To Reckon with #MeToo, Southern Baptists Need to Reckon With Theology

Paige Patterson—a powerful Southern Baptist leader at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest theological seminaries in the world—encouraged women to return to their abusers, made inappropriate comments about women’s bodies and told a student not to report a rape to the police. His recent firing seemed to reinforce the idea that the #MeToo movement has indeed come to the Christian church—including the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country.

Kate Ausburn / Creative Commons

Initially, the seminary’s trustees removed Patterson as president but gave him a cushy retirement package; days later, only after more women came forward with stories of their mistreatment, the trustees revoked his emeritus title, salary and permanent housing on the campus. After all, an email had come to light in which Patterson told the chief of campus security that he wanted to meet alone with a student who had reported she had been raped so he could “break her down.”

That, it seems, was a bridge too far—at least in the current political climate. Patterson’s beliefs about women are not news among Southern Baptists, and his treatment of women has been unwaveringly consistent over the past four decades and well known in Southern Baptist circles. But in the #MeToo moment, his words and actions have become more obviously problematic.

I was a student at another Southern Baptist seminary in the early 1980s when Patterson led the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention from more moderate Baptists. (Patterson’s co-architect of the takeover, Paul Pressler, is currently under investigation for sexual misconduct.)

The takeover movement claimed to be about biblical inerrancy, but I’ve argued for years that it was really about the progress of women. On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, Baptist women were entering seminaries in unprecedented numbers and claiming a call to ordained ministry. Women were demanding equal treatment in the home and in society. As Ellen Rosenberg, author of The Southern Baptists: A Subculture in Transition, has argued, many conservative white men in the South were feeling a loss of power, over both black people and women. The fundamentalist takeover of the SBC provided an opportunity for these white men to reassert at least some of their authority by reaffirming a divinely ordered gender hierarchy—hearkening back to the SBC’s founding in 1845 in support of slavery.

Back then, and still now, Patterson and his compatriots argued that wives were to submit to husbands and women were excluded from ordained ministry. They claimed this as biblical teaching—but in reality it was, and is, nothing more than thinly veiled misogyny.

What is coming to light in the wake of #MeToo are the abusive extremes within the church—yet harassment, mistreatment, sexual assault and the complicity of those who look away represent only one end of a continuum of Christian misogyny. On this end, phrases like “gracious submission” and “complementarianism” mask an unrelenting patriarchal authority that relegates women to a sexuality that must be controlled. Abuse, harassment and sexual assault may be sinful for the perpetrator, but ultimately the woman is complicit if not responsible; her role is to offer forgiveness and serve as a conduit to bring the man back to God. Her suffering is a side note, a detour in a man’s narrative of redemption.

A large segment of the Christian church, including its evangelical wing, does stand ready to condemn these behaviors. In fact, 3,000 Southern Baptist women and their supporters signed an open letter condemning Patterson’s actions. The problem is that Christian misogyny is much larger than its extremes, and this context serves to maintain expressions of misogyny within the church—and while the women denounced Patterson’s “unbiblical view of authority, womanhood and sexuality,” they did not repudiate the conservative views of women’s submission that give rise to Patterson’s extremes.

Patterson’s beliefs and behaviors and the harassment and abuse scandals coming to light in Protestant and particularly evangelical churches do not come out of nowhere. They are part of a long history of conservative Christian beliefs about women. 

For centuries, the church has told women that they are the cause of sin in the world. Despite the fact that the biblical story of the Fall does not say that Eve’s punishment was to be visited upon all women for all times, many Christian thinkers through the years have used that story to blame women and then to justify discrimination and subjugation. The church has ignored biblical images of God as female and has fostered an idolatrous personification of God as male. In 1992, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming that representation of God as father is essential to faith. Only a few weeks ago, United Methodists refused to say that God is neither male nor female and so voted down an amendment to the Book of Discipline that would have elevated gender justice in the church.

Christian misogyny has prevented women’s ordination and leadership in churches. Despite Pope Francis’ seeming openness to many issues of justice, he has firmly reiterated that women will not be ordained as Catholic priests. The Baptist Faith and Message limits ordained pastoral leadership to men. While I was in seminary, I saw the soul violence this misogyny visits upon women: men, we were told by fundamentalists, were called to ministry by God; women were called by their own ambition.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, condemned the abuse of women in a blog response to Patterson’s downfall—but he still embraces women’s submission, and in the 1990s he targeted the lone woman on the seminary’s theology faculty and oversaw her forced resignation. Yet he, and many evangelicals like him, still believes he can separate out abuse, harassment and sexual assault from practices of female submission and the exclusion of women from ordained ministry, as if one has nothing to do with the other.

Patterson’s behavior toward women makes perfectly good sense within a theological context that asserts women’s responsibility for the Fall, women’s sexual power over men, women’s weaker nature and core sinfulness and women’s necessary submission to men. Evangelicals like Patterson and Mohler want it both ways. They want to argue for women’s essential human equality before God and, at the same time, for women’s God-appointed submission. It all reminds me of the famous quote from Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

A theology that denies women’s full humanity in deed, even as it pronounces it in words, is a mere mask for patriarchy and misogyny, whether it is reflected in sexual assault or exclusion from ordination. A Mormon student once asked me if patriarchy couldn’t sometimes be a good thing. “No,” I responded. “Patriarchy is a system of hierarchy of men over women, and that can never be good because it is inherently unequal.” I’d say the same to Christians who think they can espouse unequal treatment within some theological framework of human equality.

We cannot say women and men are created equal and then treat them unequally based on gender. We cannot treat women and men unequally and then be surprised when abuse, violence and complicity follow.

Women are the majority of people who attend church and who keeping the church running. And yet, in word and deed, many Christian leaders tell them they are less than, less capable, less worthy, less important.  

Women deserve better. I can only hope that the #MeToo movement not only reaches the excesses of Christian misogyny but also begins to reshape the theologies and practices that offer a context of support for women’s subordination and abuse.

Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.

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