in 1996. She is the author of “Reflective Faith: A Theological Toolbox for Women,” and co-author/co-editor of “Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings.”


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