Southern Baptists and the Role of Women

Wives Must Submit to Husbands

One issue that has been great fodder for critics of the Southern Baptist Convention has been their attitudes toward and treatment of women. In the 1998 convention they revised the Baptist Faith and Message to state that wives must submit to their husbands. In 2000, they passed rules to prevent women from serving as pastor. This has put them out of step with most Protestant denominations.

At least 8,000 delegates attended the 141st annual Southern Baptist Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1998.

The focal point of that year’s convention was a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message — first written in 1925 and then rewritten in 1963. The changes approved on June 9 were a culmination of 20+ years of conservative leanings within the Nashville-based church.

The text of the altered “18th Article of the Baptist Faith and Message” reads:

  • God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood, or adoption.
  • Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and his church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.
  • The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to his people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. 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. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
    • Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth. Children are to honor and obey their parents.

      Changes were derived from two verses in the New Testament book of Ephesians:

      • Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. (Ephesians 5: 22-23)
      • Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother — this is the first commandment with a promise: so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth. And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6: 1-4)

      Overwhelmingly rejected were two other amendments that called upon husbands and wives to submit to each other and that would have included widows, widowers, and single persons as expressions of “family.” Evidently, Baptist men didn’t like the idea of making any sort of gesture of submission to their wives.

      And what about widows and widowers — is one kicked out of the family the moment one’s spouse dies? Is marriage so privileged a state that all pre-marital and post-marital people can be excluded from the definition of “family”? That’s absurd. The nature of what constitutes a family is not God-given but created by culture.

      Our definitions have been changing over time, perhaps for the better.

      Not surprisingly, various Biblical verses were specifically ignored in the creation of this new mission statement. For example, the passage in chapter 6 of Ephesians is immediately followed by another verse which has been used to justify slavery and authoritarian relationships in general: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” The Southern Baptists, interestingly, broke away from the Baptist church over the issue of slavery. They also opposed desegregation in the 1960s.

      Deuteronomy 22:23-4 states: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife.

      So you shall purge the evil from your midst.“ I wonder if such a change in rape laws is something which they will call for in the coming years?

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      Not content to simply limit women’s role in the home and in marriage as they did during the 1998 meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention has tried to make sure that women do not play an important role in religious matters either. During the 2000 meeting they passed new rules that women should not serve as pastors.

      Why did they take this radical step — something relative rare among Protestant denominations today?

      According to Rev. Adrian Rogers of Memphis, Tennessee, chairman of the drafting committee, “While men and women are gifted ... the office of pastor is limited to men by Scripture.” Thus, in 1998 women were thus denied leadership roles in their own families and in 2000 they were also denied the right to hold leadership roles in their churches.

      The Faith and Message change did not address of whether women should be ordained, only whether they could be pastors who lead congregations. The change also did not say what should happen to the 1,600 or so Southern Baptist clergywomen who existed at the time, about 100 of whom were leading congregations.

      Because of the traditional Baptist emphasis on the autonomy of individual churches and the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention is more of a congregation union than an hierarchical denomination, the chang was not binding on individual Southern Baptists and the denomination’s 41,000 local congregations remained free to ordain women and hire them as pastors.

      Still, the fact that a change was made at all sent a powerful message and was designed to influence decisions at the congregational level.

      It is true that these changes were based upon statements found in the Bible, so it would be wrong to call these positions “unbiblical.” In both cases, though, they ignored or rejected verses which could lead to opposite conclusions.

      Although the Southern Baptists claim to be inerrantists, they aren’t really — they are selective inerrantists. They pick some passages to treat as inerrant and literal, but not others.

      This is clear in the Southern Baptists’ argument against the ordination of women. The relevant passage is in Timothy 2:11: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.” The “inerrantist” holds this verse to be an eternal, universal truth.

      In Timothy 2:8 it says: “Women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire.” Do inerrantists confiscate women’s jewelry at the church door and unbraid their hair? Hardly. They are picking and choosing which “inerrant” commands they wish to follow and enforce

      They don’t even appear to consistently follow the verses they do claim should be followed, for example the aforementioned I Timothy 2:11. Surely they allow women to teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, and speak at meetings. The fact of the matter is, they are being very selective in how they are trying to apply this “inerrant” verse.

      Inerrantists say that the Bible is their “authoritative answer” to questions like that of women’s roles in church and family, but this isn’t entire accurate.

      Instead, they follow a higher authority: a sexist attitude toward women which masks scripture so as to give their sexism a divine sanction. Is their problem with the ordination of women? No, their problem is more with women themselves.

      Former SBC President Bailey Smith made some revealing statements when he told wives to be submissive to their husbands “just as if he were God.” Smith added that when a wife fails to meet the sexual needs of her husband, she is partly to blame if he is unfaithful to her. The goal for these fundamentalists seems to be to rule over women — in the Southern Baptist Convention, in the church, and in the home.

      Their desire to dominate does not end with women, something made evident by their political actions and attempts to force others to live by their codes. We see this in proposals to post the Ten Commandments in government buildings, in school prayer laws, and much more.

      It is worth noting that with every such decision they make, they are in a sense moving further and further away from what it means to be a Baptist. According to Baptist tradition, each individual has equal ability to interpret scriptures themselves. Thus, there is supposed to be very little that is “official dogma.” This was one of the reasons why some Baptists objected to the addition of the declaration that women must submit to their husbands. Traditionally for Baptists, it should be up to the individuals to decide the role of women, not the SBC leadership.

      The SBC keeps adding to the Statement of Faith, the “official dogma” of the denomination; but the more they add, the less they are leaving to individuals to decide on their own. Just how far can they go in adding dogma and taking away the ability of individuals to interpret on their own and still reasonably have claim to the name “Baptist?”

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      Christian groups have been dismayed at what has come out of the Southern Baptist Convention. Most Protestant groups allow for women to have a role in church affairs, refusing to take literally the biblical command that women should not have authority and should submit to their husbands. The Southern Baptist Convention is out of step with American society and American Protestants.

      Leaders of the United Church of Christ, which has 1.5 million members in more than 6,000 congregations have expressed deep shock at the declarations.

      Rev. Paul Sherry, president of the Cleveland-based UCC, told reporters “With all due respect, the convention is on the wrong side of history and, I believe, far out of step with the central message of the Gospel.”

      Rev. Lois Powell, executive director of the UCC’s Coordinating Center for Women, has stated that “This statement does not appear in a vacuum, but rather as a tactic of the religious right to redefine culture in accordance with their very narrow interpretation of scripture.” Presumably, though, the Southern Baptists give little weight the to opinion of a mere woman in this issue. I wonder if they would even recognize her as any sort of religious/spiritual authority?

      Even the traditionally conservative Catholic Church was made to appear almost leftist. Frank Ruff, a Roman Catholic priest who serves as liaison to the Southern Baptists from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed disappointment over the changes and has suggested that it would end up hurting their efforts to evangelize.

      In 1993, the bishop’s conference issued their own pastoral letter which, although acknowledging some differences in marital roles, called for “mutual submission, not dominance by either partner” as the “key to genuine joy.”

      Maxine Hanks, an excommunicated Mormon and feminist author, told reporters that “This notion of women being submissive to male authority is terribly out of balance and it prevents these churches from evolving into the enlightened Christian ideal they claim.” I don’t know where she’s been, but I have yet to see the Southern Baptist leadership lay claim to any sort of “enlightened ideal.” Their ideals appear to be more about ancient social codes and outdated forms of social relationships.

      Many Baptist women, however, seem to take this lying down. I’m pretty sure that the millions of men who have attended the various Promise Keeper’s rallies didn’t bother to ask the opinions of their wives before going. Mary Mohler, a homemaker from Kentucky and member of the committee that wrote some of the changes, said that the term “submit” might not be popular, “but it is a biblically correct word and that’s what counts. I submit to the leadership of my husband in our home, not because it is commanded from Al Mohler, but because it is a command from almighty God to me as a Christian woman.”

      Isn’t that comforting? People used to consider the authority of kings and justice of slavery to be “a command from almighty God” to Christians, too. Slavery, willingly accepted and authorized by a god, is still slavery.

      This hostility towards women is not something which is being imposed upon the members by an unthinking leadership. Instead, it is something shared by large numbers of Southern Baptists and its effects are already being seen. In Waco, Texas there were reports of tussles and protests over the appointment of a woman as senior pastor at a Baptist church. A large crowed of mostly male protestors (big surprise) gathered outside the church and one man told reporters “We’ve already believed that women’s place is in the home, and certainly, in the house of the Lord, she has no place pastoring.”

      Signs reflecting similar sentiments were visible among the protesters. Among the messages were “Women have no authority” and “Working women equal moral corruption; working mothers equal child abuse.” Julie Pennington-Russell, who was to become that first female senior pastor in any Baptist church in Texas, had moved from San Francisco where people were a bit more tolerant. Some greeting, wasn’t it?

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