(RNS) — My debut column here, published just two months ago, explained why — despite several years of controversy and turmoil, particularly around the treatment of women — I am still a Southern Baptist.
A few weeks later, the most famous Southern Baptist woman today, Beth Moore, announced her departure from the denomination.
Her decision made me reflect on the past, present and future of women in the denomination and, more specifically, on how Beth’s and my very different experiences might be instructive in understanding how we got here — and where we might go.
In the 1980s and ’90s, while Beth was leading women’s Bible studies in her Texas church and founding Living Proof Ministries, I was in New York pursuing a Ph.D. in English at a state university. Like Beth, I was a committed Christian, teaching Sunday school and attending church services two or three times a week. Unlike Beth, I didn’t do women’s Bible studies. At all.
As I advanced in my academic studies, the women’s events at church seemed shallower and shallower to me. And my response, right or wrong, was to silently judge — and stay far away.
Yet, I see now that those two separate trajectories for the life of women in the church — one represented by those like Beth, developing and leading the rise of women’s Bible studies, and the other represented by those like me, staying as far from women’s ministries as I could get — are less about two individuals and more about larger cultural and commercial forces that have created and fossilized parallel tracks, ever running but never to meet.
And then I met Beth.
I had finished my doctorate and had become an English professor at a large Christian university (and had still succeeded in avoiding anything related to women’s ministry) when a vice president at my school requested my assistance in hosting the launch of a new global women’s ministry. I was not thrilled about participating but didn’t feel I had much choice.
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I approached the event with fear and trembling. Sitting in the green room with so many lanky, long-haired, effervescent women, I felt an awkwardness I hadn’t felt since eighth grade. But Beth was kind, and as we bonded over boots — I do love a good boot — my nervousness faded. (Although I see it lingering in a photo someone took of us all that night. That’s me on the edge of the front row, on the right, casting a bit of a side eye on the whole thing.)
Over the next few years, as I became (inexplicably, in my mind) more a part of national evangelical and Southern Baptist ministries and events — “big eva,” as its detractors on social media call it — Beth and I crossed paths more, both in real life and on social media. As we did, I finally began to recognize just how much she had contributed — and sacrificed — to the church. How little had I known.
As I watched Beth’s critics increase their vitriolic attacks on her teaching (although, truth be told, just as, if not more, often on her mannerisms, her hair, her very femininity), it became clear that their strongest objections were fruits of their own sowing. How ironic that their lingering Victorianism — the same ethic that values overwrought womanhood — would cause evangelicals to jeer when that internalized basis of self-worth becomes externalized.
How cruel that a culture of conservative Christianity that effectively binds the feet of women would mock women when they stumble. Left to fend for themselves like women banished to the drawing room after dinner while the men had their table talk and cigars, Beth and countless other female Bible teachers had made a room of their own.
Catholics aren’t the only ones who have cloisters, after all.
But Beth’s departure from the Southern Baptist Convention offers us a hinge moment. Will the door swing further open or more closed for women in the church moving forward?
I am not talking about women preaching or being pastors, and Moore did not make this an issue in her decision. One reason I’m a Southern Baptist is because I believe deeply in the significance and meaning of God creating humans as male and female. I don’t know any church denomination that has embodied the symbolism of this reality perfectly, but the reality of Christ (who is the Word) being head (or source) of the church is reflected metaphorically in the appointment of men as the source for the delivery of the Word to the church.
Yet, the power of this symbol is diminished when extended beyond its bounds. So, too, is the health of the church.
The church will be healthier and more whole when women who lead Bible studies or ministries are enthusiastically and unreservedly supported and taught by the church to do so knowledgeably and well. The church will be healthier and more whole when women called to academic realms outside the church are supported and taught by the church to do so with their faith integrated well.
It’s encouraging to see many more women attending seminary in recent years for the purpose of future work in ministry, but, even more, simply to gain a theological education for its own sake, as shown in doctoral research done and reported by Sharon Hodde Miller.
More and more seminarians, in addition, men and women, are seeking theological degrees in order to use them in work outside the church or in bi-vocational ministry. According to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), one-third of 2017 graduates of seminaries were planning to enter bivocational ministry, Christianity Today reported last year.
That data also shows that Southern Baptist seminaries in particular saw a 12% increase from 2012 to 2016 in female students enrolled in graduate-level degree programs. And the credentials I gained long ago in a state university are now being used to serve the church by bringing them to students in the seminary where I now teach. The parallel tracks have crossed.
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The church needs women who are seminary trained. The church needs women teaching in seminaries. The church needs women to minister to the world through academic appointments in secular institutions. The church needs women who serve in these ways, just as it needs women who are missionaries, mothers, teachers, servants, leaders and friends.
Women in the church don’t need a room of their own as much as the church needs both women and men in the room.