Southern Baptists and the Subjugation of Women
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Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 06:51:22 PM EST
While many of the earliest Baptist churches expected women to be involved in the affairs and ministries of the church and readily ordained women, women in the SBC have had to struggle to find a place for service.

When Southern Baptists organized in 1845, all of the participants (messengers) at the annual meeting were men. In 1885 women were refused admission to the SBC's annual meeting, and the SBC's constitution was changed to state explicitly that only men could serve as messengers. In 1888 the Women's Missionary Union (WMU) was founded in the basement of a Methodist church because they were not allowed to meet in a Baptist church. In 1904 four women were allowed to attend classes at Southern Seminary but they could not take part in class discussions or receive credit for the classes.

Finally, in 1918 the SBC allowed women to serve as messengers at Convention meetings. By 1929 a woman was permitted to address the SBC by giving the WMU report (previous WMU reports had been given men).

Pioneering women like Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary to China, were instrumental in expanding the role of women -- at least, on the mission field and in spite of opposition by many male Baptist leaders. Eventually, as the role of women grew in the workplace and politics of American society, Southern Baptist women began to have broader involvement in their local churches.

In 1964 Addie Davis became the first Southern Baptist woman ordained to the ministry. By the 1970's hundreds of women were enrolled in ministerial degree programs at SBC seminaries. By the early 1990's more than 1000 women had been ordained, more than 50 served as pastors in SBC churches, and others served as professors at Southern Baptist universities and seminaries.

This expanding role of women was strongly opposed by a coalition of Baptists led by Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. They diligently worked to erase the gains made by women and place them under the authority of men. The clearest examples of the SBC's subjugation of women are seen in their treatment of the WMU, ordained women and wives.

Women's Missionary Union

The WMU is an independent auxiliary of the SBC, which means that it is not part of the SBC's legal structure -- even though it works to advance mission education and to support SBC missions.  For the Pressler-Patterson coalition, the independent, auxilliary status of WMU -- rendering it free from denominational control -- is a symbolic reminder of the liberation of women from masculine dominance and the increasing independence of women in American life.

In 1993 Adrian Rogers, a key leader in the Pressler-Patterson coalition, declared that WMU must be "hard-wired" into the convention structure. If not, it would lose key positions on SBC policy-making bodies. "Hard wiring" meant that the SBC would select the WMU's board of directors instead of their being elected by the women in the various state WMU organizations.

When the WMU refused to submit to the wishes of the Pressler-Patterson coalition, it was targetted for attack. In 1995, in a letter mailed to 40,000 pastors, Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board (IMB) and appointee of the Pressler-Patterson coalition, publicly denounced the WMU for publishing mission education material for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) -- even though the WMU had done such things for other groups in the past. The chairman of the trustees of the IMB likened the WMU to an adulterous woman for producing mission education resources for the CBF. WMU also learned in 1995 that the IMB had secretly applied to trademark the name "Lottie Moon Christmas Offering," -- the name WMU has used for decades to collect mission offerings.

In 1998 James Hefley, another key leader in the Pressler-Patterson coalition, stated that there were two "possible outcomes" of attempts to marginalize WMU's influence in SBC life. First, the SBC could revoke its relationship with the WMU and start a similar new organization under SBC control. Second, the SBC could prepare it own materials for missionary education and women's ministry. The second strategy is being implemented gradually as other SBC agencies have started producing competing women's ministry materials.

At present, the WMU is in a state of decline. As long as it remains independent, the new leaders of the SBC will work to hasten its demise. As the WMU declines there will emerge in the SBC a new women's ministry that will unquestioningly submit to male authority.

The SBC and Ordained Women

The Pressler-Patterson's coalition's first volley against ordained women was fired when the Convention met at Kansas City in 1984. They passed a resolution affirming a hierarchical chain of command characterized as "God's delegated order of authority (God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, man the head of woman, . . .)." The resolution went on to say that women must be excluded from pastoral leadership "to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall." Women, it said, were limited to "work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination." Ordination of women as deacons was frowned upon as equally as ordaining women as pastors.

Though resolutions are not supposed to be binding in Baptist life, the Pressler-Patterson coalition treated them as though they were. Their trustees at SBC mission agencies began refusing to appoint ordained women as missionaries and their trustees at SBC seminaries began implementing policies prescribing that women in ministerial degree programs must take "alternative courses . . . instead of the normal courses in preaching and pastoral leadership."

The biggest bombshell dropped on Southern Baptist ordained women was delivered by the revision of the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) adopted in 2000. For the first time in history, a Southern Baptist confession of faith denied God's power to call a woman to pastoral ministry and revoked the freedom of autonomous Baptist churches to affirm whomever the Holy spirit led them to call as pastor. The 2000 BF&M decrees that "the office of pastor is limited to men" and ignores examples in both the Old and New Testament that God calls women to positions leading men in worship and service (Ex. 15:20; Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14; Micah 6:4; Joel 2:28-29; Luke 2:26-28; Acts 2:16-21; Acts 18; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5; Rom. 16:1,7).

The SBC and Wives

The Pressler-Patterson coalition's subjugation of women extended to the privacy of Baptist homes when a statement on the family was added to the BF&M. In line with the chain of command made explicit in the 1984 resolution, the 1998 family amendment advised wives that they must "graciously submit" to their husbands.

The unconditional nature of the wife's subjugation became clear at the official press conference following the statement's adoption. Dorothy Patterson, wife of Paige Patterson and a member of the committee that drafted the family statement, said, "When it comes to submitting to my husband even when he is wrong, I just do it. He is accountable to God."

Such interpretations ignore the grammatical (in the Greek) and logical priority that must be given to the command to mutual submission in the family (Eph. 5:21). It also makes the husband "lord" of the wife rather than acknowledging that Christ is Lord over both and that submission is only proper when a request is worthy of Christ -- "as unto to the Lord" (Eph. 5:22). Compounding these misunderstandings is their insistence on viewing the metaphor "head" (Eph. 5:23) as an image of a proud and powerful "military ruler" rather than as an image of a self-sacrificing and humble "suffering servant" who voluntarily sets aside power and glory and gives his life for his family (Philippians 2:3-8).

These and other recent instances of the SBC's subjugation of women have led many women to question how they can continue to conscientiously support a denomination so opposed to their values.

Dr. Prescott,

Great post!  I passed it on to my 80 year-old grandmother who is still a diehard WMU'er in Virginia.  

Last year the Baylor library was discarding old books and I was able to snag two books from James Hefley's "Truth In Crisis" series.  No two books have angered me more than those...

Thanks again for the very informative post!

by Big Daddy Weave on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 09:30:10 PM EST

There's a lot of skewed history in those "Truth in Crisis" books.

by Mainstream Baptist on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 08:14:18 AM EST

It really saddens me to see this ill treatment of half the population of this sect. My 'read' of the so-called 'fall' is a lot different than the traditional patrichial one:

Yes, Eve ate of the fruit, and it opened her eyes. She offered this enlightenment to Adam. He could have refused it, but he did not. He, too was enlightened.

Who is truly to blame, then? The woman for offering or the man for accepting? Who was really the weaker vessel?

Stuff like that gets me kicked out of religious discussion groups all the time...

Institutionalized sexism is an ugly thing.

by Lorie Johnson on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 07:55:01 PM EST

I won't even go into Lillith. She's my hero.


by Lorie Johnson on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 07:56:19 PM EST

It's amazing how many "discussion" groups don't want to discuss anything but what their patriarchs want them to believe.

by Mainstream Baptist on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 08:16:45 AM EST

Your post reminded me of the wholesale firing of missionaries in 2003.

Trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board ... terminated 13 missionaries who refused to affirm the SBC's new, more conservative faith statement, the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. This is believed to be the largest group of SBC missionaries ever fired at one time.

At the May 5-7 meeting, IMB trustees also accepted the resignations of another 20 missionaries and early retirements of 10 missionaries who refused to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.

The 43 missionaries who parted ways with the IMB May 7 joined the ranks of at least 34 others who have resigned or retired rather than sign the document most of them considered to be a non-Baptist creed.
Critics of the revised faith statement question its blanket prohibition against woman pastors, consider it to weaken the traditional Baptist doctrines of the autonomy of the local church and priesthood of the believer and contend it places the Bible in higher esteem than Jesus as a guide to biblical interpretation. But the primary conflict cited by missionaries is a feeling that signing any faith statement amounts to affirming a creed--something historically anathema to Baptists.
Even though IMB trustees accepted the resignations and retirements and approved the firings, the board never officially called for missionaries to sign an affirmation of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message. The mandate was given by President Jerry Rankin as an administrative action in January 2002.
At the May board meeting, Rankin reiterated his position that signing the faith statement was necessary to hold missionaries accountable to the SBC.

"These missionaries are supported by Southern Baptist churches and should at least be willing to conduct their work in basic agreement with what Southern Baptists confess they believe," Rankin said. "Although we regret that any missionary would choose to resign rather than affirm the faith statement, we feel it is time to move forward and keep our focus on sharing Christ with a lost world."

It was all a unilateral action taken by Rankin from the comfort of his air-conditioned office, without the slightest qualm over axing dozens of seasoned and devoted missionaries who had given their lives to toiling in the vineyards of the Lord.

by moiv on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 10:42:58 PM EST

The actions of the executive were just giving cover for the decision of his entire board.

by Mainstream Baptist on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 08:18:30 AM EST

I was curious about the history and details. You've filled them in nicely. Kind of frightening though. For popular consumption, the right tends to soft-pedal male "headship." Your use of "subjugation" seems more accurate. It does provide support for the view that control of women is an important piece of the debate over things like abortion and contraception.

Still have a bit of trouble getting into the heads of women who put up with this in the 21st century - although they may have more control in the home than is apparent. Lived in the South long ago for a few years and there was no shortage of steel magnolias. Sort of a kabuki dance. The women seemed to have their own subtle forms of control while allowing the men to think they were in charge. Did I misread it?

by Psyche on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 11:10:45 PM EST

I know Northern counterparts of the Southern "Steel Magnolias" you mention.

by Bruce Wilson on Wed Mar 08, 2006 at 11:35:59 PM EST

Many of the wives of fundamentalists have very strong personalities.  They let the men talk about being in charge, but do whatever they want -- without ordination papers.

by Mainstream Baptist on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 08:22:33 AM EST

Thank you for writing this piece. I remember in 1998 when my good friend, colleague and mentor (he told me I was his Timothy, and he was my Paul), Rev. Johnny Sconce of the Southern Baptist Church, went into the Convention chained to his wife as an act of protest. He had showed up at an earlier convention when there was to be a vote for President, and everyone knew that the right-wing radicals who were taking over the convention would be showing up by the busload to vote, and he stood at the entrance to the plenary and help up a sign that said "Fundies, check your brains at the door." Though we have been ordaining women in the United Church of Christ since 1854, the sad truth is that women still do not earn the same pay as men in comparable positions; do not have access to many of the more prestigious churches that men have historically served; and we are also berated from the right for the explorations that female scholars have made in the field of feminist theology.
Shalom, Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer "Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward who would keep abreast of truth." from Lowell, "The Present Crisis"
by John Dorhauer on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 07:42:54 AM EST
Between 1991 and 2000 I didn't attend any SBC Conventions.

I went in 2000 to resist the adoption of the 2000 BF&M and again in 2002 to appeal for the rescension of the decision to terminate missionaries who refused to sign the 2000 BF&M.  I haven't been back since and doubt that I ever will.

by Mainstream Baptist on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 08:31:26 AM EST

are experiencing the same kinds of attacks.  Tooley has specifically gone of after Methodist womens groups.  At my Episcopal Church, an extreme right wing priest demanded that the women's group disband and put their money in the general fund.  

Most Episcopal and Methodist women's groups control their own funds and fund their own mission choices.  The reason for taking down the women is pretty transparent.    You can see why they threaten those in league with the IRD.

by tikkun on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 10:40:12 AM EST

At my Episcopal Church, an extreme right wing priest demanded that the women's group disband and put their money in the general fund.

It seems to me that a demand like this is usually followed by some form of, "or else."  Maybe it was implied, maybe it was directly stated.  Either way, wouldn't that be considered extortion or possibly even racketeering?

by Ross Raymond on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 09:14:48 PM EST

Even if so, in the current political climate such legal challenges might not get much support.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Mar 10, 2006 at 02:59:20 AM EST

I told my beloved paternal grandmother when I was 15 that I would not longer be attending her Presbyterian church.  It hurt her deeply.  She was my de facto parent.  I told her that it had to be, because I was a feminist who believed in egalitarian status and in equal opportunity and equal protection of the laws.  This was in 1975.

I had been told by the women in my family:  "Marry - and just let him think he's in charge."  This sort of tracks that duality you and the other poster discussed above.

My attitude is, "No games.  No pretending.  Equal opportunity and equal protection of the law."  And that's what I teach my child.

I know several Southern Baptist women living in the Midwest; they behave like the women discussed above - going along with the SBC mandates, but they really are the ones "in charge" in their family homes.  They prefer their own society of women, and there is a pecking order in these ministries, clubs, societies and leagues as well (a pecking order among the women - their way of dealing with things).

Again, thanks for the information.

by Maat on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 06:44:19 PM EST

To what extent are boys in such families encouraged and girls discouraged ?

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Mar 10, 2006 at 03:01:46 AM EST
They're just encouraged to make their home and church the center of their life.

The church benefits greatly from the energies of women looking for something meaningful to do.  They just do the bulk of the organizing and networking for the ordained males that take the stage whenever it is spotlighted.

by Mainstream Baptist on Fri Mar 10, 2006 at 09:43:06 AM EST

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