"While the Baptist faith and message says that, 'The office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by scripture,' there are many who call themselves 'complementarians' who are more flexible when it comes to women teaching men, or even preaching."
- Emily McFarlan Miller
An old debate about complementarianism resurfaced around this year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting. Complementarianism is a theological view that men and women fulfill separate and complementary roles in life.
Central to this issue today is the role of respected Bible teacher Beth Moore. Pastor? Teacher? Preacher? Or something else entirely? What kind of complementarian is she?
Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity. She joined Beliefs producer Jay Woodward to see what people are saying about complementarianism today.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
BILL BAKER: Equal or complementary gender roles in faith traditions?
EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER: Complementarianism means that while men and women are created equal, they have different roles in marriage family and the church. And specifically for Southern Baptists, this comes from their official statement of doctrinal beliefs which is called “The Baptist Faith and Message.” And this was just amended in 2000 to clarify that only men can serve as pastors of a church.
BILL BAKER: This is Beliefs by Bill Baker. An old debate resurfaced around this year's Southern Baptist Convention. Complementarianism is a theological view that men and women fulfill separate and complementary roles in life. Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity. She joined Beliefs’ producer Jay Woodward to see what people are saying about complementarianism today.
JAY WOODWARD: Emily McFarlan Miller, thank you for joining us on Beliefs.
EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER: Thank you so much for having me.
JAY WOODWARD: We're talking today about complementarianism. It's been emerging as a conversation again in evangelical spaces. Maybe you could start by just telling us why we're having a conversation about this thing, complementarianism, and then tell us what exactly it is.
EMILY McFARLAN MILLER: Sure. So, this came up on social media, sort of in the lead-up to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting that they just had last week. And it has to do with one Southern Baptist in particular, sort of at the center of this firestorm, named Beth Moore. Now, Beth Moore is a popular Bible teacher. She was the first woman to publish a Bible study with LifeWay, which is the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. She's a beloved speaker across denominations and that language that she uses of a Bible teacher is important.
She doesn't call herself a preacher, she's not a pastor, because she is Southern Baptist and the SBC is the largest passing Christian denomination in the US. They're the second largest Christian denomination period after the Catholic Church here in this country, and they hold to this belief called complementarianism. Complementarianism means that while men and women are created equal they have different roles in marriage family and the church—and specifically for Southern Baptist this comes from their official statement of doctrinal beliefs which is called the Baptist Faith and Message. And this was just amended in 2000 to clarify that only men can serve as pastors of a church.
JAY WOODWARD: So, that makes the distinction between a teacher and a preacher significant, when Beth is talking about her own work.
EMILY McFARLAN MILLER: Yeah, if we flash forward to Mother's Day of this year, Beth Moore had replied to someone else's tweet saying she was “doing Mother's Day” at a church—quote, unquote “doing.” So, the inference was that she was going to be speaking at this church on Mother's Day. But she was very careful not to say that she was preaching, because while "The Baptist Faith and Message" says that “the office of pastors limited to men as qualified by scripture,” there are many people who call themselves complementarians and who are more flexible when it comes to women teaching men or even preaching.
This whole Mother's Day thing sort of kicked off this big discussion with Owen Strachan of the Midwest Baptist Theological Seminary, the former head of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He saw Beth Moore’s tweet and he wrote a blog post about it alleging that Moore and the head of the SBC—his name is JD Greer—were straying from complementarianism beliefs.
JAY WOODWARD: So, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, had this tweet in the wake of this conversation over Mother's Day. And he says, “We have reached a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention when there are no open calls to retreat from our biblical convictions on complementarianism and embrace the very error that the SBC repudiated over 30 years ago. Honestly, I never thought I would see this day.”
There are two main themes to this statement. The first seems to be alluding to a conservative revolution inside the Southern Baptist Convention a few decades ago.
Can you tell us about that a little bit?
EMILY McFARLAN MILLER: Yes. So, this is something that's referred to as the “conservative resurgence”— leaders that emerged who wanted to bring the denomination back to these conservative beliefs, such as complementarianism. But there is also a blog post by another a prominent Southern Baptist named Denny Burk, who pointed out that for a long time, there have been different beliefs on specifically on complementarianism and what it means for a woman to preach.
So, for instance, Al Mohler: he's the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who you mentioned. My colleague Adelle Banks, was reporting from the annual meeting last week - which I recommend everybody go to our website and check out her reports from - she spoke with Mohler and quoted him arguing that the clear teaching of the Bible is that women may not preach. And he points to passages from the Apostle Paul like the one in 1 Timothy in which Paul writes, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man. She must be quiet.”
And there's various different interpretations of that which—I'm not a Bible scholar and I won't get into it—but Beth Moore calls herself a “soft complementarian,” and she has a slightly different interpretation. She says she agrees with "The Baptist Faith and Message." But she also points out that the statement is silent on the question of women preaching. It says that women cannot be the pastor of a church, but it never says anything specifically about women preaching.
So, even within a conservative belief like complementarianism, there can be many different views and interpretations of what that looks like practically.
There was concern that this debate was going to overshadow other issues at this meeting this past week. Russell Moore, who is the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which is like the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention - and no relation to Beth Moore - but he addressed this from the floor at the meeting saying, “A Southern Baptist Convention that doesn't have a place for Beth Moore doesn't have a place for a lot of us.” And he said, “In the moment that we're in right now, to suggest that the problem that we have is that women are speaking too much seems crazy to me.”
JAY WOODWARD: It does seem as though the parallel tracks of having had a forced conversation about sexual abuse in the convention, that was that was first reported out of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express, feels like they're also deeply related as far as embracing a conversation about power and patriarchy in worship spaces.
EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER: And listening to women's voices. That’s an argument that you've heard a lot of people make on social media over the past few weeks. So, the big issue coming into this convention meeting was this report that came out just before, addressing what the president of the SBC, JD Greer, has called a crisis, a sexual abuse crisis, within the church. If your listeners haven't already read that report by the Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express News, I highly recommended it.
They've been following up on this detailing these stories of abuse from within the church. So, there was a report called “Caring Well” that was released coming into this meeting that looked at these stories, summarized a range of next steps to address the issue that includes educating congregations about abuse, preparing them to help survivors, and fostering abuse prevention.
Naming some of the failures of churches in not training staff adequately, declining to report suspected perpetrators to law enforcement, and citing church autonomy to avoid acting appropriately.
This was supposed to be the big topic coming into the meeting, and certainly it was presented, it was discussed, it was it was acted on at this meeting.
JAY WOODWARD: So, in response to some of this, Beth Moore emerges as this lightning rod for a conversation about complementarianism. And I had been getting the impression of her soft complementarianism, in many ways, feeling - you can't ever look inside somebody's mind - but you can certainly see her trying to balance the two elements. One is the tradition of the faith and the other is a progressive nature: Why should a woman not be doing these things? It doesn't seem like she's asking these questions too publicly, does it?
EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER: You bring up a good point. She is very careful in how she addresses these things. So, she says for her that “a fog lifted” in 2016. In 2016, this is when the Access Hollywood tape was released that caught then presidential candidate Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women. I think everybody remembers this tape. Some Christian leaders were defending this afterward and Moore, who is herself a survivor of sex abuse, tweeted: “Try to absorb how acceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don't think that it's a big deal.” Now, she never referenced the tape and she never named Trump, but you knew what she was talking about.
So, she referenced that just recently in sort of addressing a lot of the firestorm on Twitter. And she said that in 2016 when this happened, she felt “compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit. I don't want to be, but I am, to draw attention to the sexism and misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety and bearing the stench of hypocrisy.”
So yes, it definitely seems as if she's become much more outspoken in the last few years.
And another article I would recommend, if people really want to do a deep dive on this evolution of Moore, if you want to spend your weekend learning about Beth Moore, I would recommend everybody read last year Emma Green in The Atlantic did a great profile of her and what that evolution has been for her over the past couple of years.
JAY WOODWARD: So, I guess the question is, where does this conversation go from here? Is this one that legs, as they say? Or is this going to continue to be an emerging, evolving conversation? Or has this one just sort of come to a boil at the lid of the pot and might slowly fade back in for a few more years?
EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER: Well that's an excellent question. I don't see it going anywhere, because it's not a new conversation. This has been sort of highlighted for years and especially in this moment of #TimesUp and #MeToo, listening to women's voices amid these stories of abuses in the church is something that we'll be continuing to write about and hear about and see how churches will be addressing moving forward.
I should probably also point out that not all Christian churches are complementarian. This is a big discussion in the Southern Baptist Church and some other denominations, but there are a number of churches that had these conversations decades ago and came down on the belief that women should be allowed to preach and have had women in the pulpit for many years.
They’re called egalitarians. They believe that men and women have equal roles. So, certainly not every Christian is a complementarian and a lot of denominations have had these discussions and come out in a different place.
JAY WOODWARD: Emily McFarlan Miller, thank you for joining us on Beliefs and thank you for your work reporting on all of these topics.
EMILY MCFARLAN MILLER: Thank you so much.
BILL BAKER: Our guest was Religion News Service reporter Emily McFarlan Miller.
The conversation continues on our Facebook page and we tweet at @beliefspodcast.
Beliefs is brought to you with the support of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. Jay Woodward is our producer. The theme music is by Edward Bilous.
I'm Bill Baker. Thanks for listening and please tell a friend.