Whatever you want to say about Southern Baptists (and yes, there’s a lot to say) they know how to stand up for principles.
Opposition to sexual misconduct among prominent figures within the denomination? Well, no.
Despite a damning 2022 report about pervasive sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention, first reported in the Houston Chronicle, the convention has been dragging its feet in prescribing safeguards.
Condemnation of racism? No, yes and (again) no.
The Southern Baptist Convention came into being in 1845 in defense of slaveholders who were being pressured by Baptists in the North. The convention did finally repent of that uncomfortable fact 150 years later, in 1995.
But in 2021, the convention passed a resolution aimed at the dreaded critical race theory, which points out that, by means of everything from social norms to legal structures, systemic racism is baked into American life.
Did the Southern Baptists condemn the April expulsion of Black legislators in Tennessee, the heart of Southern Baptist country – the most blatant example of critical race theory I’ve witnessed in recent years? No.
How about gun safety in the face of the nation’s epidemic of mass shootings? Crickets.
But when it comes to standing up for the Y chromosome, Southern Baptists are all over it.
Although I’ve long contended that the term “liberal Southern Baptist” is an oxymoron, the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 set in motion a purge of all vestiges of “liberalism” in the denomination.
The fundamentalists, exercising the appointive powers of the denomination’s president, systematically began to populate church agencies and especially seminary boards with likeminded conservatives, although some institutions, like Baylor University, were able to take evasive action and retain a measure of autonomy.
Many lifelong Southern Baptists still bear the scars of those purges.
Once the denomination’s agencies and educational institutions were secured, the fundamentalists trained their sights on the scourge of women pastors, those who lacked the Y chromosome apparently necessary for spiritual leadership.
Abandoning the bedrock Baptist issues of liberty of conscience and congregational autonomy, the new regime of denominational leadership moved to forbid women’s ordination and root out women ministers, many of whom served as children’s or youth pastors or music ministers.
Someone with too much time on his hands recently calculated that the Southern Baptist Convention harbored more than 1,800 female preachers in its churches.
One of the congregations in the crosshairs was Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, founded in 1980 by Rick Warren and one of the largest in the denomination. Warren told me years ago that the church wore the label “Southern Baptist” lightly. “They need us more than we need them,” he said.
Apparently, that is no longer the case. After Saddleback ordained three women and announced that a husband-and-wife pastoral team would replace the retiring Warren, the denomination moved to expel Saddleback. Warren appealed the ouster at the Southern Baptist annual convention in New Orleans this past week.
“If doctrinal disagreements between Baptists are considered sin, we all get kicked out,” he reminded the famously contentious Baptists, adding that the denomination’s doctrinal statement contains over 4,000 words. “Saddleback disagrees with one word,” he said. “That’s 99.99999999 percent in agreement! Isn’t that close enough?”
The messengers (delegates) roared back, “No!”
“The issue of women serving in the pastorate,” R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded, “is an issue of fundamental biblical authority that does violate both the doctrine and the order of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
It’s probably important to point out here that Mohler, a classic example of a wind-sock theologian, once vigorously supported women’s ordination – but that was before the fundamentalist takeover, just as he once opposed Donald Trump before he embraced him prior to Mohler’s failed attempt to be elected president of the SBC.
Many conservatives see female clergy as the initial step on the slippery slope to liberalism.
As Joshua Abbotoy, a pastor whose congregation left the Southern Baptist Convention because they thought it had become too liberal, told The New York Times, conservatives regard women pastors “as an early harbinger of a raft of other changes,” including questions about whether “the human person is differentiated between two genders.”
The Southern Baptists overwhelmingly upheld the ouster of Saddleback and Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, where Linda Barnes Popham has served as pastor for 30 years.
The convention then went on to approve an amendment to its constitution, stating that all congregations must have “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” The amendment must be approved again next year before it goes into effect.
We’re still waiting on resolutions condemning sexual abuse, racism or gun violence.
Not everyone agrees with the denomination’s punitive approach toward women clergy – or its authoritarian ways.
“Southern Baptists have always been more concerned about distributing life jackets to people who are drowning than straitjackets,” Benjamin Cole, a former Southern Baptist pastor, told the Los Angeles Times. “And what the convention is now being forced to answer is whether or not we will pass out straitjackets to our churches rather than life jackets to the communities around us in need of hope.”
That, however, is a minority view in today’s Southern Baptist Convention. One of the pastors who voted to uphold the expulsions feared that permitting female clergy would soon “allow the marriage of homosexuals, too, and then even allowing homosexuals to serve as pastors.”
Among Southern Baptists at least, the Y chromosome is still standing.
An Episcopal priest, Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of more than a dozen books, with commentaries appearing in newspapers across the country. He is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.