Baptists love football. How many college and pro football illustrations did I hear in sermons preached in my childhood Southern Baptist church? How many Baptists are just as likely to don college colors and spend Saturdays watching the game as Sundays in church?
And you know what else Baptists love? They love to fight over issues related to women. They love to fight about women in so many ways.
Over the last century, Southern Baptists have fought over whether women should vote in public elections or denominational meetings, go to seminary, speak in mixed assemblies, retain reproductive control of their bodies, keep financial control of money they raised, be ordained or serve as pastors. And most recently the Southern Baptist Convention is fighting about whether or not women who are victims and survivors of sexual abuse have any say in their own healing and justice.
Bring it all together, and this love of football and fighting about women makes for a year-round Baptist sport.
Like America’s love/hate relationship with football, Baptists have a similar love/hate relationship with women. Baptist men say they love their mamas and put their wives and daughters up on pedestals. They pass resolutions about the “responsibility of women fulfilling the Great Commission,” unless those women say God has called them to pastoral ministry. Then Katy bar the door. A huddle is called, and a game is about to break out.
“The SBC gathered at the convention center. But they should have met at the Superdome.”
This year’s agenda for the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans was a perfect set-up for another contest over women. They squared off for a battle over churches that have women serving as pastors and how to address the clergy abuse crisis in which the majority of survivors are women. The SBC gathered at the convention center. But they should have met at the Superdome.
In my book Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywomen’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention, I argue that during the 1980s and 1990s biblicists (who want to make the Bible their final authority in all things) and autonomists (who believe the human conscience plays a bigger role in discerning God’s purpose) fought over women as if they were issues rather than full persons with lives and commitments.
In their struggle for theological and political ascendency between 1979 and 2000, Southern Baptists on both sides treated clergywomen like political footballs. Both sides claimed victory, but to celebrate, biblicists spiked the ball as a sign to show the world all things wrong in the convention and the wider American culture.
On the opposing team, autonomists, who also claimed to be winning the game, held women high as a symbol of true Southern Baptist piety and vocation. They were patting themselves on the back for supporting the ordination of women.
The rules of the game were made for men. A boys-only club. No girls allowed. The fathers in charge and their promising sons took the field and played their best. All the players believed God ordained the game … and God would never ordain women.
“Women were not players but objects in the game.”
Thus, women were not players but objects in the game. Now let’s be clear: There were plenty of other footballs Southern Baptists tossed around starting in the early 1970s, like prayer in schools, gay marriage and, of course, the Bible itself. The winners of each contest stayed in power in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Every touchdown was a big victory.
Even when women began to be ordained. Even when they became pastors of SBC churches. Even when the autonomists began to champion their cause. Women never were considered real players in the game. The long-standing and protracted fights were at their core a battle between men. However, when you stop tossing women around and center their stories, experiences and voices, the rules of the game come into question.
Changing the game
Baptist clergywomen changed the Baptist game by leaving the SBC, by staying and changing hearts and minds about women’s gifts for ministry and by helping start new games with new rules that included a greater variety of players.
Beginning with the first woman who departed the SBC after being ordained in 1964, the convention has been losing women in a steady stream. Addie Davis was ordained at Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., and she immediately left for the American Baptist Churches in the USA to fulfill her calling as a pastor.
In 60 years, literally thousands of Southern Baptist women have been called and ordained to ministry, a call that did not come from any man. God was the source and promise of their calling.
“These women changed the game by leaving altogether and refusing to be objects.”
Some felt they had no other choice but to become ministers in United Methodist, Lutheran, American Baptist, Presbyterian, UCC, Episcopal, Disciples and African Methodist Episcopal congregations, among others. These women changed the game by leaving altogether and refusing to be objects, footballs tossed around between men.
Other women — lay leaders and pastors alike — stayed in the SBC. From 1979 to 2000, the women who stayed also refused to be simple pawns or footballs in the SBC game played by men. They enrolled in seminary. They asked their local churches for ordination, and by 1995 more than 1,100 of them were ordained. Ten years later, an additional 800 Baptist women were ordained. Many were employed as chaplains, congregational ministers and pastors.
These women were not ambitious. They were Baptists. This meant they were pious, Bible reading, daily praying, truth-loving Christians. They were deeply immersed in a theology and spirituality of Baptist freedom and faithfulness. They were quite simply products of Southern Baptist piety. They believed the team mottos to “follow Jesus” and “listen to the Holy Spirit.” And “God calls everyone to ministry and service.”
They ran out onto the field to play. But there was no place for them in the game of powerful Southern Baptist patriarchs and preacher-boys. Women were cast as an issue to be fought over rather than players on any team.
The SBC fathers in charge even re-wrote the rulebook to be abundantly clear that women and queer people could not play. The Baptist Faith and Message was revised between 1998 and 2000 to assure women should be sidelined. The new statement declared the gracious submission of wives to their husbands, that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and the role of pastor is limited to men.
Clearly a turning point for Southern Baptists, the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message often is portrayed as the end of the protracted fight for control. The biblicists had won. Women would not be allowed to be pastors in most Southern Baptist churches, but it was hardly the end of the story.
Breaking up the franchise
The fracturing of the SBC began years earlier. In the early 1980s, a group formed in hopes that women could break into the game. Baptist Women in Ministry, as it is called today, continues to advocate for women as players and not merely objects in a game that rages on. BWIM supports Baptist women mostly outside, but also inside the SBC.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship broke away, taking significant numbers of churches from the SBC. Ordained Baptist clergywomen were instrumental in organizing the departures for the new teams. All three groups openly value women’s ordinations and pastoral leadership, and they play by different rules.
Beyond the new groups of Baptists, clergywomen also changed ministry itself — for the better. They are part of a much wider movement in the United States, advocating for the full humanity of women, and living unapologetically the lives and ministries God called them to live. For decades they have been renewing and revitalizing a church that no longer can thrive as a good ol’ boys club or football franchise.
The high stakes of the game
Not only did they change the game of ministry itself when they entered fully as players, Baptist clergywomen revealed more clearly the stakes of the game Southern Baptists had been playing.
I’ve talked to hundreds of clergywomen, interviewing two dozen of them in depth. Anatomy of a Schism focuses on five women’s stories. From their point of view, the question never was simply about social issues (like abortion or prayer in schools) or even much about the “religious” issues (like ordination or the inerrancy of the Bible).
Certainly, the game played for decades and continued in New Orleans last week is a struggle for power. And each woman felt that viscerally. Every issue over which Southern Baptists fight is part of that struggle for control.
Yet, in a much deeper way the Baptist battles about women have been a spiritual and theological quest over what it means to be human.
“They used trash talk and intimidation tactics, an offensive cut off at the mics, a defense led by aging quarterback Al Mohler.”
Last week in New Orleans, the white men of the SBC took the field again in a contest over the full humanity of women. They used trash talk and intimidation tactics, an offensive cut off at the mics, a defense led by aging quarterback Al Mohler. And they refused to reinstate two conservative cooperating churches who begged to stay in the game even though their only offense was ordaining and calling women to serve as pastors.
In another profound and disturbing development, the players on the field and fathers in charge are in a protracted fight over how to respond to the most vulnerable among Southern Baptists. Women and children and people who have been victimized by sexual predators are the latest footballs being tossed about in a game that objectifies people rather than putting them into the game.
Anxious to win, devastating to lose
At the heart of these contests lives a deep anxiety about anything Southern Baptists perceive to be “an assault on God’s created order.” In Anatomy of a Schism, I analyze how SBC leaders use rhetoric to “act and react to keep complementarity in place. Complementarity is a subtle and deceptive ‘good’ that keeps domination and subordination at work by declaring both to be necessary.”
“No amount of ‘equality’ will be acceptable because it will undermine the entire system of ‘order’ in home, church and society.”
To understand why the SBC keeps fighting over people as issues, we need to grasp this: “When complementarity is understood as ‘God’s delegated order’ for all of life, no amount of ‘equality’ will be acceptable because it will undermine the entire system of ‘order’ in home, church and society.”
The most enduring problem with this game, as I hope you can see from this extended metaphor, is that it is designed to manage anxiety about losing power. The result is a set of game rules that keep making powerful men the winners and everyone else the losers. As long as a game continues to treat human beings — women, children, queer folks, abuse survivors, and Black, Indigenous and people of color — as lacking full humanity, to objectify them as issues to fight over, then there is no way for anyone except white men to win.
Among the more important and valuable things clergywomen did in the Southern Baptist world of the 1980s and ’90s and every decade since that time is to change the game. They didn’t just switch to soccer or basketball or baseball (to torture this metaphor further). They changed it to something entirely different. Something more like Wordle or track and field, canasta or swimming. All players get to play. Everyone is invited to be part of the game rather than an object to toss about, lift high in victory or dash to the ground in defeat.
No one is going to change this decade’s old anxiety game played inside the SBC in New Orleans or any other city. Faithful Southern Baptists Rick Warren and Linda Barnes Popham couldn’t do it. Nor could thousands of women called by God to ordained ministry across 60 years. Neither can untold numbers of survivors of sexual abuse by SBC men. The SBC will go on playing its game until there’s nothing left to fight over and crowds finally decide to go home.
I grew up watching and then trying to play the game, educated in Baptist schools and ordained by an SBC church. I left the stadium when I experienced God calling me away from the anxiety and toward being part of the new Baptist games.
The Alliance of Baptists, CBF and BWIM never have been perfect. No game is. Yet these groups of Baptists are aspiring to equality and recognize God’s values of love and justice for all people. I am glad to have a place on those teams. They have room on their rosters for more.
Eileen Campbell-Reed serves as visiting associate professor of pastoral theology and care at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. She is author of Anatomy of a Schism and State of Clergywomen in the U.S.
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