Southern Baptist Women: An Interview with Betsy Flowers (Part II)

Kate Bowler

Today's interview is the second of a multi-part interview with Elizabeth Flowers about her wonderful new book Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women since World War II.

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: Historians always love when real life issues are actually attempts to re-write the past. How have both the conservatives and the moderates narrated the history of Southern Baptist women in leadership to their benefit? 

Betsy: This is a great question, and one that I treat at some length in the book, particularly around conflicting conservative, moderate, and we might add progressive interpretations of the history of the Woman’s Missionary Union as: a woman’s auxiliary that was submissive to and served the SBC’s male leadership; or the organization that ran the denomination alongside and with its male counterparts until mid-century; or as a group of maverick women who functioned as a thorn-in-the-side to Southern patriarchy and eventual right-wing conservative ideals. I even wrote a separate article here about the contested history and biography of famed Southern Baptist missionary to China, Lottie Moon, which involved her billion-dollar named offering. I could say a lot about divergent understandings of Baptist and evangelicals too, which range from that of a rag-tag bunch of radicals who early-on promoted women’s preaching; a populist movement in the mold of William Jennings Bryant and plainfolk religion; or those who supported and propped up the Southern hierarchy and establishment as it involved race and gender. I discovered accusations on both (all) sides as to the other’s being “un-baptist,” “historically selective,” or practicing (I love this one) “historical hanky-panky” when it came to women in ministry.

I am not sure if this pertains as much to your question but the historical narrative having gained most acceptance, and which continues to irk more progressive women, is actually the one moderates so often spin: that of their longtime support for women in leadership, particularly ordained ministry. When looking at the facts and figures, even conservatives have questioned this narrative. And much to my surprise, interviews with women who sought ordination, ministerial status, and placement over the 1990s and early 2000s indicate more a story of betrayal and defeat when it came to their relationship with moderates. According to these women, after what appeared to be initial backing, those moderates who had ruled the denomination, and preached compromise and caution, seemed to realize that any outward loyalty toward women in ordained ministry and leadership would come at too high a cost. To these women’s minds, the question of “when” rather than “if” somewhat reversed itself, and as they saw it too, local church autonomy became moderates’ code word to avoid supporting their ordination and ministry. If the denomination’s fragmentation could have been their moment of great liberation, it became instead a means to alienate them further. When looking at biographical and historic accounts of the moderate movement’s first decade of organization, from the mid-1980s onward, during which they fought bitterly to maintain control of the denomination, we find list after list of exclusively male committees, meetings, networks. Part of the problem was that Texas moderates, who held the purse strings, were far more conservative on “the woman question” than East-coast moderates. And that continued in the initial years of organizing their largest para-denomination. If moderates did miss a particular moment, they are still feeling its lingering effects—and so too are the other denominations, networks, and groups who “absorbed” these Southern Baptist women “refugees.” Part of the moderate leadership’s growing fear over these women was also their more vocal support of gay rights in the church and society at large—and “rumors” continued to circulate as to their sexuality and practices. As a result, (Southern) Baptist Women in Ministry quickly became the redheaded stepsister to the moderate (para)denomination or fellowships that emerged in the wake of conservatives’ victory.

Kate: With all your extensive fieldwork and interviewing, what can you tell us about how the now-accepted ideology of female submission is experienced by Southern Baptist women in leadership? As you say, there are all kinds of places where women can and do wield power.

Betsy: Of course, Southern Baptist, as an identity marker, can be seen and understood institutionally but it also indicates a particular history and heritage. Southern Baptist Women in Ministry still exists, though now as Baptist Women in Ministry and within moderate Baptist para-denominational organizations. While the number of women who actively serve as senior pastor in moderate Baptist life is pretty low, the women’s organization has more recently lobbied for church plants with women pastors. It’s a sort of “if you build it, they will come” approach. With both pressure from these women and a younger generation assuming leadership, moderates are scrambling to reverse their previous positions and policies, including those excluding the LGBTQ community from leadership too. And the largest moderate para-denomination recently elected a woman as its executive coordinator. She is not, however, an ordained pastor. And more often than not, women in leadership in moderate life have not been ordained, another irksome fact to some. Still, as one moderate leader told me, when it comes to women in leadership, “we’ve come a long way.” The question remains whether these ordained women have the power to push their agenda. It’s not just a matter of numbers and quotas but accommodating a particular way of viewing the world, and Baptists’ place in it, that has caused the moderate male leadership so much anxiety over including ordained women in leadership, at least in the past.

But I think your question is more about the current SBC. A senior scholar once warned me against exploring submission as it “had already been done” by Griffith, Brasher and others—to which I wanted to add, “in the 1990s”! Of course, as readers here know, the concept of submission is fluid, and the prevailing ideology of Christian womanhood in current conservative life, called complementarianism, is somewhat new and still evolving. Most significant, it’s being shaped by women as well as men. While submission might be a part of the new ideology of complementarianism, women downplay it as an aside, and many younger conservative women have begun to refuse the term altogether, if not become indifferent to it. While I don’t think it’s a matter of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as others scholars have argued, I also don’t want to turn these conservative women into proto-feminists. To most feminist minds, complementarianism has some disturbing implications. But something more complicated is happening as conservative women acknowledge and adapt to changes in their own lives (which deal with higher education levels, professional careers, divorce, and sexuality) as well as the day-to-day lives of their daughters and other women in their congregations. Interestingly, as they rethink submission in light of complementarianism, some of their more sophisticated analysis deal with race too and candid matters of sex and sexuality (and not the Marabel Morgan version of the saran-wrapped wife). In the process of shaping and reshaping complementarianism, conservative women have insisted on a particular rhetoric of ministry and pushed agendas in their congregations and the wider SBC, which prioritize their programs. There is a lot of fuzziness here. Conservative women’s programs and their underlying ideologies, even around complementarianism, can vary widely from woman to woman, congregation to congregation, even seminary to seminary. Exactly how women’s roles complement men’s is as nebulous and varied as how women exactly submitted to male leadership.

The implications of power, to get back to that aspect of the question, are huge because large amounts of money are also at stake. Many conservative women’s programs really drive the energy and finances of their local churches. Moreover, the revenues from their related literature provide a significant source of income for Lifeway, and thus the SBC. And from what I understand, establishing conservative women’s ministry tracks has been instrumental to helping financially floundering seminaries. (Interestingly, women graduates of these conservative programs have complained about the lack of paid or full-time staff positions at local churches, which local women have the power to address and some seem to be changing.)

At the same time there is also that celebrity-like culture you, Kate, are looking it, which involves women like Beth Moore and Lisa Young. (Did you know that Beth Moore has outsold Elton John and other celebrities at certain venues?) If Moore and some of these celebrity figures once depended on the institutional support of the SBC, and it seems Lifeway continues to recruit female personalities in a bid to find the next Beth Moore, they have also moved well beyond the “control” of the SBC’s male leadership, which now depends on these women. Another interesting dynamic is that independent evangelical women still find that they need the infrastructure that a denominational institution like the SBC can provide. And the traditionally independent Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood operates from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Finally, as I mentioned before, both conservative and moderate women continue to seek balance between therapeutic ministries and more politically-driven agendas, though the two are certainly entangled. We especially see this in some of the conversations around sex and sexuality. (I’d love to see if and how Amy DeRogatis covers conservative Southern Baptist women, who talk a lot about sex, in her new book.)

Again, Southern Baptist women are enormously significant to new directions in our field. Examinations of the constructions of gender and power in the lives of Southern Baptist women intersect with studies of material and consumer culture, bodily performance, the politics of sex and sexuality, as well as ongoing matters of race and region—and yes, even doctrinal belief and denominational history. We miss a lot in these areas when we overlook Southern Baptist women, an odd argument to have to make when we consider their numbers. Currently, I am working on an edited volume that reimagines Southern Baptist history and heritage in light of women and gender and will showcase some of the really creative work of a new generation of scholars here.


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