In 1984, Sarah Ann Hobbs, director of mission for the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, offered some predictions for women in ministry over the next 30 years.
She rightly noted that as women took on more roles in the workforce, they may desire expanded roles in the church.
“Will the church say to the female corporate executive that she must have no leadership expectations in her church or to the bank vice president that she should always be secretary and never chairman of the budget committee?” she asked. “Can the woman who owns and operates her own business be satisfied in a church with only male deacons? These are questions Southern Baptists must answer.”
And answer they did. At the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in June 1984, messengers passed a resolution that left no question about their views on women’s place in the church.
The resolution appealed to “God’s delegated order of authority” and referenced the need “to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall” before resolving “that we not decide concerns of Christian doctrine and practice by modern cultural, sociological and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors; that we remind ourselves of the dearly bought Baptist principle of the final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and conduct; and that we encourage the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”
In other words, the SBC messengers declared women seeking ordination and the people who supported them were merely being swayed by “modern cultural, sociological and ecclesiastical trends or by emotional factors,” not by God.
In short, these women and churches had misunderstood God’s calling.
Much has been written about the presumptions behind this exclusion of women as well as the attitudes and motivations of the people leading the charge, so I will not explore those here.
“This 1984 indictment came only one year after an often-forgotten SBC resolution that affirmed the giftedness of women for ministry.”
Instead, I will note that this 1984 indictment came only one year after an often-forgotten SBC resolution that affirmed the giftedness of women for ministry.
That 1983 resolution appealed to Galatians 3:28 rather than the “Edenic fall,” expressing “gratitude to God for the contributions made by Southern Baptist women” and encouraging “all employers, including those Southern Baptist churches, institutions and agencies which employ women, to seek fairness for women in compensation, benefits and opportunities for advancement.”
The resolution ended with a hopeful statement encouraging “all Southern Baptists to continue to explore further opportunities of service for Baptist women, to ensure maximum utilization of all God-called servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The 1983 resolution spoke to the reality of women’s changing roles in society addressed in the 1984 article by Sarah Ann Hobbs. This resolution considered the reality that women already were serving in all areas of ministry in Southern Baptist life. This resolution sought to launch a different kind of movement within the SBC that the 1984 resolution shut down.
Interestingly, the 1984 resolution barring women from ordained ministry also came only one year after the founding of a group devoted to the support and encouragement of Baptist women called to ministry, including many Baptist women already serving in ordained leadership in SBC churches.
The message sent by the 1984 resolution was as simple as it was meanspirited: SBC women needed to stop organizing and go back home.
“SBC women needed to stop organizing and go back home.”
The hurt this caused the women I have interviewed, the women who came after them, and the women left to grow up in an increasingly constrictive, patriarchal space (some of whom are my students) is heartbreaking. Rooted in fear, the prescriptions thrown at women were designed not merely to keep them in their place, but to deny their gifts, question their calls and push them back in time.
And yet, God’s call on the lives of women could not and cannot be denied. Woman after woman has told me some version of, “I never doubted God’s call,” “The calling never left,” or “I knew I was meant to be a pastor.”
They understood the God who called them was bigger than the SBC. Thanks be to God!
Perhaps if the SBC had “allowed” women to serve in positions of pastoral authority, light would have been shed on the abuse of power, sexual and otherwise, in the very top places sooner. Perhaps not. But I feel certain fewer women would have been hurt by the very institution that introduced them to Jesus and taught them to love the Bible.
Even now, Baptist women in ministry recall the pain they felt being in that space in Kansas City as their brothers and sisters decided their calling was not legitimate. Even now, my female students question their calling.
And, even now, women’s roles continue to be debated in Baptist life. Much focus, as it should be, has been on the SBC as the largest Baptist group, but closer to home the Baptist General Convention of Texas has had its own share of ambiguity and even dismissiveness regarding women in ministry lately.
Craig Christina, interim executive director of the BCGT, relegates women in ministry to a second-order issue, and Katie McCoy, head of the BGCT’s women’s ministry, is a complementarian who was trained at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That the person leading the women’s ministry at the BGCT does not affirm the ordination of women is telling of the institution’s recent rightward drift.
And yet what have many men in the convention spent their year doing?”
Like in 1984, this latest decision to purge the SBC of all churches that hire women as pastors comes in the wake of a somewhat hopeful round of gains for women at last summer’s annual convention. Last year, after years of working to be heard and believed, women of the SBC succeeded in securing a task force to implement sexual abuse reforms. It was a huge victory. And yet what have many men in the convention spent their year doing? Compiling lists and signing letters that will oust churches that have chosen to give women a seat at the table.
Another gain lost. More hope deflated.
The message of the SBC once again rings clear: It is women who are the problem. Women are to blame because they have stepped out of their proper space and sought to claim the power reserved for men. If we silence the women, if we remind them of their role, then they can be protected. Then all will be well.
Except history shows us that is not the case. We have been here before — in 1984. Female ministers were not — and are not — the problem.
So many realities of Baptist women in ministry were predicted by Hobbs almost 40 years ago, but it is this conclusion that resonated most deeply: “Women are going to respond to God’s call to all areas of ministry. Whether they will serve in Southern Baptist churches or not is still unanswered. But serve they will. The greatest tragedy may not be that they can’t find a job but that the church will lose its chance at brilliant leadership.”
To date, I have interviewed 70 Baptist women in ministry. I am teaching the next generation of Baptist women in ministry. I say with confidence and more than a little grief and sadness that the denomination of my youth lost “its chance at brilliant leadership.” And this week, they voted to do it all over again.
Mandy McMichael serves as associate director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance at Baylor University. She is currently building an oral history of Baptist Women in Ministry that will be housed at Baylor’s Institute for Oral History.
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