Beth Moore is an evangelical megastar who speaks to arenas brimming with smiling women. Moore loves the Bible as much as she loves Jesus, and she employs self-deprecating humor, breath-taking honesty and a rat-a-tat delivery to celebrate the amazing grace of God.
Everyone in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) loved Beth Moore until Donald Trump’s “locker room banter” got her Twitter finger twitching. Moore wasn’t backing Hillary (that would have been a death sentence in the SBC), but she sure-as-Sheol wasn’t voting for Donald.
Suddenly, Moore’s critics were looking for a way to “entangle her in her talk.” When she announced on Twitter that she would be “preaching” at a prominent Southern Baptist congregation on Mother’s Day her enemies pounced.
Albert Mohler lamented on Twitter: “We have reached a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention when there are now open calls to retreat from our biblical convictions on complementarianism and embrace the very error that the SBC repudiated over 30 years ago. Honestly, I never thought I would see this day.”
“When allegiance to the doctrine of inerrancy is the required price of admission to the denominational club, you become adept at working around the rules.”
Mohler is the conservative president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Complementarianism” is the belief that it is the will of God, expressed in the Bible with what Mohler calls “excruciating clarity,” that the preaching office is restricted to the male of the species.
Mohler wasn’t flabbergasted by Beth Moore alone. SBC President J.D. Greear shocked the denomination’s truth squad by inching away from complementarian orthodoxy. Greear fully endorses the favorite complementarian text, 1 Timothy 2:12: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Greear gets around the radically un-woke import of this text by arguing that women may preach in Sunday worship so long as biblical conditions apply. First, a male elder must establish context by introducing the female speaker. Second, the sermon must be followed by words of exhortation and application delivered by a male elder. So long as everybody realizes that the authority of the congregation’s male leadership is not being usurped, Greear says, women like Moore are free to preach.
When allegiance to the doctrine of inerrancy is the required price of admission to the denominational club, you become adept at working around the rules.
When the Moore-Greear controversy came up on his weekly podcast, Mohler cut to the heart of his concern:
If you look at the denominations where women do the preaching, they’re also the denominations where people do the leaving. And I think there’s just something about the order of creation . . . that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.
In particular, men like Mohler don’t want to revisit the decade between 1975 and 1984 when women preachers appeared to be taking the evangelical world by storm.
It all began when Paul Jewett, a professor at Fuller Seminary (an evangelical bastion) published Man as Male and Female: A Study in Sexual Relationships from a Theological Point of View. Although the church has traditionally endorsed a cruel patriarchy, Jewett argued, the Bible presents the male-female relationship in terms of partnership, not hierarchy.
It wasn’t long before this new perspective was being echoed on the campuses of SBC seminaries. Between 1975 and 1980 (the years my wife, Nancy, and I spent at Southern Seminary) professors like E. Glenn Hinson, Bill Leonard, Paul Simmons and Glen Stassen beat the drum for gender equality in the church. In 1979, the celebrated New Testament professor Frank Stagg and his theologically educated wife, Evelyn, published Women in the World of Jesus, a book that presented the man from Nazareth as a revolutionary liberator of women.
That same year, Leon McBeth, a church history professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, published Women in Baptist Life, beginning with a frank confession that the contribution of women had been ignored by Baptist historians. McBeth was convinced that a new day was dawning:
Today’s Southern Baptist woman may, in fact, be pastor of her local church . . . One senses that these developments are not passing fads but represent long-term alterations in Southern Baptist life. Indeed, indications are that the trend toward more leadership roles for Southern Baptist women may accelerate in the future.
“The times they were a-changin,’” but as Bob Dylan’s iconic song also warns: “Don’t speak too soon / For the wheel’s still in spin / And there’s no tellin’ who / That it’s namin.’”
“Neither the congregation nor our denomination seemed to have a problem with Nancy preaching, but ordination was a bridge too far.”
Nancy Bean, and dozens of other female students at Southern Baptist seminaries in the late 70s, quickly realized that, regardless of what was being said in the classroom, patriarchy could not be dismissed so easily. Some seminary bureaucrats tried to bully Nancy into dropping out of the master of divinity program because “our churches don’t ordain women.”
Frustrated by one professor’s persistent use of the phrase “pastors’ wives,” Nancy once asked, “What about pastors’ husbands?”
“We don’t have any pastors’ husbands,” the professor replied humorlessly, “because we don’t call women to preach.”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
When Nancy graduated in 1980, we moved to a small congregation in Medicine Hat, Alberta, intent on a shared ministry as co-pastors. It sounded like an idea whose time had come. Our “area minister” assured us that the congregation was fully on board. The church’s moderator was a woman, for Pete’s sake.
But the wheel was still in spin.
The first sign of difficulty came when we were informed by the denomination that an annuity account would be created solely in my name. When I asked the deacons to intervene on our behalf, they all stared at the table. Finally, one of the men fessed up in a wavering voice: “We were afraid that if we told you the truth you wouldn’t come.”
Neither the congregation nor our denomination seemed to have a problem with Nancy preaching, but ordination was a bridge too far. Four decades later the denomination remains conflicted about the ordination of women. The wheel’s still in spin.
George Orwell’s ominous 1984 proved to be the best and worst of times for women in ministry. That year, when 26 evangelical leaders from across the United States gathered in Oak Brook, Illinois, to thrash out the issue of women’s ordination, the pro-woman perspective was clearly ascendant. Although the meeting fell short of consensus, the ultra-orthodox J.I. Packer was forced to acknowledge that “the burden of proof regarding the exclusion of women from the office of teaching and ruling within the congregation now lies on those who maintain the exclusion rather than on those who challenge it.”
“The fight for control of the SBC essentially pitted preachers against professors.”
But it was also in 1984 that 58 percent of the messengers attending the SBC’s annual meeting passed a resolution honoring women for “the building of godly homes” and encouraging their service “in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”
Supporters of women’s ordination were outraged. Mohler, a young graduate student at Southern Seminary, led a protest demonstration on the campus. Shortly thereafter, Roy Honeycutt, the seminary president came out in favor of ordaining women in an article in the seminary’s magazine. True to his word, Honeycutt started appointing women like Molly Marshall and Pam Scalise to key faculty positions. The Battle was joined.
It may be hard for you to picture a champion of biblical patriarchy like Mohler defending the ordination of women, but he was only 24 years old at the time and very much a work in progress. A decade earlier, as an adolescent member of a Baptist megachurch in Florida, young Al had experienced a crisis of faith. Having been told from birth that a perfect God had given his church a perfect book, Al made the mistake of reading the Bible on his own. The only exceptional feature of this story is that, rather than suffering in silence like most of us, Al shared his trauma with his pastor.
Realizing he was in over his head, the pastor handed Mohler off to James Kennedy, the famous pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian. Somewhat disappointingly, Kennedy was also short on answers, but he handed Mohler a book by Francis Schaeffer. Mohler admits that Schaeffer’s rambling deconstruction of existentialism was a bit over his head, but the fact that such a learned individual believed the Bible from cover to cover was immensely reassuring.
By 1984, Mohler hadn’t changed his views on the Bible, but, as a doctoral student, he had imbibed the generous orthodoxy for which Southern Seminary was famous (and, in some circles, infamous). The fight for control of the SBC essentially pitted preachers against professors. The faculty of the denomination’s six seminaries were theologically conservative Bible-lovers, but few of them subscribed to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and none of those who did were particularly prominent.
If the preachers hoped to bring the professors to heel, they needed the assistance of non-SBC scholars like Packer and Carl F.H. Henry who boasted advanced degrees from prestigious institutions.
“Do these guys really believe this stuff?”
So it was that, a few short months after leading a demonstration in support of women in ministry, Mohler invited Henry to speak to a group of conservative students. Since Henry was identified with the opposition, he was snubbed by the seminary’s faculty, and it was left to Mohler to serve as a one-man welcoming committee.
As Mohler escorted his illustrious guest to the meeting venue, Henry wondered aloud how a supporter of biblical inerrancy could champion the ordination of women. Mohler explained that he saw no contradiction between the two commitments. “One day,” Henry replied, “this will be a matter of great embarrassment to you.”
Henry had been fully briefed on the conservative game plan. “Liberals” like Honeycutt would be accused of being anti-Bible and their support for women’s ordination would be presented as Exhibit A. If young men like Mohler wanted a role in the new SBC they had to get with the program.
By 1986, men like Henry and Packer had created the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a conclave of Calvinists committed to biblical inerrancy and the defense of patriarchy. Mohler, now enlightened, was cheering them on.
Do these guys really believe this stuff? Who can know for sure?
As we have seen, Packer entertained the idea of ordaining women before switching sides. Henry, four years after lending his support to the complementarian agenda, was encouraging a young evangelical scholar named Sarah Sumner to pursue her dream of being a Christian leader. In her book, Men and Women in the Church: Building Consensus on Christian Leadership, Sumner writes that Henry freely acknowledged that his endorsement was contrary to his theology, but, confronted by a woman with obvious gifts, he kicked his scruples to the curb.
“Pastors like Greear, academics like Sumner and Bible teachers like Moore gladly sign off on biblical inerrancy, but they are quietly transposing the scriptures into the key of Jesus.”
Pastors like Greear, academics like Sumner and Bible teachers like Moore gladly sign off on biblical inerrancy, but they are quietly transposing the scriptures into the key of Jesus.
“I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016,” Moore recently tweeted. “All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture. Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses & misuses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.”
That’s why men like Mohler are so frightened. Right there in the heart of the Southern Baptist land, Dylan is singing:
The wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That its naming.’
And the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin.’
Thanks be to God.