Blaming “male interpretations of religious texts” for the lack of women’s equal rights is flawed theology, at least within the context of Baptists of the South.
Yes, the Southern Baptist Convention did adopt a faith statement in 2000 that said, “[T]he office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Only two of the 15 members of the drafting committee were women.
And yes, the SBC did approve a family statement in 1998 that assigned the husband the role of bread-winner and the wife the role of homemaker. The actual language said that the wife had the “God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”
The family committee chair said, “Every line is deeply rooted in the clear teaching of Scripture.” Only two of the seven members of his committee were women.
And yes, the SBC did pass a resolution in 1984 that said women were the first in sin. Citing the Apostle Paul, the resolution said that “he excludes women from pastoral leadership … to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.”
These historic facts disclose a male-dominated religious organization that has interpreted the Bible to keep women in the home and out of church leadership roles. No wonder folk blame male-dominated houses of faith and male control of sacred texts for the plight of women.
Jimmy Carter and the global elders issued a statement in early July that said: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”
They challenged current leaders with their call for them “to set an example and change all discriminatory practices within their own religions and traditions.”
Writing in the Observer, a British newspaper, Carter noted that he had been a “practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world.”
He said, [M]y decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be ‘subservient’ to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.”
While Carter and the global elders did not place all the blame for the inequitable condition of women at the feet of men who interpret religious texts, they came close, maybe too close. Others have bluntly blamed men.
Within the Baptist tradition, such blame is theologically misguided.
From a theological perspective, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That is, the cause of injustice is shared both by omission and commission, by what folk leave undone and by what they do wrongly.
Many male preachers don’t agree with the SBC’s position on women but they have remained silent. They have acquiesced to the discrimination with which they disagree. These men interpret the Bible correctly but lack the courage to challenge the power structure. They deserve some of the blame for the treatment of women.
A similar point could be made about Baptist women, especially those who are well-educated, hold professional positions and are theologically discerning. They keep afloat with their tithes and offerings the very denomination that says they are theologically and vocationally subservient to their husbands, brothers and fathers.
Without these Baptist women — those who teach the children, serve on committees, go on mission trips, sing in the choir, care for the sick and look after the elderly — the Baptist church would wither.
What makes the Baptist situation different from other faith expressions is that every member has the right and responsibility to interpret the Bible freely. No hierarchal authority dictates to a Baptist how to read the Bible.
Imagine what would happen if rank-and-file Baptist women launched a religious disobedience movement in the local church. If they said no more offerings and no more volunteer hours, the preachers with power would have a lightning-strike revelation about the full equality of women.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. A shorter version of this editorial appeared on Wednesday on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” Web page, where other Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other faith panelists offered their views.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.