Baptist Leaders Face Challenge On Women's Roles

Jimmy Carter i i

hide captionFormer President Jimmy Carter recently wrote in the London Observer that a primary reason he left the Southern Baptist Convention was because of its treatment of women.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter recently wrote in the London Observer that a primary reason he left the Southern Baptist Convention was because of its treatment of women.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For the first time in decades, the Southern Baptist Convention is losing members.

Former President Jimmy Carter left nine years ago. Recently, Carter wrote in the London Observer that a primary reason he left was the denomination's treatment of women. The Southern Baptist Convention says women cannot hold positions of leadership over men.

And now some Baptists say that stand is contributing to the convention's problems.

Interpreting The Word Of God

A few years ago, when Julie Pennington Russell showed up for her first Sunday at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, she was greeted by a crowd of protesters.

"I was walking through the picket line with my son Taylor, who was 7 at the time, and all the sudden he squeezed my hand and pulled me down and said, 'Mom, who is Jezebel, and why are they calling you that?'" Russell says.

The protesters were from other Baptist churches that disapproved of Calvary calling a woman a senior pastor. Baptist churches are independent and can hire anyone they want, but if they hire a woman, they run the risk of being "disfellowshipped" — kicked out of the convention.

Richard Land, a senior officer of the SBC, says the reason is simple.

"We believe that the Bible says that while both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture," Land says.

Land is referring to the New Testament letters of the Apostle Paul, who said women should not have authority over men in the church and the home. The Baptists reaffirmed that teaching in 2000.

But Wade Burleson, pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in Enid, Okla., says the leaders got it wrong.

"You are badly misinterpreting the word of God, and the consequences of your misinterpretation are enormous," Burleson says.

Burleson says Jesus treated women as equals, and if Southern Baptists ignore his example, the denomination will shrivel. Burleson believes there's a quiet underground movement within the convention to rethink women's roles.

Klouda's Case

Land says Burleson is dreaming. He says Southern Baptists are united on the issue. Of their 44,000 churches, fewer than 100 have women leaders. Land concedes that the denomination has seen its numbers drop in recent years. But he says tacking leftward isn't the answer.

"Those people who are saying, 'Well, we need to broaden, and we need to be more accepting of divergent views,' those are the same people who have led the mainline denominations to death's door," says Land.

In fact, there's some evidence of a conservative crackdown.

Consider the case of Sheri Klouda, who taught Hebrew at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. All was well until Paige Patterson, a former president of the denomination, arrived to run the seminary.

"I was told I would not be considered for tenure because I was a woman and because he believed that women should not be teaching theology to men," says Klouda.

Klouda found another teaching job at a non-Baptist university. In the meantime, Southwestern has developed a new "track" for women seminarians, which includes home-making and home-schooling.

A Continuing Debate

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., knows the denomination is going against culture.

"Ultimately, I'm not so fearful that the times will judge us as I'm aware that God will judge us, and I hope with all my heart that he will find our church is faithful to his word," Mohler says.

Still, Burleson hopes that the days of disparate treatment are numbered.

"I'm not a betting Baptist, but if I were, I would put money on the table that 50 years from now, Southern Baptists will look at women and the role of women the way we now look at slavery," Burleson says.

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Correction July 24, 2009

In some broadcasts, we incorrectly said that the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is based in Dallas, Texas. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is based in Ft. Worth, Texas.

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