Southern Baptist Women: An Interview with Betsy Flowers

Kate Bowler

 Today's interview is the first of a multi-part interview with Elizabeth Flowers about her wonderful new book Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women since World War II.  Having just used this book in my class last week, I can say that it reads like a dream and it teaches beautifully.

Elizabeth Flowers is Associate Professor of Religion at Texas Christian University, where she teaches courses in American religious history, women in religion, the history of evangelicalism, and world religious traditions. Her current research interests include religion, the body, and childbirth practices, and she is working on an edited volume considering shifting notions of gender in the Sunbelt South. During rare but valued free-time, Betsy enjoys trips to family in Memphis, where she can find real barbecue, having coffee with her husband Darren, whose love of Elvis and world cup soccer she happily indulges, cheering for her eight year-old son’s team, the Jedi, and reading women’s memoirs.

Kate: Into the Pulpit addresses a significant gap in evangelical scholarship, whose accounts of the Culture Wars tend to be heavily focused on the theological showdowns of powerful men. What do we American religious historians miss by overlooking Southern Baptist women?  

Betsy: This question captures the book succinctly. I would say that while scholars of evangelicals have considered issues of gender and sexuality in their analysis of the culture wars, most have neglected (or at least avoided any sustained focus on) Southern Baptists, perhaps for fear of straying into the theological realm and more narrowly defined church history. On the other hand, most scholars that treat the Southern Baptist controversy of the same era (1970s to 1990s) have tended to avoid any sustained focus on the culture wars, treating the denomination’s battles more as a theological showdown of powerful men and almost always leaving out the stories of women. A focus on Southern Baptist women absolutely obliges us to look at the two events as integral to one another.

I hope the book shows that we miss a lot more, too, by overlooking women—if not namely the lived experience of the majority of Southern Baptists as their religious institutions and communities underwent tremendous crisis, conflict, and change. The pulpit is a potent symbol of power in evangelical and Southern Baptist life. So the issue of women’s ordination is central to the book itself (but certainly not the absolute whole). Few outside historians realize the first Southern Baptist church to ordain a woman occurred as early as 1964 but ordinations did not really become controversial until the 1970s. Admittedly, more women were seeking ordination, but with the advent of feminism, the interpretive lens for ordination, as it concerned Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups, shifted to become more a feminist bid to equality, and questions about such women’s sexuality began to circulate too. By neglecting women, we miss not only the impact of feminism on the largest American Protestant denomination but a significant study of the multi-faceted nature of feminism itself. Southern Baptist women seeking ordained ministerial status struggled mightily with their place in the politics of the feminist movement, and conservative women, as I mention below, struggled to define themselves over and against feminism, even as they internalized many of its tenets.

In marginalizing women, and thus seeing gendered ideas about their roles and behaviors more as a side issue to theological showdowns, we also overlook the complicated relationship between civil rights and feminism, or race and gender, in the South and in Southern religious circles. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) symbolizes the white Protestant South. Southern Baptist churches that ordained women were often at the forefront of civil rights and initially, as some stories go, received more flack for their involvement in the latter. That changed over time. While I emphasize that race hardly provides a blueprint for gender and that racism in the SBC obviously persisted, I do argue that more constrained views of womanhood began to replace hardened notions of race in a new form of boundary drawing. It does seem, as one of my TCU colleagues posed, that the issue(s) over women came to be seen as more “winnable” and maybe even “less ethically charged.” The book, then, with its focus on women, begins to unravel and explore the entangled relationship between the two (race and gender), particularly around the matter of submission. But it still begs for scholars to do more here as I admittedly raise as many questions as I answer.

Considering the experiences of women also pushes us to reinterpret the nature and even practice of inerrancy. I argue that both cultural and church historians, and certainly theologians, have neglected the ways in which inerrancy itself is inherently gendered. I think it might help to think more in terms of a gender(ed) inerrancy (or gendered inerrancies) here, and I am writing an article to that end. When presenting some of my research at the ASCH, Grant Wacker and Sarah Ruble pushed me to think about how a gendered inerrancy might intersect with but still be different from scientific and historic forms of inerrancy, which have dominated the scholarly conversation. I love the quote of an influential conservative woman leader, my first interviewee, who exclaimed that by the 1980s, woman’s submission was “first-tier in the realm of salvation,” as important to conservatives as the virgin birth and physical resurrection. In looking at conservative Baptist women, we also find that a gendered inerrancy is embodied and performed. It has a certain look and particular practice. That too needs further exploring. Finally, to get back to your question, by seeing inerrancy as the primary impetus behind this great theological showdown between males and interpreting it namely in terms of history and science, we fail to see how gender also drove particular doctrinal views and understandings. In other words, gendered ideas about women, as I try to demonstrate, were far more than a litmus test for inerrancy.

Relatedly, perhaps the most neglected area of study when it comes to Southern Baptist and evangelical life has been the rise of powerful conservative women’s ministry to women programs and the ways in which they shaped and reshaped notions of Christian womanhood (more on that below). My book is only a start here. Conservative women’s programs have mistakenly been dismissed as therapeutic. But while they have that self-help element, they were also highly political during the 1980s and 1990s, and their related networks, personalities, and groups wielded tremendous power in local congregations and increasingly in the SBC as well as larger evangelical life. They became models of para-church ministry and over the past few decades have attracted an influx of evangelical women into the SBC, providing tighter connections between these worlds. A careful look at conservative women’s programs here also demonstrates that submission has never been the fixed entity we often treat it to be (even as cultural historians) and thus my work serves as something of an update to Marie Griffith and Brenda Brasher. Submission over the 1990s, and mainly through the work of these conservative women, morphed into complementarianism (which I discuss below). In midst of my writing, Katie Lofton urged me to take into account the structural (as well as other, more subtle) limits placed on these women, particularly in light of that trend, as she calls it, “to cajole tales of liberation from every subject.” I think a study of conservative Southern Baptist women requires a constant negotiation of these limiting and liberative impulses.

Bottom line: In terms of the field of American religious history, if we turn our gaze to Southern Baptist women (and their related groups, networks, personalities), we find a fairly messy site of study, which is just the sort of thing that cultural historians, feminists scholars, and religious studies types actually relish. As my eventual editor at UNC called to say after reading my proposal—this is NOT denominational or church history, and certainly not, getting back to your question, in the traditional sense of theological showdowns between powerful males. My frustration has been chasing all the directions and paths Southern Baptist women would have me go. A younger generation of scholars is beginning to explore Southern Baptist women in fresh, innovative ways. And I hope other scholars will join us here.

Kate: You argue that there was a post-war moment when Southern Baptists might have plausibly accepted women’s ordination. How did battle lines get redrawn and waged over “Christian womanhood?”  

Betsy: Yes—like many evangelicals, Southern Baptists seemed headed in that direction. By the mid 1970s, the small trickle of women’s ordinations was starting to become more of a steady stream, and some small Southern Baptist conferences and retreats addressed women’s ordination positively. Then, in 1978, the SBC and all of its boards, agencies, and seminaries hosted a conference on women in church-vocations that by all accounts supported women’s ordination. It received a great deal of press coverage at the time, though historians have virtually ignored its significant and privileged other events of the same era. Some leading SBC officials publically supported the ERA, including the SBC president, and joined their fellow Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter in pushing for its passage. By the 1980s, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary visibly and vocally provided a network of support and training for women seeking ordination and ministerial status. Women seminarians and pastors founded Southern Baptist Women in Ministry as a progressive lobbying and support group and even held worship services at the annual convention. The SBC’s mission boards commissioned ordained women. Enough was happening that a few progressive women referred to this period (and certain spaces in the denomination) as “Camelot” and dismissed the emerging controversy as the “dying gasps of patriarchy.” They questioned “when” ordained women would gain acceptance rather than “if.” Seth Dowland has shown that with the tarring of feminism as radical secularism and its association with the growing politics of abortion and gay rights, evangelical support eroded. Southern Baptist conservatives were at the heart of this shift in attitude, influencing and being influenced by it. Still, it took supporters of women’s ordination by surprise because of what many felt as growing support at the denomination’s highest levels.

By looking at the fragmentation of the SBC as the result of a theological showdown between self-defined conservatives (fundamentalists) and moderates, the issue of women’s ordination and other gendered matters concerning women seem tangential. But the historical evidence does not point in that direction. In fact, it’s when ordination and then feminism, in that order, entered the fray that things really did fall apart. The feminist threat to Christian womanhood served as the most effective catalyst or rallying cry for Southern Baptist conservatives. After all, most Southern Baptists held culturally and theologically conservative positions, even moderates, and they had long lived with, even downplayed and dismissed, certain internal tensions. Those conservatives often referred to as fundamentalists (although they rejected the label as pejorative) remained on the fringes of denominational life until the late 1970s because they could never rally the troops with calls for inerrancy over matters like the six-day creation story. And almost all Southern Baptists accepted miracles like the virgin birth and physical resurrection. But a more gendered inerrancy, which uses the Bible as a blueprint for women’s submission, dramatically affected the way people lived, practiced, and embodied their faith.

The attempt to draw tight boundaries around gender worked, and conservatives “won” the denomination. But gender, and again I explore gender more as gendered ideas about women, eventually functioned as something of a Pandora’s box. In fact, I find that now, when the supposed denominational battles are over, things once again seem to be getting messy—and more interesting—in Southern Baptist conservative as well as moderate life.


Popular Posts