Southern Baptists, Women, and the Future of Evangelicalism in America, Part 2

Last week, I began our conversation about how to create a church culture that affirms women by talking about the role that men in general and husbands in particular must play in creating that culture.  In this week’s entry, I want to turn our attention to the role that congregations and denominations play in creating a culture that honors women.

The Role of Congregations

Perhaps the first thing that individual congregations need to do to create a positive culture for women is to remind everyone of God’s standards for sexual conduct.  That is because many of the incidents women report are really incidents of sexual misconduct. These conversations need to do more than just cover the basics of chastity before marriage and faithfulness in marriage.  They need to go deeper, reminding congregants, for example, that sex is not an appropriate venue for the expression of one’s social power or for the settling of old scores (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).  Church leaders need to be on the lookout for people who violate these standards and need to take steps to protect the women in their congregation from them.

Second, congregations need to find ways to give women a voice in how the church is run.  This can be done even in congregations that are committed to a complementarian vision of church life.  Listening to the concerns that women have is the obvious place to begin, but it is not the only step that needs to be taken.  Structures need to be put in place that ensure women have real power. And once those structures are put in place, they need to have the support of the pastor and other church leaders.

For example, congregations that are large enough to employ multiple ministers need to have women on staff.  Thirty years ago, this might have been a controversial suggestion, but it should not be so today. Women serve as children’s ministers and in other roles in Southern Baptist churches all over the country, and they have proven themselves to be capable workers on behalf of the Kingdom of God.  Having women on staff gives pastors ready conversation partners when they want to understand how their words and actions affect the women of the congregation. It also gives the women of the congregation someone in an obvious position of authority to whom they can go when they have a problem with how they are being treated.

Third, congregational leaders need to educate themselves and their congregations on the challenges that women face, both in the world at large and in the church.  I have profited greatly from listening to female friends and colleagues as they share with me the unique problems that come with being a woman. Without their input, there would be some things that I just cannot understand because I am a man.

Fourth, churches need to insist that the leaders they select see women the way that God sees them, not the way that they have been portrayed by misogynistic thinkers of the past or the way that they are presented in contemporary popular culture.  This doesn’t just go for the pastors they hire and the elders they elect. Churches, at least in the Baptist tradition, need to take seriously their responsibility as a source of accountability for their denomination. As we, the rank and file, hold our leaders accountable, we demonstrate both to the women in our churches and to the watching world that we understand the wrongs that have been committed in the past and are taking action to address those wrongs.

The Role of Denominations

What about denominations?  How can they effectively create a healthy culture for women while remaining true to their convictions  about the church and how it should function?

First, denominations need to be a lot more honest about how women have been treated throughout history.  Too many evangelicals secretly (or openly) long to return to the “good old days.” The problem is that those days weren’t so “good” for women (or African Americans, or the poor, or the disabled, etc.), and evangelicals need to be the first ones pointing out that fact.

Second, denominations, too, need to find ways for women to have meaningful input into how the denomination is run and what the denomination teaches.  This means that women not only need to be encouraged to fill positions of denominational leadership, but they also need to be given access to the educational and other resources that will prepare them for that kind of service. Women will not have influence in their denomination if they do not have the knowledge and skills to do the work that they are assigned.

And that leads us to a third point.  Denominations need to be clear, but not overly restrictive, about what women can and cannot do.  They also need to be clear about why restrictions are put in place. There is an obvious public relations benefit to this kind of clarity; people cannot simply make up worst case scenarios about what a denomination’s teachings mean.  But there is a much more important benefit. All of us, I hope, are committed to the Bible as God’s Word, and if the Bible contains teachings about any topic, we are obligated to obey those teachings. But the Bible also has to be interpreted, and we have to work hard to interpret it correctly.  When a particular command or prohibition is poorly understood, that command or prohibition can easily be misused. And when God’s Word is misused, people get hurt.

Fourth, complementarian denominations need to stop demonizing people who do not share their views.  Just as there are many complementarians who treat women with the utmost respect, treasuring them as God’s gift to the human race and as co-bearers of God’s image, so also there are egalitarians who are committed to the authority of Scripture.  Why is this important for creating a culture that values women? Rhetoric that demonizes the egalitarian vision (as well as the concerns of feminist critics of complementarianism) runs the risk of telling women that they are second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.  Such messages embolden the misogynists in the church, and they drive talented women out of evangelical denominations. Instead, debates between complementarians and their critics need to be civil and should focus on the common ground they share rather than on the things that divide them.  There will still be disagreements, and denominations have every right to pursue their devotion to Jesus in the way that they think best represents the teachings of Scripture. But finding common ground will help everyone understand what the issues really are and will deprive misogynists of any quarter they may now receive in our church..

Closing Thoughts

At the beginning of last week’s blog, I said that the future of evangelical Christianity in America may depend on what Southern Baptists do to address the concerns of the female leaders.  I stand by that statement—even if it seems a little extreme to some. Southern Baptists already have so many battles to fight, so many that need to be fought. The last thing that they need is another fight.

Moreover, God’s people need the witness of complementarian theologians, pastors, and lay people.  Even if, in the final analysis, complementarianism has significant weaknesses, it also speaks powerfully for the goodness of God’s creative activity and against the self-indulgence of a society that thinks it can disregard God’s work without consequence.  That witness will be greatly hindered—and the reputation of Christ marred—if the individuals, congregations, and denominations who share the complementarian vision do not live up to its ideals and do not demonstrate, in practical ways, the love of God for all people.

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