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Exactly Why Evangelicals Keep Arguing About Women Pastors

Exactly Why Evangelicals Keep Arguing About Women Pastors May 18, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Well, a long-standing culture-war squabble is warming up again in evangelicalism. But this fight is almost entirely restricted to evangelical culture itself, so it’s of great interest to me. The squabble concerns women pastors in evangelical churches. More progressive, social-justice-oriented evangelicals like the idea. The usual suspects, however, hate it. There’s an extremely good reason why evangelicals are so stuck on this one question. It’s not a reason that flatters them or does anything good for their plummeting credibility, alas. But it at least explains why their opposing sides can’t ever find any common ground here. So today, I’ll show you exactly why evangelicals keep arguing about women pastors.

black women pastors omg omg omg
Welcome to the STRAIGHT UP NIGHTMARE of the SBC: Michelle C. Thomas, the pastor of a Virginia church; here, she welcomes those coming in for her Easter service that year. She’s also the local NAACP president and she’s done a lot to protect Black history sites in the area. (Diane Helentjaris.) Best wishes to her.

Women Pastors: What Is Old Is New Again.

Recently, a relatively old squabble re-erupted in evangelicalism:

Is Jesus okay with the idea of women becoming pastors over evangelical churches?

Evangelicals have found themselves divided once again into two opposing camps.

One side thinks Jesus is just fine with the idea, meaning women can totally be pastors. Many think Jesus himself told them so. In addition, they have tons of Bible verses to back up their opinion.

The other side thinks Jesus hates the idea, meaning only men can ever be pastors. Many think Jesus himself told them so. In addition, they have tons of Bible verses to back up their opinion.

You can already see their difficulty, I’m guessing. They can’t both be right. Jesus can’t be telling both of ’em the straight trufax. So someone’s right and someone’s wrong. But… who?

(They could both be wrong, but forget it, they’re on a roll.)

The History of the Evangelical Squabble About Women Pastors.

This fight is old, relatively speaking. I say “relatively” because it really first came to a head in the 1970s, when women began banging on the door of the Good Ole Boys Club of evangelical leadership.

In response to this encroachment, a bunch of super-hardline evangelical Calvinists took action. First, they convinced a major evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), that Jesus thought Christians needed to consider the Bible inerrant and literally true. Then, they used a painfully childish and over-simplified interpretative framework of the Bible to convince the SBC’s top leaders that the Bible totally said that Jesus thought women pastors had cooties and were totally ickie, and therefore the SBC needed to consider those verses inerrant.

It worked, grandly in fact.

But it wouldn’t have worked at all if the SBC’s leaders hadn’t already been completely open to the idea of formally barring women from pastoral leadership. The whole shebang of ’em, SBC leaders and slithering Calvinist Wormtongues alike, had already rejected any number of other literalist conclusions about the Bible, for example the bits about slavery and all those wacky dietary rules, and of course that really painful stuff Jesus said about personal wealth.

But this bit? This bit was something Jesus totally meant for Christians to follow forever, along with the shoehorned mashup over LGBT rights and BORSHUN.

And the SBC had a whole schism about the whole idea of women pastors.

The Conservative Resurgence Was Largely About Women Pastors.

I’m not kidding. According to La Wiki, the SBC lost almost 2000 churches over the question of women pastors during the so-called Conservative Resurgence (late 1970s-1990s).

In fact, the question of women pastors came out very early in the takeover. As just one example, see this 1984 resolution. After reciting a number of hard-right Calvinist-flavored interpretations of various Bible verses, the SBC decided this:

Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we not decide concerns of Christians doctrine and practice by modern cultural, sociological, and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors; that we remind ourselves of the dearly bought Baptist principle of the final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and conduct; and that we encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.

By the way, this resolution was the 11th on the SBC’s agenda that year. It came after various culture-war proclamations about abortion, evangelism, the Civil Rights Act of 1984 and “equal access legislation” (they were nervous about any new equality rules applying to them as bigots-for-Jesus), and cigarette smoking and drinking. So I strongly suspect this very last resolution of 1984 was a deliberate warning shot fired across the bow of more-progressive Southern Baptists.

As for the results of that salvo: It took a while, but in the end those hardliners won the war they started.

Once they gained control of the SBC, they took women pastors off the SBC menu for good.

Well, I mean, sort of, anyway. Plenty of SBC member churches have women pastors, it seems. But officially-like, one might say, women pastors are kaput. Which is all the SBC’s top leaders ever care about

And the SBC’s Top Names Know It.

Make no mistake: the SBC’s top leaders know perfectly well what this squabble over women pastors really represents.

The SBC has decided that the fight over women pastors, above all other causes, represents “a looming test of the Southern Baptist Convention,” as Al Mohler put it in a blog post just last week. This major and particularly-odious figure in the later end of the Conservative Resurgence rails on this topic every chance he gets. In that blog post, Mohler wrote:

At first, there is only a small cloud. Soon thereafter, here comes the downpour. Well, here it comes.

The issue of women serving as pastors and preachers in churches roiled the Southern Baptist Convention from the 1970s until the Conservative Resurgence in the Convention clarified the question conclusively in the Baptist Faith & Message revision of 2000. [. . .]

In truth, the issue of women serving as pastors fueled the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. The question was instantly clarifying. The divide over women serving in the pastorate served as a signal of the deeper divide over the authority and interpretation of the Bible. [. . .]

Southern Baptists are now, yet again, at a moment of decision. This is no longer a point of tension and debate.

So yes indeedy, the SBC’s leadership knows perfectly well that the issue of women pastors represents a bellwether for all kinds of other stuff their leaders know they don’t like. Women pastors means a big shakeup and change to their comfortable misogyny and male privilege — but it also means challenges to their racism and sex abuse and politics, and also to their own personal power.

Thus, the SBC fight this culture war like their entire future depends on it.

And kind of, it does.

The SBC’s Always and Eternal Problem With Women Pastors.

Southern Baptists can oppose this one plank in the overall progressive platform without looking especially awful. With this one culture-war cause comes a great many other regressive ideas they embrace, like entrenched racism, weird white nationalism, punitive cruelty in all ways, refusal to substantively address their sex-abuse crisis, and shocking political overreach.

They can’t directly embrace those causes without a lot of pushback, nor directly oppose the forces seeking to dismantle them.

But an SBC denomination that refuses to allow women pastors also embraces all those other regressive ideas. When an SBC person declares their opposition to women pastors, it’s like they’re blowing a dogwhistle announcing their opposition to all those other progressive ideas. And churches that accept women pastors get stomped on as hard as they do by the denomination’s leaders because chances are those churches will shortly embrace a number of other progressive ideas — if they don’t already.

The SBC’s leaders know very well what happens when an SBC church embraces women pastors. They want no part of it.

Evangelical Priorities: Women Pastors Edition.

This slapfight has a much worse reason, of course, even than what I’ve described already:

It gets EVERYONE’s minds off of the SBC’s abusive leaders.

While the arguments rage about women pastors, the SBC can ignore all that other awful stuff their leaders do to their own followers. Their utterly broken and dysfunctional group’s leadership ranks are full to bursting with grifters, conjobs, hucksters, predators, and overall lowlifes, and the SBC can’t seem to do a thing to stop allowing such people into leadership positions — or get them out of them once they’re there.

So yes, yes, yes: Evangelicals would far rather argue about something this ridiculously stupid than do anything to rein in their abusive sleazeball leaders or protect their followers from abuse. It’s sooooo much easier to screech and slapfight about their imaginary friend’s feelings about women wanting to be pastors.

Remember the Rainbow Doritos freakout? Same principle. Look, everyone, over there! they shout, and they must be so glad when their flocks react as they wish. Gosh, the SBC must be so glad of anything that gets people to shut up about their endless scandals and wrongdoing.

The Thunderdome Beckons.

But nonstop sex abuse of children? Endless sex-related scandals? Constant fraud and abuse of rank at every level?

Oh, those just happen, y’all. Cain’t nobody do nothin’ about it. Jeez, like why are we even talking about this? We’re not allowed! Don’t we know evangelicals think their overall tribe is just like a real live woman on her wedding day? Why are we dissing a bride on her wedding day? Like for real, what kind of unholy monsters are we exactly? How dare we? We better shut up this very instant before her bridegroom, Jesus, hears us criticizing his totes-for-realsies bride on her totes-for-realsies wedding day, which happens EVERY DAY in fundagelical-land!

“Make no mistake,” they warn us in hilariously stern tones, shaking their wobbly fingers in our faces in their apoplectic outrage: Jesus will totally kick our asses for criticizing his beloved bride on her wedding day, and when that glorious day arrives they’ll just point and laugh at us and tell us they told us so.

In love, of course. Always in love. Christian love, that is.

Oh, but WOMEN PASTORS? Oh, it is on. That question is completely essential and totally necessary to resolve at all costs, RIGHT THE HOLY F&$* NOW. NOW NOW NOW.

Evangelical leaders shout to their followers:

Get tf in here. This is just like Thunderdome. Two doctrinal positions enter. One doctrinal position leaves. Don’t worry; there’s more than enough chainmail for everyone.

Get tf in here.

it's from mad max beyond thunderdome really
1980s post-apok film? Or any given Burning Man party pic? Your call.

NEXT UP: Speaking of Al Mohler, did you know he once completely supported women pastors? Tomorrow, I’ll show you how a die-hard authoritarian and typical fundagelical Bible illiterate changes his mind about a doctrinal position. See you then!

(Bride link: h/t to Jasen777!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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