The Southern Baptists Dumped a Predator or Two, but Let’s Hold Off on the F-word

What a hoot! Southern Baptists are having to defend themselves against the accusation that they’re becoming feminists.

What have they done to deserve this F-word? They’ve kicked out the president of a seminary for counseling victims of domestic violence to keep quiet, and for telling at least one rape victim to forgive her assailant and not report to police. They dethroned a few other predator pastors and confessed to past failures to protect the weak.

This counts as feminism?

I’d simply call it justice regardless of gender—which, by the way, actually is the definition of feminism.

Apparently a stance of justice for any woman or women puts a complementarian in dangerous territory.

The genesis of this latest skirmish in the culture wars was an op-ed in the New York Times by historian Margaret Bendroth, titled “Could Southern Baptists Actually Become Feminists?”

“I think the answer to that questions [sic] is a resounding ‘no’,” replied Denny Burk, president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), in a post for a right-wing Christian website. Burk goes on to defend J.D. Greear, new president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), against the f-word by pointing to Greear’s claim that his church “is unashamedly and uncompromisingly complementarian” and to the fact that Greear affirms the Danvers Statement, CBMW’s complementarian manifesto.

CBMW, it should be noted, was founded in 1987, largely in reaction to biblical feminism. Thirteen years after Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now EEWC-CFT) was founded and one year after Christians for Biblical Equality, conservatives felt compelled to build an organization defending the patriarchal view of church, family, and society. Its leaders defended their view that only men belong in church leadership and that defining roles by gender is the only truly biblical stance. Women need to be “in submission” to their husbands and their pastors.

In an era when men with these views were being called male chauvinists, these guys invented—or perhaps co-opted—a kinder, gentler identity for themselves: “I’m a complementarian.” They held that men and women have different, God-ordained roles in society—and that these roles are complementary. Everybody just stays in his or her proper role, and together we make the world go ’round. It just happens that all the roles with official power and authority belong to men. 

This perspective is outdated in government, business, education, medicine, and many branches of major religions, but there are hold-outs. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church are the two largest Christian bodies that still refuse to ordain women.

In fact, individual SBC churches were ordaining women prior to 1984, when the Convention passed a resolution against women pastors. American Baptist Churches USA note that “Colonial Baptist life included women preachers. Ordination of women began as early as 1815.” But among Southern Baptists, a fundamentalist takeover was underway by 1984, before its adherents consolidated power in 2000.

The central players orchestrating male-only leadership in the SBC are also some of its best known public figures, like Paige Patterson, ousted in June from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; Judge Paul Pressler, his ally in the takeover; and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

Outside the SBC, signers of the Danvers Statement include the Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade for Christ, conservative Presbyterians, and men like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Mark Driscoll (the disgraced former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle).

Another branch of anti-feminist complementarians, Capitol Ministries, conducts a weekly Bible study in the White House. Ralph Drollinger, the founder, also teaches his doctrine in most of the state capitols and has plans to expand “throughout the world.” Interestingly, perhaps, Jeff Sessions attended Bible study with Drollinger the day before his ill-fated Romans 13 remarks, a bible study which Betsy DeVos and other women aren’t allowed to lead. Drollinger has been at this for quite some time. Back in 2004 he told women in the California State Senate and Assembly that they should be at home with their young children. That advice sparked a counterpunch of men wearing aprons to conduct legislation. See how funny it looks when women make laws?

Molly T. Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (once an affiliate of both the SBC and American Baptist Churches USA; now solely affiliated withthe latter), leads the fight for women’s equality among Southern Baptists. She had been a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary when SBTS’s current president, Al Mohler, was a grad student, but was forced out in the mid-1980s when ordained women were purged from the denomination.

“Demanding that women keep silent about abuse and submit to male headship is all about patriarchy and nothing about biblical values,” she writes in “The peril of selective inerrancy” on the Baptist News Global website.

Marshall isn’t the only prominent SBC or ex-SBC woman fighting against the patriarchal takeover. Others include Nancy Hastings Sehested, whose installation as senior pastor of Prescott Memorial Church in Memphis in 1987 caused that church to be expelled from the SBC; Jann Aldredge-Clanton, who describes debating Patterson’s wife Dorothy Kelley Patterson on women’s ordination in 1988; and members of Baptist Women in Ministry.

And then there’s Shirley Taylor, who blogs for Baptist Women for Equality and wrote a pair of books on the topic. She contends there’s a connection between male-dominant theology and abuse of women, whether physical or sexual: “Girls are raped, sex trafficked, beaten, and murdered because females have been devalued.”

She’s not the first to connect these two phenomena. Back in the 1880s Katharine Bushnell “posited a direct connection between subordination and abuse,” writes Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin College, in a blog post titled “Women Saw #MeToo Coming 100 Years Ago. When Will We Listen?” 

The #metoo and #churchtoo movements have put SBC leaders on the defensive, as earlier revelations of widespread child sexual abuse by priests did to the all-male Roman Catholic hierarchy. Yet both groups continue to deny that there could be any connection between all-male power and the sexual abuse of women and children.

“This is a pivotal moment in American Protestantism,” writes Diana Butler Bass in an opinion piece on the CNN website, pointing to the “rare move” when “more than 600 leaders in the United Methodist Church filed a strongly-worded formal complaint against Attorney General Jeff Sessions” last month. “Today the Methodists and Baptists are not really fighting over mere ‘issues.’ They are fighting about whether women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people should, on the basis of human dignity and worth, have full rights, responsibilities and respect in their church communities,” Butler Bass concludes.

Yes, there has been a huge cultural shift between 2018 and 1974 (when Evangelical Women’s Caucus was founded), when people were telling women that Christians couldn’t be feminists, and vice versa. Now, equality for women, including as preachers and priests, is the norm in most U.S. churches, at least theoretically—even in evangelical churches. 

But despite some modest moves within the SBC, like the marginalization of men who who have supported an abusive culture, there remains a great deal of resistance when it comes to gender equality. “The fear of strong women remains a toxic part of Baptist culture and the wider social landscape,” writes Marshall. And fear is the reason that Burk reacted so strongly to Bendroth’s mere suggestion in her Times op-ed that women might play an equal role in the SBC.

One might have expected Burk to be heartened by Bendroth’s sobering conclusion: “[R]eligious institutions are particularly adept at evading change, especially in regard to women,” she writes. “Paradigms shift a lot less often than we think they do.” But if we’ve learned anything, those in power are seldom willing to share it without a fight.