Southern Baptists Pursue a Mission of Misogyny

As clergy sex abuse crisis simmers, Southern Baptists focus on ousting women pastors.

Rev. Robert Jeffress, the controversial pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, defends an abortion ban outside the Texas Capitol on July 8, 2013, in Austin. In addition to serving as a senior pastor of the 14,000-member megachurch, Jeffress is a Fox News contributor. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images)

Beginning this Sunday, thousands of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) delegates will assemble in Indianapolis, and one of the most misogynistic gatherings in all of Christendom will be on display.

Southern Baptists hold to “male headship” as the purportedly God-ordered right way. Though this has long been their belief, they’re now doubling down and seeking to enshrine the practice into their Constitution.

Southern Baptists Prepare to Purge Women Pastors … Again

The SBC’s doctrinal statement declares that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Though this language is obviously exclusionary, in recent years, many in the denomination have deemed it not effective enough in keeping women out. Some churches were interpreting it to mean only that a woman couldn’t be the head pastor of a church.

Horrors. With much metaphorical hand-wringing and hyperventilating, manly men of the Southern Baptist Convention called such waywardness a “liberal drift” and deemed it intolerable.

So, at the SBC’s annual gathering in June, thousands of delegates will take a final vote on whether to amend the SBC’s Constitution so as to assure that no affiliated church can affirm, appoint or employ a woman as “any kind of pastor or elder.”

That’s right. They want to assure that women can’t even work as children’s pastors, or as associate pastors under the supervision of a male head pastor. In other words, Southern Baptists can’t even bear to have women pastors under the thumb of “men as qualified by Scripture.” They just want women out of the pastorate altogether.

Southern Baptists previously voted in favor of this amendment in June 2023. However, to go into effect, the amendment must be approved by a two-thirds vote two years in a row. So, the issue of women pastors will again dominate the convention this June in Indianapolis.

The sponsor of the amendment, pastor Mike Law from Virginia, previously circulated what was widely decried as a hit list of 176 female pastors targeted for ouster. And in 2023, the SBC was so rabid about women pastors that it purported to oust a church that wasn’t even affiliated and hadn’t been for over two decades. The church had quit long ago, but apparently the SBC still wanted the adrenaline rush of saying, “You’re fired.”

Southern Baptists can’t even bear to have women pastors under the thumb of ‘men as qualified by Scripture.’ They just want women out of the pastorate altogether.

For all the inquisitorial hoopla that Southern Baptists have generated around the issue, you might imagine that women pastors were taking over the denomination. But of course, the reality is that their numbers are small and shrinking.

  • North Carolina has about 4,300 Southern Baptist churches, and there are only about 20 women pastors within them.
  • Ten years ago, the number of Southern Baptist women pastors in North Carolina was around 200, and 20 years ago, it was around 400.

So, why is there such an enormous backlash against women pastors? Southern Baptists have already done such a good job of running them off that, if they just waited a few more years, it appears their problem would nearly solve itself.

The Sacralization of Southern Baptist Misogyny

Southern Baptists believe that casting women out from leadership is what God wants from them, and this belief effectively blinds them to the harm of their teachings and practices. In other words, their theology serves not only to legitimize such misogyny but to sacralize it; misogyny is a theological mandate that they pursue with evangelical zeal. 

They don’t see their misogyny as immoral; they see it as a mission from God. And of course, it just so happens that “God’s will” serves their ends of status quo power.

No one should ever forget that the Southern Baptist Convention has its very origins in a theology that sanctified the enslavement of human beings, consecrated the Confederacy, and birthed a bloody civil war. That’s how dangerous and powerful their theology is. Those same roots feed their theology of misogyny today. 

Misogyny is a theological mandate that they pursue with evangelical zeal. 

The Misogynistic Theology Fosters Abuse in the Family

It’s not only in the church where men hold the power; it’s also in the family. According to Southern Baptist belief, “a wife is to submit herself graciously” to the leadership of her husband.

Perhaps you imagine that submitting to a husband’s leadership would mean that a women should copy his political views or should let him control the checkbook. But “gracious submission” is also a Southern Baptist tenet for women’s sexuality. Just look at the “gold nugget of advice” that megachurch celebrity pastor Josh Howerton recently delivered to the thousands of women in his congregation:

“When you get to his wedding night … stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do.”

The people in the pews applauded Howerton’s crude rhetoric. But when a video of Howerton’s sermon was posted online, countless people expressed disgust with such an objectifying and misogynistic view of sex, marriage and male entitlement.

Howerton then doubled down and criticized the criticizers. It was “a joke,” he insisted.

Many others in evangelicalism jumped on board with the “it was a joke” defense, often tossing in the trope that the women, who were objecting to being objectified, were just “too sensitive.” As if talking about women as though they were blow-up sex dolls were somehow funny. As if doing it as a pastor to a crowd of over 10,000 were normal.

This kind of dehumanizing indoctrination has been going on for decades within evangelicalism, in sermon after sermon and book after book, and almost always with the implicit message that this is the way God wants it. Women who protest get labeled as “bad and ungodly” … or worse.

The reason Southern Baptists have let male sexual entitlement go on so long, explained columnist Rick Pidcock, “is that it is merely one expression of their larger context of sacralized male authority and female submission.” They aren’t seeking to dismantle beliefs and practices that further rape culture; they’re trying to spread them through preaching, “discipling,” and evangelizing.

The SBC’s Misogynistic Beliefs Prop Up a Culture Blind to Sexual Abuse

The SBC’s uproar about women pastors comes in the midst of the SBC’s widely-publicized and unabated clergy sex abuse crisis. A faith group in which people are indoctrinated from childhood into the notion that men should have authority over women—and that this is God’s holy plan—is a faith group in which some men will use that authority in unholy ways—to groom and sexually abuse women and children.

And with men always in charge, women’s voices remain always lesser, so that when they seek to report abuse, they are seldom heard.

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) hold a press conference Sept. 14, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

In 2022, an independent investigatory report concluded that, for decades, the SBC’s top leaders had been systematically focused on protecting the denomination against liability risks, to the exclusion of almost everything else, including the safety of kids and congregants against clergy sex abuse. Leaders covered up abuse, bullied survivors and stonewalled proposals for reform. They denigrated survivors even as they promoted perpetrators and their enablers. (I myself was denounced as being part of a satanic scheme.)

With men always in charge, women’s voices remain always lesser, so that when they seek to report abuse, they are seldom heard.

Yet here we are two years after that report, and there has been no real reckoning within the faith group. SBC officials have spewed platitudes and promises, but meaningful reform has been nearly nonexistent. There is still no functional system for institutionally holding accountable pastors who rape and molest the young and vulnerable. Nor is there any effective system for imposing consequences on those who enable and cover up their colleagues’ abuses.

When you combine the SBC’s misogynistic, authoritarian theology, which relegates females to second-class status, with an institutional structure lacking in effective accountability systems, you wind up with an institution in which abuse can run rampant. That’s the Southern Baptist Convention.

Thanks to dogged journalists and attorneys, reports of Southern Baptist clergy sex abuse and coverups continue in the news on an almost daily basis. Yet the SBC does almost nothing to earnestly address the problem. Instead, like the “bread and circuses” of imperial Rome, the SBC uses an anti-women agenda to appease their base and divert attention from their abuse scandal.  

The Dangers of Underestimating the Southern Baptist Convention

As troubling as Southern Baptist beliefs and practices are, the faith group is too big and too mainstream to be dismissed as fringe. Their extremism hides in plain sight. 

With 13 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant faith group in the country. Considered as a bellwether for white evangelicals, and enmeshed with the Republican Party, the SBC carries an outsized influence disproportionate to its numbers.

In statehouses, school boards, and city councils across the country, we’ve seen the harm that evangelicals can do when they rally their constituencies—rolling back rights for LGBTQ people, banning books, restricting contraceptive access, limiting women’s healthcare and fostering discrimination against trans people.  

The current speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, is a Southern Baptist. He’s second in the line of succession to the presidency, and he embodies the “biblical worldview” of the Southern Baptist Convention. As someone who has long observed Southern Baptists, that knowledge has me quaking.

U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) at the anti-abortion March for Life rally on the National Mall on Jan. 19, 2024. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Southern Baptist seminary president Al Mohler recently wrote that it was “morally insane” that the law does not apply “some form of criminal sanction” to women who have abortions. He allowed that, depending on the circumstances, there could be distinctions between the level of culpability, such as between manslaughter and first-degree murder.

Because Mohler is an evangelical heavy-weight, his words brought credence to a movement many may have previously dismissed: the “abortion abolitionists” who seek to prosecute and imprison women who have abortions. Across much of evangelicalism, “abortion abolitionists” cheered Mohler’s words with the frenzy of face-painted football fans.

Of course, like women everywhere, Southern Baptists also have abortions. Reportedly, one in three women in Southern Baptist churches have had an abortion… though they seldom talk about it with church people. This means that Mohler and the abolitionists would apparently wish for one-third of the women in Southern Baptist churches to be criminally prosecuted, and would wish it for women outside their evangelical tribe as well.

The Southern Baptist Convention is a powerful and influential voting bloc, and its people are mission-driven. If the SBC acquires still more power, much about The Handmaid’s Tale may seem less of a fictional dystopia and more of a real possibility.

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Christa Brown is the author of the new book, Baptistland: A Memoir of Abuse, Betrayal, and Transformation. She has persisted for two decades in working to peel back the truth about clergy sex abuse and coverups in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, and has consistently demanded reforms to make kids and congregants safer.