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Ten years after adopting a controversial declaration that the Bible teaches that women in marriage should be submissive to men, the Southern Baptist Convention’s “complementarian” view of gender roles remains more theory than fact in churches, says a new white paper released on the eve of the SBC annual meeting.

Southern Baptists drew much criticism in 1998 after adding an amendment to the Baptist Faith & Message to state, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”

The 1998 family statement said the husband “has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect and to lead his family.” The wife, meanwhile, “has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.”

Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said of the nation’s second-largest faith group, “They hope to make June Cleaver the biblical model for motherhood, despite numerous biblical references to women who worked outside the home.”

As the 10-year anniversary of the controversy approaches, two scholars at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a paper exploring if the naysayers were right. In “Neanderthals Chasing Bigfoot? The State of the Gender Debate in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Jason Duesing and Thomas White report success in turning back feminist gains in national agencies but suggest the confessional statement has had little practical impact on the local church.

In fact, they surmise that as “practical concerns” trump theology the “egalitarian” view–that there are no biblically required distinctions between women and men in the church and home–may even be gaining ground in terms of function.

“To be sure, the Southern Baptist Convention has very few women pastors and likely will never have many,” they report.

But in gauging the success of complementarians–the majority of SBC leaders who believe there are distinct roles reserved for men and women in marriage and church leadership–they say one “need only look at the lack of male presence in most churches and the difficulty churches have in finding men who understand that the debate is still undecided.”

Duesing, a Ph.D. candidate, and White, vice president for student services and communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggest that even churches that endorse the Baptist Faith & Message “largely have done little to consider what that means beyond the boundaries of a woman serving as pastor.”

“[W]hile there is large agreement that women cannot function biblically in the role of a pastor, church members should ask their pastor how 1 Timothy 2 applies to their Sunday School class, to authoritative deacon bodies or to other areas in which there is gender confusion,” they content. “In these areas many have yet to stake their ground.”

Duesing and White say the greatest single event galvanizing the egalitarian movement was, ironically, a 1984 SBC resolution aimed at curtailing it. The viewpoint gained ground as seminaries saw more women coming to pursue ministerial studies in the 1970s and 1980s.

Southern Baptists began “applying the brakes” to feminist gains in the early 2000s, they say, with adoption of corrective statements–including a 2000 ban on women pastors–and leadership changes resulting in the formation of women’s studies programs at various SBC seminaries.

Last fall, for example, Southwestern Seminary began offering a bachelor’s degree emphasis in Christian homemaking described by the seminary’s president as “moving against the tide in order to establish family and gender roles as described in God’s word for the home and the family.”

But Duesing and White say that doesn’t mean the battle to defend what they deem a “biblical” view of gender roles is over.

“In an age of increasingly militant feminism, curbed and confined masculinity and general confusion as to the day-to-day functions and roles of men and women in society, the churches must come to see that the price of maintaining confessional orthodoxy is vigilance,” they maintain. “A defensive or passive reaction to the cultural influence on our churches and homes is no longer an option.”

“With regard to the gender debate, this means that the churches must work through and apply that which they have claimed as biblical,” they argue.

“While many churches affirm the complementarity of their confession, they have quietly given up the front of practical application in the lives of their church members,” they warn. “Often the otherwise conservative pastors return to the ‘practical outweighs theological’ training they received in seminary before the changes in the 1990s.”

“The time has come for Southern Baptists to establish whether or not they desire to be thorough-going complementarians or return to the ‘practical outweighs theological’ methodology of the egalitarians,” they say. “The brakes have been applied, but the next generation of Southern Baptist families and churches are asking, ‘Where do we go from here?'”

Returning the question raised by critics about whether Southern Baptists are really “antiquarians pursuing myth and legend” when it comes to gender roles, the authors ask “Are Southern Baptists ancient Neanderthals chasing a mythical Bigfoot?”

“After surveying the past and present of the debate over the complementary differences between the roles of men and women, a fair-minded person should agree that the only thing modern-day Southern Baptists have been chasing is a living and active Bible,” they conclude.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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