Ethics and Community

Gender and Sexuality

There is no single Baptist view of matters related to gender, nor to issues of sexuality. As with other topics, the diversity of views on these two topics reflects the fact that the Baptist tradition is marked by autonomy or independence among its churches; thus, there is no centralized authority to make determinations regarding these issues. This said, in general Baptists have historically held to views of gender and sexuality that are consistent with commonly-held Protestant views. More recently, a significantly increased diversity of views has emerged, as has been true in most Protestant traditions.

In the earliest centuries of the Baptist tradition (early 17th through mid-18th centuries), the pastors and formally recognized leaders were men. This male-only pattern was a function of both the larger societal context, in which formal leadership roles were almost exclusively open to men only, and the belief that the New Testament (1 Timothy 2:11-15), prohibited women from certain leadership positions, particularly that of pastor. Women supported these men and the work of the churches in a variety of ways, mostly through or as extensions of their domestic roles.

In the 19th century, women began to assume more public roles. One of the more common avenues in which women began to exercise more public and formal leadership was through Christian missions. Through both mission societies that were for women and societies that were not gender-specific, women like Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934) provided both leadership and strategic rank-and-file participation in efforts to carry the gospel of Christ to places around the globe. Moreover, women, such as Lottie Moon (1840-1912), were among those missionaries who went to those places around the globe, learned foreign languages, and carried out the work of mission, sometimes including preaching and teaching. As in other Protestant traditions, women working in contexts outside the United States, particularly in situations where the ministry needs were urgent and no men were available, sometimes carried out responsibilities, including preaching, teaching, and baptizing, which they were not permitted to fulfill in North America.

Over the course of the 20th century, women's roles further changed, and, once again, these changes were not unrelated to changes in the larger societal context. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing beyond, women have assumed increasingly public leadership roles within the Baptist tradition. In some predominantly white Baptist conventions or associations, such as the American Baptist Churches, USA, this includes ordained pastoral ministry. In other predominantly white conventions or associations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, women cannot be ordained or hold the position of "pastor." Among these churches and conventions, the lines of distinction between Baptist conventions or associations that ordain women and those that do not largely parallel the lines of division among Baptist groups emerging from the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the early-and-mid-20th century. Women have long held important leadership roles, not least as deaconesses and "mothers of the church." Some African American churches recognize women as "evangelist-preachers" who can preach and teach the entire congregation, including men.

With regard to human sexuality, Baptists have in general held to what can be referred to as traditional and conservative views. Thus, with other Christian traditions, Baptists believe that intimate sexual relations are a gift from God to be enjoyed between a man and a woman in the context of the covenant of marriage. Ethical issues related to homosexuality began to be addressed within the Baptist tradition in the 1970s and 1980s, just as they were beginning to be addressed in North American society in general, not least by many religious groups and traditions. The predominant view among Baptists is that homosexual behavior is a sin or incompatible with biblical teaching. That said, however, Baptists who hold this view also affirm the dignity and worth of people who engage in homosexual behavior.

On this, as other ethical issues, there is considerable diversity among Baptists due to Baptist principles like freedom of conscience and local church autonomy. Some take a fairly aggressive posture in calling on homosexuals to repent of their homosexual sins and in working against "the homosexual agenda" in the public arena. Other Baptists have adopted an "open and welcoming" posture toward homosexuals, extending to such steps as accepting homosexuals into church membership.

Study Questions:
     1.     Why is it impossible to name a definitive Baptist stance on issues related to gender and sexuality?
     2.     When did women begin to assume public roles within the Baptist tradition?
     3.     How did mission work provide women with the opportunity for equality in leadership?
     4.     What is the predominant view amongst Baptists about homosexuality? Are there other views?

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