In the midst of tense debates around race, gender, and partisan politics, the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention made waves by narrowly electing Ed Litton, a white Alabama pastor known for his commitment to racial reconciliation, to serve as its new president. Litton beat out his opponent, far-right Georgia pastor Mike Stone, by fewer than 600 of over 13,000 votes in a runoff election that many believed would be a turning point for a denomination looking to clarify its role in a deeply polarized nation.
The SBC also has its own internal polarization to contend with, with leaders inside the denomination disagreeing on everything from how to approach (or even acknowledge) systemic racism in the US to how (or whether) to address an ongoing crisis of sexual abuse within their ranks. For many, Litton’s election was a sign of progress.
“I’m deeply encouraged by the movement made in the Convention today,” lawyer, abuse survivor and SBC advisor Rachael Denhollander told the Houston Chronicle. “Ed Litton’s character and positions give me hope that significant positive change is possible for the denomination.”
Indeed, Litton agreed to an independent audit of the SBC’s handling of sexual abuse issues, a move Southern Baptist author and speaker Daniel Darling lauded in his triumphant USA Today opinion piece as an important step to “stop sexual abuse in [SBC] churches.”
While a third party investigation into the denomination’s approach to handling sexual abuse is certainly a welcome intervention, there’s no indication that they’re ready to to address problematic theological stances that blur the line between submission and control and that continue to put the onus on women to manage men’s “insatiable” sex drives. From its hard-line posture toward divorce to its confusing vision of male headship, the SBC’s conservative evangelical theology of gender sends mixed messages that will continue to foster opportunities for abuse and cover-up in the years to come.
The positive side of patriarchy
While Southern Baptist leaders are open to discussion about the tone and extent of women’s submission in the church and the family, the denomination remains staunchly committed to complementarianism—the belief that God created men and women equally but equipped for separate roles, with men serving as leaders of both the church and their families, and women submitting to that leadership as a “helper.”
While Litton might be considered a more moderate option than fellow candidates, as Jill Hicks-Keeton noted recently on RD, he too espouses the SBC party line on God’s design for marriage: “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…[and] has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”
Just what exactly the dynamic of equals participating in a leader-helper relational dynamic looks like, however, remains unclear. While SBC pastor Dave Miller has exhorted that “complementarians do not endorse patriarchal, paternalistic attitudes that degrade women,” former SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore has famously attempted to reclaim “authentic biblical patriarchy” as both positive and “necessary” for human thriving.
Similarly, the SBC has failed to clear up what it means for a wife to “submit” to her husband’s “leadership.” Commentary on the SBC’s doctrine of female submission notes that women should neither “usurp the leadership of her husband” nor be her husband’s “property or his doormat.” So too should women be careful not to act as their husband’s “boss,” writes Litton’s wife Kathy, but allow him to make mistakes and know he has a “safe place to park his car of vulnerability.”
In a church setting where male headship is enshrined in both the home and the pulpit, women and girls continue to receive conflicting messages on how to confront an abuser in a way that threads the needle between “doormat” and “usurper,” “boss” and “enabler.”
The scandal of divorce
Just one year before the Houston Chronicle published a devastating report of over 700 documented victims of sexual abuse at the hands of SBC leaders from 1998 to 2018, former SBC president Paige Patterson found himself in hot water over leaked audio from a 2000 conference in which he proclaimed, “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel,” even in matters of domestic abuse. Patterson told his audience that he advises women experiencing spousal abuse to “be submissive in every way that you can” while praying for their husband’s change of heart.
Following the leaked audio, Southern Baptist leaders spoke out in favor of women’s right to “separate” from abusive husbands, but the SBC’s most recent resolution continues to identify divorce as a “scandal” that undermines the “sanctity and permanence of marriage.” A 2018 resolution on spousal abuse states that “spousal abuse dishonors the marriage covenant and fundamentally blasphemes the relationship between Christ and the church,” but fails to clarify whether the church’s recommendation for a woman’s “separation” from an abusive husband can take the form of a divorce.
As long as the SBC clings to doctrines in favor of women’s submission and against divorce, women and girls will remain in a precarious position regarding how and whether to stand up to men’s abuse of power. Litton undoubtedly represents a softer, more urbane proponent of male headship than the likes of Paige Patterson, Mike Stone, and other SBC stalwarts, but his underlying theology remains the same. Any denomination that puts pressure on women and girls to identify how to be better “helpers” to male “servant-leaders” will continue to foster situations where women and girls must question whether they’re usurping men’s power by standing up for themselves in situations of grooming and abuse.
It is undeniably a very good thing that the SBC will be implementing more safeguards to prevent abuse and investigate how its churches have handled past abuse in their midst. But as long as the SBC continues to send women and men mixed theological messages about authority, power, and options for exiting abusive situations, there’s little reason to have faith that the SBC’s crisis of abuse will end anytime soon.