The Southern Baptist Convention: “A wife is to submit herself graciously”

The Southern Baptist Convention: “A wife is to submit herself graciously” May 30, 2018

The ousting of Paige Patterson from his position at the helm of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has come with renewed discussion of the history of the “conservative resurgence,” the title commonly given to the controversial conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s and 1990s. This takeover included the firing of female seminary professors and a new hard line against female pastors, which made me curious about the Southern Baptist Convention’s position on women today.

First I turned to the SBC’s basic beliefs page:

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

Okay, that’s bad. That’s really bad.

Here’s a question. If the wife is to the husband what the church is to Christ, how are she and her husband equal? The statement seeks to solve this problem by following the line that makes that comparison with the statement that the wife “being in the image of God as is her husband” is “thus equal to him.” But if they’re both in the image of God, why the emphasis on the wife submitting to the husband as the church submits to Christ?

The statement makes the claim that both “husband and wife are of equal worth before God,” but pairs that claim with no-holds-barred statements about a wife being required to “willingly submit” to her husband, to “respect” her husband, and “to serve as his helper”?

Or, to put it another way: methinks they dost protest too much. All of this over-the-top insistence that women really are equal to men is only necessary because their actual specific teachings suggest otherwise.

Next, let’s look at the section on “women in ministry” on the SBC’s position statements page. One of the significant changes pushed by the “conservative resurgence” of the SBC was a massive effort to bar women from the ministry. Previously, individual churches were able to make this decision for themselves. After the conservative resurgence, this was no longer the case.

Here is how the position statements page reads:

Women in Ministry

Women participate equally with men in the priesthood of all believers. Their role is crucial, their wisdom, grace and commitment exemplary. Women are an integral part of our Southern Baptist boards, faculties, mission teams, writer pools, and professional staffs. We affirm and celebrate their Great Commission impact.

While Scripture teaches that a woman’s role is not identical to that of men in every respect, and that pastoral leadership is assigned to men, it also teaches that women are equal in value to men.

Once again with all of the protesting. Once again I’ll point out that these statements wouldn’t have to fall all over themselves insisting that women are equal in value to men if the actual positions espoused didn’t suggest otherwise. 

What is the “priesthood of all believers”? Here is its definition, according to the position statements page:

Priesthood of All Believers

We affirm the priesthood of all believers. Laypersons have the same right as ordained ministers to communicate with God, interpret Scripture, and minister in Christ’s name. That is why the Convention requires strong lay involvement on its boards.

The priesthood of all believers would seem to suggest that laypeople can minister in Christ’s name just as ordained ministers can—and it goes back to an older Baptist ideal that refused to limit the ministry to the seminary-trained—but here, too, we see the limitations the conservative resurgence placed on women. It was not always like this.

Female participation in the priesthood of all believers would seem to suggest that women should have the same right as men to serve as pastors—and many within the SBC once claimed that. However, the SBC hierarchy now draws a line, claiming it can have one and not the other. Women are allowed to serve in the church in various capacities, but are barred from the pastorate.

I want to bring this to a close by calling attention back to the section on the family posted on the SBC’s basic beliefs page.

She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

This protestation of equality—in the face of anything but—gets old very quickly. But I want to draw attention, too, to just how far the SBC’s circumscription of women’s role goes—women are not only barred from the pastorate, they are also expected to respect their husbands (a requirement not placed on husbands), and their role is circumscribed and stated—they are to be homemakers and the nurturers of children.

No one should have been surprised at Patterson’s statements about wifely submission. It is not as though the Southern Baptist Convention is shy about its emphasis on female submission and obedience, or the limiting of women’s role to the home. On the contrary—it puts those beliefs front and center.

You know what’s really interesting? The Southern Baptist Convention did not mandate wifely submission or bar female pastorship until 1998 and 2000 (respectively). In other words, these are not historic SBC positions. Instead, they are the direct result of men like Paige Patterson, AL Mohler, and others who pushed a heavy-handed “conservative resurgence” within the SBC during the 1980s and 1990s. These men worked tirelessly to bar women from the ministry and to mandate women’s obedience to their husbands.

They succeeded, and today we behold the fruit.

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