The delegates (called messengers) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted overwhelmingly to expel five churches with women pastors at their annual meeting in May, 2023, in New Orleans, LA. For thirty years Linda Barnes Popham had been pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, KY, and Saddleback Church in Southern California was one of the largest churches in the denomination.
Following the expulsions, the messengers voted to amend the SBC constitution to read that Southern Baptists churches must “affirm, appoint or employ only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.”
Those in favor of the amendment to the SBC constitution argued that scripture forbade female pastors and that they should stand firm for theological purity. They were concerned about a leftward drift of SBC and argued that female pastors are a precursor to acceptance of homosexuality and sexual immorality.
At the same time, messengers also approved a resolution condemning gender-affirming care and all forms of gender transition interventions, referring to them as “a futile quest to change one’s sex and as a direct assault on God’s created order.”
Speaking for the other side, Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, had his own critique of the votes: “There are people who want to take the SBC back to the 1950s when white men ruled supreme and when the woman’s place was in the home. There are others who want to take it back 500 years to the time of the Reformation,” he said. “I say we need to take the church back to the first century. The church at its birth was the church at its best.” (See New York Times for extensive coverage.)
With their No-Women-Pastors amendment, the SBC has doubled down on patriarchy, all the while arguing that they are compelled by scripture to take this position.
The traditional patriarchal worldview expresses the great chain of being. Reality is hierarchically arranged based on how much “being” an object has. At the top is god or gods who possess the fullness of being, then humans with less being, then animals with even less being, then rocks with yet again less being, and so on. Within the human category, males have more being than females. Free persons obviously have more being than the enslaved. The amount of one’s being represents both metaphysical and moral scales. This hierarchical chain of being is divinely ordained, the order of creation. Authoritarian and imperial structures as well as patriarchy all express the chain of being. That is why they tend to go together.
The chain of being derives its power from the obviousness of hierarchy. Most people perceive, experience, and understand reality as hierarchical. As Aristotle said, it is obvious that some were meant to lead and others to follow. “Authority and subordination are conditions not only inevitable but also expedient.” This led Aristotle to argue that slavery was natural. This obviousness is hard to argue against. It appears as the natural order of things.
The Declaration of Independence contradicts the tradition of the great chain of being. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The Declaration of Independence rejects the tradition of the great chain of being (all are equal), imperialism (they were revolting against a king), authoritarianism (leaders were elected), and patriarchy. Actually, the implications of the rejection of patriarchy have taken a while to work themselves out.* It took a civil war to abolish slavery and women have recently been re-enslaved by the Supreme Court in Dodds vs. Jackson.
Until the Enlightenment, that all were unequal was considered self-evident. The Declaration of Independence declared that all were self-evidently equal. That contradiction defines the American dilemma.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, presented the Executive Committee’s report calling for the ouster of Saddleback and Fern Creek, saying it’s a matter of biblical authority.
Southern Baptists believe the place to begin in this, as in all doctrinal questions, is to ask, "What does the Bible say?" Even a cursory reading of the pertinent texts prompts three important observations: 1) there were no known women pastors in New Testament times; 2) none of the instructions regarding church order include instructions for women pastors; and 3) some texts on church order explicitly forbid women to occupy that role. In 1 Timothy 2:12, written with the specific purpose of regulating the office of pastor and the orderly function of the churches, Paul writes, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man" (NIV). Paul does not expect that women will not or cannot learn or teach (compare with Titus 2:3-5 and 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14,15). He concludes women cannot have a pastoral position, or perform the pastoral function, for that puts them in authority over men in the life of the church.
The Executive Committee argues that “a cursory reading” easily demonstrates the case against women pastors. We don’t need any fancy exegesis. Cursory in this statement is like Aristotle’s obvious or evident. It also implies a literal reading. But the committee’s cursory reading is curious in the question it does not ask and what it hides. While it is true that there are no known women pastors in the New Testament, there are also no known men pastors. The problem is, there are no pastors in the New Testament. The term pastor, in the sense of a clergyperson or spiritual leader, derives from the Latin pastor meaning a shepherd. This term is not used in the early church. John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli were the first to use it for clergy during the reformation so as to distinguish Protestant clergy from Catholic priests.
Therefore, a cursory reading misses the obvious: THERE ARE NO PASTORS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. The literalists are having a problem with the literal.
Of course, the committee could reply that I’m being pedantic. Their point is that there are no women leaders of church communities. That is the point they make in their appeal to 1 Timothy.
But words are important. Pastor, in this case, a distinctive Protestant usage, implies that the situation in modern SBC churches, male pastors, is the same as in the New Testament. This is how literalism works. It ignores and denies historical differences. It elides the present with the past.
The Roman Catholic argument against women priests makes exactly this same logical, historical mistake. Jesus did not ordain any women priests. But Jesus didn’t ordain any men priests either. The word priest in the New Testament is not used by the followers of Jesus. In fact, it is not applied to Christians until the third century.
The Executive Committee report strongly relies on instructions for church order found 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, the so-called Pastorals. By the way, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are not called the Pastorals until the eighteenth century, i.e., post-reformation.
The Executive Committee assumes these are instructions from Paul to his disciples Timothy and Titus. But this is fiction. The Pastorals were written sometime in the mid-second century, when the churches in the Pauline tradition were debating the status of women in church life. First and 2 Timothy and Titus represent a conservative position, while the Acts of Paul and Thecla argue for the prominence of women in leadership roles. One might even argue that the Acts of Paul and Thecla represent the traditional Pauline position, while the Pastorals are innovating.
The historical Paul clearly knows women leaders of house communities. Chloe appears to be the leader of a house community at Corinth (1 Cor 1:11). In Romans 16 Paul greets several women who have leadership roles in various communities. In fact, the first person greeted is Phoebe, whom he identifies as a diakonos of the community at Cenchreae (Rom 16:1). The meaning of diakonos at this period is unclear, but it surely denotes a position of important leadership. Grammatically it is a masculine noun applied to a woman. Later in this list of greetings, Paul refers to Andronicus and Junia, husband and wife missionaries of the anointed. That is why he calls them apostles (envoys or missionaries) and even distinguished apostles (Rom 16:7). Paul identifies Junia as having the same rank and title as himself.
This cursory historical reading of Paul’s genuine letters indicates two important points. 1) Paul knows and respects female leaders of churches. While those house communities (ekklēsia) are organized much differently than modern SBC churches, nevertheless, Paul knows, respects, and accepts female leaders. This coheres with his statement in Gal 3:28, “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female.’ Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.” 2) The Acts of Paul and Thecla are closer to the historical Paul on the position of women. The author of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus is the innovator, who rejects Paul’s revolutionary and radical position in favor of a traditional patriarchal position, a position identical to the Roman emperor’s.
The SBC’s misogynist vote has doubled down on the convention’s historical roots. SBC was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery. SBC was a strong advocate of slavery. After the civil war it supported the lost cause of the Confederacy, defended racial segregation, and opposed interracial marriage. Only in 1995 did it apologize for this racist history.
A historical reading of the Pauline literature would have indicated a very different outcome. But history complicates matters. It also offers liberation from the past. Literalism simplifies and imprisons one in the status quo. Had Paul been a literalist, he would never have recognized that Jesus was the anointed son of God. A literalist interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion would interpret it as God’s cursing Jesus. Ironical, isn’t it?
* While her husband John Adams was serving on the committee that composed the Declaration of Independence, Abigail Adams wrote him a letter, saying, “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” He promptly forgot them.
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