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The Southern Baptist Convention’s Long War for the Patriarchy

7 minute read

McAbee is a poet, essayist, and theologian, whose work has appeared in TIME, The New York Times, The Hudson Review, The Sun (US), and a variety of other publications. He has spoken widely in university and congregational settings throughout the US and the UK. He works as Professor of Religion and the Arts at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church in the Upstate of South Carolina. The pulpit of that congregation was commanded by male pastors throughout my childhood. There was the senior pastor, who was arrested for illegally restricting access to a women’s health clinic. There was another senior pastor, a married man of course, who was sleeping with a woman from his previous church and making advances on at least one woman at our church. Then, there was the senior pastor who, rather than celebrate the upcoming graduates of our local high school, turned our small town’s community-wide baccalaureate service into an anti-abortion screed. And there was the youth pastor, whom I loved deeply, who years later made headlines for going on an anti-LGBTQ+ rant before he led the Georgia legislature in prayer.

A colorful cast of characters, all. And all men I listened to growing up, week after week, expound to our congregation, what we believed at least, was the Word of God. These men were—and are—all Southern Baptist pastors who, despite their own lives and shortcomings, believe only men are qualified by God to be pastors.

I left the Southern Baptist Church years ago, primarily over the issue of women’s ordination. And while sometimes, I feel like the Southern Baptist world is so far in my rearview mirror I can hardly see it any longer, weeks like this past one come along.

The SBC is in the news again, this time for their decision to disfellowship, a fancy term for “kick out,” several churches from the Convention for having female pastors, one of those being the megachurch Saddleback in California, which was founded by Rick Warren.

Shortly after the Convention voted overwhelmingly to formally kick out these churches, a motion came to the floor and was approved, to change the Convention’s constitution to include language that would bar women from being not only senior pastors but pastors of any sort within Southern Baptist congregations. This constitutional change would need an additional vote next year to go into effect.

These patriarchal views of church leadership require the SBC to ignore the broader witness of women’s roles throughout the Bible, as well as several centuries of often egalitarian leadership in the early Christian Church.

As I read about these votes, I couldn’t help but think how the SBC has been fighting the same fight for decades, reshuffling old scripts, with a few new talking heads, their leaders warning against the liberal drift that supposedly threatens the Southern Baptist Convention.

The notion of a liberal drift, absurd as that is, has been a key boogeyman of the SBC since the “Conservative Resurgence” or “Fundamentalist Takeover” of the Convention, which began in the 1970s. This movement, which claimed to be centered on the inerrancy of the Bible, was largely led by two men, the retired Texas judge Paul Pressler, who has been accused by several men of alleged sexual assault and misconduct, and Dr. Paige Patterson, who has himself since been accused of silencing victims of alleged sexual assault. Men who, once again despite their own lives, insist that the Bible asserts only men can be pastors.

Southern Baptist theology grew from the soil of 19th-century American patriarchal white racism. The SBC is a religious denomination founded expressly on the defense of slavery. In 1995, the Convention approved an apology for its pro-slavery founding, and yet the denomination has failed to renegotiate how these roots continue to influence its theology. It should therefore come as no surprise the way the leaders of the denomination read the Bible as supporting their own sub-culture’s views regarding issues of race, gender, and the Bible.

In the end, the SBC possesses a domineering, fear-based theology that is unsurprisingly patriarchal and harmful to women, as well as to marginalized groups, such as those in the LGBTQ+ communities.

When I listen to and read so many of the SBC leaders’ stances on women in ministry, whether it be Dr. Al Mohler or others, I’m so often struck by two things. First, the utter lack of humility in their own assertions. Humility opens us to the possibility of being, if not wrong, at least not wholly right. Humility, it seems, has gotten lost in the dogmatic stances of the SBC and its leadership, one of those New Testament “fruits of the Spirit” that is so lacking in the Convention.

The second thing that strikes me today, as it should have in my church when I was growing up, is that there’s an unquestioning assertion within SBC leadership that only men, often tragically flawed ones, possess power as spiritual leaders, and that these men have the final say over the roles of women’s voices and even women’s bodies, inside and outside the Church.

The Southern Baptist congregation I grew up in is the place where both my faith and my fears were kindled. I was shaped by the loving members of that congregation, who nurtured my prayer life, who challenged me to engage more deeply with our Scripture. But the pastors there largely failed me. They, like so many of the voices in the SBC, created an atmosphere that didn’t allow them or their views on gender roles or the Bible to be openly questioned. What they said was supposed to be gospel truth. The last pastor I had at that church, when I was still a teenager, wouldn’t let me preach any longer at my home church, once he heard I was going to a Baptist congregation in my university town, which had a female pastor.

At that church, Calvary Baptist, in 1998, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell was the first women to be called as senior pastor of a Southern Baptist Church in the state of Texas. Under her leadership, I found a faith community that while Baptist, shared little in common with the atmosphere of fear and control I’d known at the church in which I grew up. I found a religious leader who not only allowed questions but encouraged them as part of the life of faith. I found a congregation which lived out the reality that various views of our shared faith could exist alongside one another in the pews. Shortly after Julie came to that church, the congregation left the SBC altogether and cast their lot with a more moderate group of Baptists, taking part in an earlier attrition of communities of faith from the SBC.

At present, the Southern Baptist Convention continues its long slide into solidifying its patriarchal views of the world, of Scripture, and of the Church. This will only lead to more harm to women, and whether they could ever bring themselves to see this, it will bring harm even to these men in leadership themselves, whose view of the world and of God is so tragically insular and flawed.

I wish for them the freedom I experienced under the leadership of a female pastor, of an approach to the Christian faith that recognized we don’t possess all the answers, an approach which affirms that questions are part of a healthy faith, a faith that is welcoming rather than exclusionary.

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