By Rev. Jennifer Butler | CEO | Faith in Public Life
In college I was president of the Baptist Student Union (BSU) and a Baptist summer missionary serving migrant workers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Through the BSU I met my first woman pastor and engaged in biblical Debate over women in leadership. The BSU built me up as a leader and nurtured my faith. But then the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) began. Like so many women, I left and was ordained in another denomination.
Just this week, one of the architects of this fundamentalist takeover, Paige Patterson, was fired from his post as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This comes after a series of revelations that Patterson supported, and even encouraged abusive and sexist behavior in communities he led.
As part of his crusade to pull the SBC to the right, Patterson advocated a conservative view of women’s roles in society. Known as “complementarianism,” it is the belief that the Bible teaches men and women are equal in God’s eyes but have separate gender roles, particularly in the church and family. It is misogyny disguised by a fancy theological term, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I am heartened to see Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary fire Patterson and to see prominent leaders like Al Mohler calling his church to repent. But to truly reform the denomination, leaders will have to do far more than simply call the church to do a better job of protecting women from abuse. The SBC will have to change its unbiblical and immoral doctrine of complementarianism.
Leaders like Patterson claim their views are rooted in scripture. Yet volumes have been written on the biblical case against complementarianism. Christians often build off the word in Genesis 2:18 to argue that women were created to be subservient “helpmates” for men. The word translated as “helpmate” is the word “ezer” in Hebrew, a word used throughout scripture to describe a relationship to someone with equal, even more power. It’s used to describe God. This verse would best be translated as “I will make a power [or strength] like that of a man.” A woman is someone who can truly be the man’s equal because she is strong.
The other objection I often hear quotes one of several places in Paul’s letters where he seems to forbid women from leading in churches. These are misinterpretations of those passages but, more than that, Paul’s letters are also full of examples of him treating women with equal respect as apostles, teachers and leaders in the church. That is the Paul that I listen to and who reflects the Jesus that I serve who respected and honored women.
Sexual misconduct and abuse is rooted in a belief system that fosters male privilege and control. We often see a conspiracy of silence around it because men benefit. Culture and religious beliefs often reinforce the silence. Women and children are taught they must be submissive, even to the point of accepting abuse. Men are commended for being macho as they exert power. Patterson sent a bruised and battered woman back to her abusive husband. He encouraged young men to objectify women. He covered up a rape case. This isn’t a “misinterpretation” of complementarianism. The silence shows that such behavior is natural outgrowth of putting one’s faith in a theory of male dominance rather than Jesus.
This conspiracy-like silence around abuse is not “disorganized,” as Mohler describes it. It is perpetuated by nods, winks, and most of all, our teachings. Increasing numbers of women are writing about their hostile, degrading experience at Southwestern. This is only beginning. Defining women as unfit to lead men is sinful and at the root of all abuse.
Until we see complementarianism as a cause of male exploitation of power, we will not be able to root out sexual abuse. We must end any doctrine or practice that suggests men and women are “separate but equal,” including complementarianism. Only then will we grow spiritually and become what God intends: strong women and men in community together seeking God.