Gracie Robinson isn’t getting married. At least, she isn’t planning on it. She doesn’t want a man to control her: “Every time I think about it, it just burns me up!” she says,
Growing up in rural Mississippi, Robinson attended a Baptist church that said the Bible orders women to be submissive to their husbands.
Now, Robinson, who’s enrolled in a New Orleans seminary, holds both views: men are in charge, but she isn’t willing to be submissive. And that’s the contradiction of being an evangelical woman today: Embracing the beliefs of a community that teaches God instructs men alone to lead churches and families, while also fiercely arguing for women’s equal worth.
The evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has faced a string of #MeToo scandals — the head of the denomination’s executive committee and the pastor grandson of its most famous evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, both resigned over inappropriate sexual relationships; a Memphis church’s handling of pastor Andy Savage’s sexual encounter with a teenager was condemned in nationwide headlines; revered denominational leader Paul Pressler was accused of sexual assault.
But by far the scandal that has rattled the community the most is that of Paige Patterson. A towering Southern Baptist leader, Patterson was fired from his job leading one of the denomination’s six seminaries when it came to light that he had not reported two women’s allegations of rape to the police.
Women were instrumental in Patterson’s downfall, signing a petition against him by the thousands. But women also continue to rally around him. “I’m a Southern Baptist lady,” said a pastor’s widow who took the microphone at the denomination’s annual meeting. “I am not a #MeToo.” When angry donors sent a letter after the meeting protesting Patterson’s firing, 14 of the 25 signers were women.
“Seeing something as God’s divine order, there’s a clarity to that. I think there’s also a strong dislike in many quarters of feminism and what some of these women believe feminism stands for — an anti-child or anti-family emphasis they perceive in feminism,” said R. Marie Griffith, who was raised Southern Baptist and who directs Washington University in St. Louis’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. “For many women, they do believe that’s God’s order. ... The preferred mode would be: Okay, men will be the spiritual leaders.”
Southern Baptist seminaries enrolled 12 percent more women from 2012-2016, following more than two decades of gradual growth in women’s enrollment. Over those same decades, the denomination — led by Patterson and Pressler — doubled down on a theology of gender that emphasizes male leadership.
At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a summer intensive just for women taught these same conservative principles — while students explored just where the boundaries lie.
“God created men and women equal in worth and value, but different in role and function. Different is just different. Different isn’t bad,” teaches Rhonda Kelley, the wife of the seminary’s president and the head of its women’s ministry program. “Our biblically assigned role is to submit to men that God placed in authority over our lives.”
She says that women who don’t obey this plan end up dissatisfied with their lives; on her PowerPoint presentation, bold letters describe it as a “sure path to destruction for home and family.”
Reading the Bible in Kelley’s class, students learn to scour passages for evidence of this biblical plan for women. For instance, after reading the story of Deborah — the judge who led Israel for a time, including commanding troops on the battlefield — one student acknowledged that some readers see the story as the Bible condoning an example of a woman in power.
The student said she was searching for another interpretation: “What I settled on in my heart is Deborah did it in reverence for the leadership God intended men to have, in humility rather than saying, ‘I know what to do. I’m going to lead this battle,’” she concluded.
After the students read passages about the prophet Huldah, the judge Deborah, the prophet Miriam, and the queen Esther, Kelley put up a slide that concluded: “There is not a biblical pattern of women in positions of spiritual leadership (i.e. prophet or judge).”
Her students, like the women who spoke out against Patterson, express their concerns as women even while pledging their adherence to tradition. When the class reads a book suggesting a wife should follow her husband if he wants to move for his job, many of them search for a way to reject that guidance, saying their own careers should be important, too.
“I agree with the Christian view. And I agree with, yes, woman as helper. But it’s the implications,” one says.
That’s what seems to be quietly happening in some evangelical circles — throwing some older practices out the window, without throwing out the interpretation of the Bible at its core.
The shake-up around gender in the Southern Baptist Convention caused some subtle ripples in the classroom at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Jill Nash, studying for her Master’s in Divinity, sat down on the first day of her Christian Ethics class and found, not unusually for a seminary class, that she was the only woman out of seven students. (Kelley, who runs the program of women-specific courses, calls the core courses required of all M.Div. students, male and female, “the boy classes.”)
Nash, who works for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, didn’t marry until she was 42, so in the last few years, she’s given a lot of thought to the questions now bubbling up in the convention about what female submission means. “Sub — it means to come under — a mission. If you see the direction someone’s going that you’re dating as something you’ve got to really come under — can I come under that? Can I support that?” she said to friends at dinner that night, after that Christian Ethics class. “That husband is to love you as Christ loves the Church. And who doesn’t want to submit to that? … I want to cook dinner for him every night. I want to wash his clothes.”
Horsley is no stranger to male-dominated professions — not only is she a seminary student, but she also patrols the campus with a firearm in the wee hours of the night, as the only female officer of the campus police. She said she has felt frustrated that Southern Baptist men don’t always listen when women try to tell them about important issues, including sexual abuse in the church.