With no seeming sense of irony, a prominent Baptist seminary that opposes the ordination of women and excludes LGBTQ people issued a report Dec. 13 rightly condemning its racist past and its founders’ support of slavery. The 71-page report offered an incisive critique of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s history with racism. Meanwhile, the seminary continues to espouse misogyny and homophobia rooted in the same appeals to biblical fidelity as its founders’ acceptance of slavery and later its supporters’ endorsement of segregation.
(Full disclosure: I attended Southern Seminary in the 1980s at the height of the controversy among Southern Baptists. I was a Ph.D. student and news director for the seminary while Albert Mohler, president since 1993, was a Ph.D. student and assistant to then-president Roy Honeycutt. I have also written about Southern Baptist women and Southern Seminary for the past 20 years).
“Does the seminary’s leadership really not hear the parallels? Do they really not see the irony?”
The role of women, and specifically women’s ordination, was a central issue in the 1980s controversy among Southern Baptists. Southern Seminary had been a denominational leader in supporting women in ministry. But when fundamentalists took control of the Southern Baptist Convention and its seminaries in the 1990s, their leadership moved decisively to restrict women and men who supported women’s ordination. In 2000, the denomination changed its “Baptist Faith and Message” confessional statement to assert “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband “ and “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
At Southern Seminary, belief about women’s ordination became a litmus test for faculty members, and Mohler ensured the seminary reflected the denomination’s limitations on women. Molly Marshall, the first woman to teach theology in a Southern Baptist seminary, and Diana Garland, the dean of the School of Social Work, were forced out. No women now teach in the School of Theology. In fact, the 2018-19 catalog lists only two women on the faculty, one in church music and the other a “distinguished professor of women’s studies,” but “women’s studies” classes are no longer listed in the catalog.
The seminary also segregates some classes. Only men can take Christian preaching, preaching practicum, evangelistic preaching and pastoral ministry.
Beyond relegating women to subordinate spheres, the denomination’s confessional statement also prohibits same-sex relationships. In fact, the statement equates homosexuality as a form of “sexual immorality” with racism and advocates opposition to both: “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.” Throughout his tenure as seminary president, Mohler has actively blogged against homosexuality.
The seminary rejects transgender and gender non-conforming persons. Its student conduct policy states: “. . . we regard sex at birth as the identification of the given biological sex of each member of our constituency. Any blurring of the boundary between maleness and femaleness, such as identifying oneself as a transvestite, transsexual, or transgendered, is contrary to biblical standards.”
Will women and LGBTQ persons have to wait another 160 years for our reckoning – and an apology?
While the SBC issued a formal apology for slavery on its 150th anniversary, Mohler rightly recognized that Southern Seminary needed to make its own inquiry into its own racist past and come to terms with its history. The report notes the seminary’s founders, all owners of enslaved persons, defended the institution of slavery, arguing from the Bible that it was ordained by God and good for slaves – similar arguments used to justify contemporary subordination of women. The report adds the seminary founders also denied “that abuses, violence, assault, and rape were in any way commonplace or systemic. Instead, they thought these to be exceptions.” The report quotes Basil Manly Sr.: “‘We cannot alter the facts, nor the providence of God.’ We must choose either ‘submission to an overruling providence’ designed by God’s ‘wisdom and goodness to bring good out of this dispensation,’ or else ‘resistance to omnipotence.’”
Does the seminary’s leadership really not hear the parallels? Do they really not see the irony? Using similar methods of biblical exegesis and theological construction, current leaders at Southern Seminary continue the institution’s history of discrimination and oppression, but with different targets.
The seminary’s leaders argue that the Bible demands women’s submission and exclusion from ordained ministry. They use the Bible to condemn and exclude LGBTQ people. They develop theological justifications in the name of biblical and theological fidelity to God’s providence and omnipotence and so, like their seminary forebears, perpetuate systems of power, abuse, and domination. Even as they condemn the white men before them who supported and benefitted from racism, slavery, and segregation, they maintain and benefit from sexism, heterosexism and the exclusion of women and LGBTQ people from the full life of the church.
I imagine the seminary’s founders felt just as morally, theologically and biblically convinced of their rightness on race and slavery as contemporary Southern Baptist leaders do on gender and sexuality. Just as the founders knew of dissenting Christian voices on slavery, Southern Seminary’s leaders surely know of the years of feminist and queer work in biblical criticism and theology. Yet both sets of leaders chose to reject those other voices in favor of the interpretations that maintain their own benefit, privilege and power over different others.
In some ways, I marvel at these Southern Baptist leaders’ capacity to be willfully blind to the similarities and parallels to their own misogynistic and homophobic beliefs and practices that history eventually will also judge as lacking.
That leads me to wonder if we women and LGBTQ persons will have to wait another 160 years for our reckoning – and an apology.