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The debate over women pastors is a Southern Baptist smoke screen

The fiery arguments distract from constructive conversations about entrenched racism, Christian nationalism and sexual abuse.

Messengers vote on motions during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on  June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Alabama.  RNS photo by Butch Dill

(RNS) — Over the past two weeks, Christian leaders and commentators have been setting news outlets and social media ablaze with arguments over women’s ordination, women as pastors and women’s callings. It’s a long-running, on-again, off-again debate in Southern Baptist and other evangelical circles. The arguments rarely change, largely because the point of the blaze is not the light it gives, but the heat and, most of all, the smoke.

This month’s revived debate was provoked by two Southern Baptist seminary leaders. One was Owen Strachan, who left Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention itself for a provost position at a church-run Bible seminary in Arkansas and promptly began promoting his new school by making it clear that in his opinion and when under his control, theological education and all forms of ministry are for men only.

Next, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler offered a vocal condemnation of the ordination of three women at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, the second-largest Southern Baptist church. These women have served on Saddleback pastor Rick Warren’s ministry staff for many years. Even so, Mohler decried their ordinations as acts of “feminization” that, like the critical race theory and social justice he has also condemned, would bring about “liberal theology” and the “kiss of death” to the church. Everyone would leave, he said, while every shred of gospel truth was destroyed.


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Those are the particulars. From there the debate takes its accustomed course: Verses from the New Testament’s Letters to Timothy and Corinthians are trotted out as the central mandates deciding the value of women’s abilities and authority. People write angry letters, demanding to be shown different biblical evidence they know exists. Amid the back and forth, ordained women admit they are tired of this debate and beg off from having to defend themselves again when they’d rather get on with the work Jesus called them to do.

In this recurring pattern, a Southern Baptist or authoritarian church leader fires up the debate with the usual kindling, hoping to draw everyone’s focus. As the fire grows, it distracts from constructive conversations about — well, entrenched racism and Christian nationalism, for starters. Or allegations of sexual abuse and abuse of power among church leadership and personalities, which came up this month with the arrest of Josh Duggar on child pornography charges. Or succession quarrels as the SBC prepares for its summer convention and the election of its next president.

As real difficulties for the convention challenge their authority, watch for more fiery debates over women in leadership. It’s going to happen again; it always does. Lately, they’ve been deployed with increasing frequency.

But also keep an ear out for a few hopeful shifts in the conversation that I’ve heard of late. Thanks to public scholarship such as Kristin Du Mez’s book “Jesus and John Wayne,” Beth Allison Barr’s “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” and Anthea Butler’s “White Evangelical Racism,” people now have the advantage of drawing upon history and context.

This means that when Mohler and fellow SBC Seminary President Adam Greenway quoted from hoary SBC forbears John Broadus and B.H. Carroll, respectively, to support their stances against women’s ordination, many in the online audience identified Broadus and Carroll as 19th-century Confederate apologists. And even they countenanced contemporary Southern Baptist missionary favorite Lottie Moon, who was herself an evangelist and teacher of mixed audiences in China.

More people are catching on as well to the method of biblical interpretation Mohler and Strachan are using. They set the terms of the debate with individual Bible verses that lack historical or textual context in the service of a predetermined conclusion. They present their  method as pure, objective and timeless, but it’s entirely modern, as in the Enlightenment era. Their real goal is to reassert a harmful biblicism and authoritarianism.

Some women are already pushing the conversation about women in ministry out of these constricting terms and into a new space altogether. They are expressing a wider curiosity about the vast possibilities for their leadership in the church, both ordained and lay, beyond these narrow quarrels. It gives me hope that we can restart this conversation under entirely different parameters.

We should be discussing the ways we read the Bible and interpret all of it as we discern God’s calling in ministry today. We should recognize that women’s reading and experience add greater insight into who God is. We need to have frank conversations about when and how the stories and texts of Scripture have been harmful for women, when other texts have brought healing and the good news and how these experiences aren’t uniform for everyone. We should search all evidence of women in Scripture and Christian history for how it relates to Christian leadership.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Pixabay/Creative Commons

We need to talk about how answering a call involves sensing the work of God, whom we believe to be greater than any human understanding. Discernment for ministry is hindered by our reliance on predetermined categories and intellectual argument. The process involves a mix of elements: interpreting Scripture, listening to the Spirit, praying, talking with trusted advisers, sensing a direction, recognizing gifts, enjoying the work and more. 

Supporting women’s ordination in theory absolves no one of doing the hard work to shape church communities so that they welcome and sustain women leaders; many churches that vocally defend women in ministry rarely employ these women as their pastors. Nor does supporting women acquit any church of the oppression of others whose callings have been restricted or denied. We need to confront the evidence of patriarchy and racism in us and move to seek justice as we work in our callings.


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These are just some of the conversations we could have about women, ministry and calling if we didn’t occupy ourselves with fiery arguments started by those who don’t really want to talk about women at all. These are the conversations I pray for, the ones I nurture in my students, regardless of gender.

If you’re a woman who chooses to focus on discerning her calling and beg off this debate to attend to your work, I’m fine with that. I discerned a long time ago that part of my calling, as professor, is to be an advocate and do some arguing.

(Laura Levens is an assistant professor of Christian mission at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

This article has been updated. An earlier version repeated an unsubstantiated claim that B.H. Carroll, founder of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, had cited the Bible to defend slavery.