Southern Baptists Consider Women’s Leadership a ‘Threat’

The Southern Baptist Convention has been trying to limit women since their founding. Rather than address a rampant epic clergy abuse scandal, they’ve renewed this focus.

An outdoor service at the Southwest Baptist Church on Oct. 2, 2022 in Fort Myers, Fla. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Southern Baptists are at it again, targeting women pastors in the next round of an ongoing battle over ordination and leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

Never mind that more and more people are leaving churches and identifying as religious “nones.” Never mind that among young people, this mostly has to do with the church’s exclusionary beliefs and practices. Never mind that there is a clergy sex abuse scandal among Southern Baptists.

The possibility of women’s leadership is such a threat, it has to be eradicated. So rather than dealing decisively with its clergy abuse scandal, the SBC’s annual meeting last month chose to spend its time pummeling women pastors and once again delaying necessary abuse reforms.

During the meeting, “messengers”—Southern Baptist language for “delegates”—reaffirmed the expulsion of two churches that have women serving as pastors. They also took the first steps in amending the denomination’s constitution to ensure any member congregation “does not affirm, appoint or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”

I am not surprised. The SBC has been trying to limit women since their founding when they prevented women from being messengers and required a man to give the report of the women’s missionary organization during the SBC meeting.

The timing of the current actions is also suspect, since Southern Baptists are facing an epic clergy abuse scandal that they seem to want to do little about. Suddenly turning the denomination’s attention back to women as pastors nearly 40 years after the SBC approved a resolution saying only men should serve as senior pastors seems a convenient smokescreen for avoiding the problem of sexual misconduct in their midst.

I have been observing Southern Baptists all my life. I grew up one, got my masters degree and a Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and intended to spend my life serving Southern Baptists—until fundamentalists took over the denomination in the early 1990s.

I was ordained by a Southern Baptist congregation in 1993, then left the SBC in 1996 after it amended its constitution to exclude churches that affirmed queer folks. Since then, I have studied and written about Southern Baptists, especially Southern Baptist women. I see the SBC’s recent shenanigans as a continuation of the misogyny that characterized the fundamentalist takeover during the 1980s and ’90s.

Saying only men should serve as senior pastors seems a convenient smokescreen for avoiding the problem of sexual misconduct in their midst.

A Little Baptist History

Baptists came into being fighting. They were 17th-century dissenters from the Church of England who had to flee persecution there. They believed in religious liberty and separation of church and state and the authority of the individual conscience before God. That meant they disagreed—a lot.

From the beginning, Baptists disagreed over free will and predestination, which is the idea that God has preordained who is and is not saved or damned. They also fought over hymn-singing, worship styles, education and the enslavement of Africans.

They also fought over the role of women. In the U.S., Separate Baptists allowed women to preach, and they had women who served as deacons and elders. The most famous of these women preachers was Martha Stearns Marshall who worked with her brother Shubal Stearns and husband Daniel Marshall to establish a Separate Baptist Church in Sandy Creek, NC, that would become influential in the later creation of Southern Baptists. Separate Baptists believed salvation was available to all who chose to believe, that worship should be fervent and evangelistic, and that anyone could be called to preach, educated or not.

The other strand of Baptists in the South that would eventually blend with Separate Baptists to form the Southern Baptist Convention was Regular Baptists, characterized by the First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C. Regular Baptists believed God had elected some to salvation and some to damnation, that worship should be orderly and restrained, and that preachers should be educated—and men.

As these two traditions merged, one of the compromises was rejection of women as preachers. The agreement, however, that led to the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention was over slavery. Baptists in the North, on the whole, opposed slavery—so Baptists in the South split with them to form the SBC.

Controversy over women did not end there, however. In the late 19th century, the woman who became Southern Baptists’ most famous missionary—Lottie Moon—was censured by the Foreign Mission Board when she was accused of preaching in China because she would stand and speak publicly to groups of both women and men. Moon, in response, fired off a letter telling the board that if they would send her $500 for her passage home, she would deliver her resignation letter to them in person. The board never responded, and Moon stayed in China. The SBC’s annual offering for international missions still bears her name.

The Modern Battle Over Women

The first Southern Baptist woman to be ordained was Addie Davis in 1964. Her ordination sparked little controversy, and nearly a decade passed before other women sought ordination.

In the 1970s, as the women’s movement gained moment, Southern Baptist women began to see women moving into roles traditionally held by men, and so many began to realize they too could answer their callings by becoming preachers and pastors. Women began to enroll in the six Southern Baptist seminaries in significantly greater numbers than ever before, to profess a calling to ordination and the pastorate.

In 1979, fundamentalists within the denomination began to organize to take control of the SBC from the moderates that had led it for decades. These fundamentalists used the notion of biblical inerrancy—the idea that the Bible is without error in history, science or theology—to rally conservative Southern Baptists. But my scholarship suggests that what really provoked their takeover movement was the progress of women.

Fundamentalists professed to read the Bible literally, and therefore claimed that the Bible prohibited women from preaching. They pointed to the Apostle Paul’s admonition that women keep silence in the church.

Moderate Baptists took a more historical-critical stance—that passages like Paul’s in I Corinthians were contextual and the overarching message of the Bible was one of liberation and equality.

In 1984, as fundamentalists gained greater control of the SBC, they passed a resolution contending that the role of pastor was reserved for men. They reasoned that because Eve was “first in the Fall,” women were disqualified from serving as pastors, a role they saw as carrying authority over men.

Once they completed their takeover of the SBC, fundamentalists changed the denomination’s confession of faith to say that wives are to “submit graciously” to their husbands. (Baptists do not have creeds. Creeds are mandatory beliefs. Baptists have confessions, general statements of belief but not requirements because each individual is free to believe as they feel convinced.)

The role model for gracious submission among Southern Baptists had to be Beth Moore. Moore is a popular writer and speaker. Smart and beautiful, Moore was toeing the line on women—until Donald Trump. After the infamous Access Hollywood tape came out, Moore, a survivor herself, questioned how Christians could support an immoral man like Trump. The backlash and cancellation were immediate.

Then Moore sent out a tweet that implied she was preaching for a Mother’s Day service at a church, and SBC leaders and pastors came after her. Finally, Moore had had enough and announced her departure from the SBC.

Southern Baptists’ Clergy Abuse Scandal

About this same time, the extent of clergy abuse and its cover-up in the SBC started to come to light. Although activists like survivor Christa Brown and Dee Miller had been after the SBC for decades to address clergy abuse, a report by the Houston Chronicle highlighted numbers of abuse cases and the denomination’s refusal to address the problem.

Eventually, the bad publicity and pressure from within the denomination led the SBC executive committee to commission an investigation. The report was stunning and scathing in its indictment of the Convention’s mishandling of clergy abuse.

The 2023 Convention was supposed to address the problem with concrete interventions.

But the ordinations of three women pastors (in children’s, students’ and pastoral ministries) by the SBC’s largest church, Saddleback Church in Southern California, gave the Convention both a way to target women and a convenient diversion from the clergy sex abuse problem.

Attendees at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. (Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images for Word Entertainment)

When the SBC originally passed the 1984 resolution, the talk was all about women as “senior pastors.” There was a general sense that women could serve in other pastoral roles, just not the one in charge. The women ordained by Saddleback were not senior pastors.

In 2023, the SBC Executive Committee ousted five congregations for having women pastors, including Saddleback. Saddleback and Fern Creek Baptist Church, which does have a woman senior pastor, appealed their expulsions at the 2023 Convention. Messengers overwhelming voted to uphold the exclusions—88 percent for Saddleback and 92 percent for Fern Creek.

There was a general sense that women could serve in other pastoral roles, just not the one in charge. The women ordained by Saddleback were not senior pastors.

To add insult to injury, the Convention also began a process to amend its constitution to exclude churches that affirm, appoint, or employ women as pastors of any kind. The proposed amendment must be approved by the annual meeting again in 2024 to become part of the SBC’s constitution. One pastor has already started a hit list of 170 Southern Baptist churches with women pastors.

When historian Beth Barr of Baylor University pointed out that the publication of this list with the addresses of the churches put women in danger, conservative Twitter went wild. Despite how often we have seen these lists used to target people for violence, apparently many conservatives do not like to have that pointed out.

Even as the Convention moved quickly on women pastors, it slow-walked its abuse response despite last year’s pledges to make significant progress. They did launch a database at last, but it will only have names of pastors who have “confessed, been convicted, or agreed to civil settlement in abuse cases.”

As feminists, of course, we know that most abusers never confess, get convicted or agree to a civil settlement.

Again, Southern Baptists show their unwillingness to address the problem in a truly meaningful way.

Why Should Feminists Care What Southern Baptists Do?

Southern Baptists are the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, mostly concentrated in the Deep South. That means they are a powerful voting bloc, and we have seen the harm that can do with legislative moves in many states to block abortion access, limit contraceptives, ban books, constrain public school and university teaching on issues of race, gender, and sexuality, roll back LGBTQ rights, prevent gender-affirming healthcare, ban drag shows, and target trans people for discrimination and mistreatment.

Baptists often have great confidence in their own ability to discern what is right—even when pastors and the SBC tell them something else.

Feminists in Southern states all too well understand the threat of evangelical politics. And what states have done to roll back human and civil rights for minorities is on the national agenda as well: Given gerrymandering, the outsize influence of rural states in the Senate, and the Supreme Court, we can expect more and more attempts to replicate Southern atrocities nationally. There is already work underway for a national abortion ban, and the influence of Texas and Florida on school textbooks means children and youth are already getting misinformation or missing information.

The SBC is a bellwether for the nation. The far-right takeover of Republican and national politics mirrors the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC in the ’80s and ’90s. If Southern Baptists can convince otherwise good and reasonable people to use any means necessary—including lying, cheating and destroying the lives of those with whom they disagree—as a means to power, then it is not a stretch to imagine right-wing Republicans doing the same thing. In fact, they already have.

The hope, of course, also lies in Baptist history and belief itself. As a dissenting people, Baptists do disagree and fight. Because Baptists believe each person has direct access to God and that God can speak directly to each person, they often have great confidence in their own ability to discern what is right—even when pastors and the SBC tell them something else.

My own conservative mother each year nominates women as deacons in her church, even though the church will not hear of it. She tells me that the Bible says Phoebe was a deacon, and so women can be deacons. Her nomination is her form of resistance. She also opposed the ouster of a church in her local Baptist association that had called a woman as co-pastor. She does not think women should be pastors, but she absolutely supports the Baptist notion of the autonomy of the local church—that each local church makes its own decisions and is not directed by any other Baptist body. She even came to hear me preach once. After the service she said, “Well, I did not see anything wrong with that.”

The other possibility is that the Southern Baptist Convention just keeps shrinking into irrelevance.

When the SBC ran all of us progressives and moderates out in the ’80s and ’90s, I imagined it was only a matter of time until they turned on each other, and they have—over Calvinism and race and now again over women.

What once held the SBC together was a sense that Baptists could cooperate across their differences for the greater good. Now the SBC is run by folks who think they are the only ones who are right. Pretty soon, they may just be sitting alone in their empty sanctuaries on Sunday mornings—because no one else is right enough to belong with them.

I imagine a lot of feminists are thinking, “We can only hope.” Southern Baptists may eventually avert their danger for the rest of us—but in the meantime, we feminists have to be vigilant in our watchfulness and wise in our activism and resistance. Particularly Christian feminists can offer alternative visions of faith that are inclusive, welcoming, egalitarian and just.

In the words of the Apostle Paul, working together, we can be not overcome with evil, but we can overcome evil with good.

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.