Recently, in the Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein explored the ways in which some Southern Baptist and conservative evangelical women are questioning and reinterpreting the doctrines of complementarianism and female submission they once took for granted. Indeed several interesting developments have taken place in recent weeks along those lines.
In early May, for example, evangelical author Beth Moore published a blog post entitled “A Letter to My Brothers” detailing—albeit in profoundly gentle and non-confrontational language—the decades of discrimination and sexual harassment she’s endured as a woman writer and teacher in the conservative evangelical world. And more recently, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), was forced out of his position after video surfaced of Patterson defending as “Biblical” the ogling of a 16-year-old girl he describes as “fine” and “built.” Also damning was audio where Patterson clearly and repeatedly counsels that women who are victims of domestic violence and physical abuse must stay with their abusers and pray for God to intervene.
These developments are striking given the fact that evangelicals, both women and men, voted en masse for Donald Trump, just weeks after he described how much he enjoyed grabbing women by the pussy without their permission. So why the pushback all of a sudden? Is the #MeToo movement making inroads with American evangelical women as this Vox article claims? Perhaps, but evangelical women aren’t using the same terms to frame their objections to Patterson and his ilk—of changes in what our culture will permit. They are, of course, using the language of Biblical truth, inerrancy and complementarianism.
A few weeks back, when it still looked as though Patterson would remain in his position, thousands of Southern Baptist women signed a letter to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of trustees demanding his removal. Their letter is instructive because it neatly demonstrates this difference in framing:
We are concerned Southern Baptist women who affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, including its statements on the roles of men and women in the family and in the church. We urge you to exercise the authority you have been given by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and to take a strong stand against unbiblical teaching regarding womanhood, sexuality, and domestic violence.
After several more similar paragraphs it concludes:
The Southern Baptist Convention cannot allow the biblical view of leadership to be misused in such a way that a leader with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood, and sexuality be allowed to continue in leadership.
It’s tough to condemn misogyny using the Bible, just as it’s difficult to condemn, for example, polygamy, slavery, concubinage, and violence. The mere presence of abuse cannot be enough to call a practice unbiblical. Of course, most of these practices are no longer condoned by conservative Christians, but are usually reinterpreted as somehow not referring real slavery, for example, or contextualized within a limited historical framework.
Regardless, claiming that the problem with misogyny is that it’s unbiblical just isn’t going to be sustainable—not as long as all of us have instant access to the document in question. But then exactly how is Paige Patterson being unbiblical? The letter only vaguely points out that Jesus would not condone Patterson’s remarks, but fails to cite chapter and verse. The real clue to the way in which the Southern Baptist women believe Paige Patterson is being unbiblical can be found in their reference to The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, a document that upholds the doctrine of “complementarity of the sexes,” whereby men are chosen by God to lead in society, church and the family, and women are there to support, help, and nurture.
The notion of complementarianism, which has been popular in both Protestant and Catholic circles for the last three decades or so, claims that men and women were made by a God who desired not egalitarianism between the sexes, but an ordered hierarchy with men and women occupying distinct roles in the family and society. Prominent Baptist author and pastor John Piper describes Biblical complementarity this way:
In the home when a husband leads like Christ and a wife responds like the bride of Christ, there is a harmony and mutuality that is more beautiful and more satisfying than any pattern of marriage created by man. Biblical headship for the husband is the divine calling to take primary responsibility for Christlike, servant-leadership, protection and provision in the home. Biblical submission for the wife is the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. This is the way of joy. For God loves his people and he loves his glory. And therefore when we follow his idea of marriage (sketched in texts like Genesis 2:18-24; Proverbs 5:15-19; 31:10-31; Mark 10:2-12; Ephesians 5:21-33; Colossians 3:18-19; and 1 Peter 3:1-7) we are most satisfied and he is most glorified.
The Baptist women who wrote to the SWBT leadership are in a tough position. They must, as evangelicals, maintain Biblical inerrancy and so they have no choice but to frame their opposition to Patterson’s actions as unbiblical. They do this by claiming he is not practicing complementarianism correctly. But then where exactly can the correct understanding of Biblical complementarianism be found? Is complementarianism only correct when it doesn’t oppress or demean women? What if oppressing and demeaning women is inseparable from complementarianism itself, as Dianna Anderson recently argued here on RD?
Christian author and professor Carol Howard Merrit, has described the deeply damaging effects of having grown up in a home where Biblical complementarianism was taught and enforced, and the ways in which beliefs about complementarianism correlate with myths about domestic violence and abuse. In claiming that the problem with Patterson is that his behavior is unbiblical, not that it’s abusive and sexist, these women, well-meaning as they may be, are actually skirting the issue of biblical inerrancy which is at the heart of the matter as well as ignoring both the moral and exegetical problems with the doctrine of complementarianism itself.
If Southern Baptists and other conservative Christians want to challenge the misogyny in their institutions, then they should of course be applauded and supported. But their call for change will remain problematic as long as they simultaneously claim Biblical inerrancy as their reason for this call. We would all do well to remember that Biblical inerrancy as it’s understood by Southern Baptists and many other evangelicals today is a very recent development in Christian history. It’s also a doctrine that belies centuries of sophisticated Christian exegesis.
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000’s opening claim is that:
Scripture is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.
Rather than cite chapter and verse to argue that Paige Patterson’s behavior is unbiblical, the women of the SBC rely on an interpretive framework, of which complementarianism is a part. Whether or not they’re willing to recognize it as such, they’re practicing a sophisticated form of exegesis, of interpretation. They reject the spurious claim to Biblical inerrancy when it suits them, as in this latest instance and with regard to divorce, shellfish, and tattoos, yet when it comes to same-sex marriage the Bible’s inerrancy appears to once again be in effect.
Times have changed and they continue to change—what was once acceptable, is now recognized as unjust and wrong, and using the Bible to argue that means that the Bible is not an inerrant, inflexible document but a living one where both subjugation and liberation can be found. Paige Patterson’s ogling of 16-year-old girls and his tolerance of domestic violence and abuse is now intolerable, not because it has suddenly become unbiblical, but because our cultural norms have changed—and for the women of the SBC, so has the meaning of what is “biblical.”