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BAPTISTS, THE BIBLE & WOMEN: There is no “Palin predicament” for Southern Baptists or Evangelicals

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In the wake of Gov. Sarah Palin’s selection as the Republican vice presidential nominee, there has been considerable “speculation” about why Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, have responded so favorably to her candidacy. As Sally Quinn reasoned in the Washington Post, if Southern Baptists are opposed to a woman being the pastor of a local church, why would they support a woman as vice president? Aren’t they being inconsistent, if not hypocritical?

Now we have David Gushee (a self-identified “moderate evangelical”) discussing the “Palin Predicament,” which he described as “how can the theological vision that women are subservient to men jibe with a Palin vice presidency?” (USA Today, 9/15/08).

As a Southern Baptist, a conservative Evangelical, and a member of both the committee that formulated the Southern Baptists’ confessional statement on “The Family” in 1998 and the committee that revised the denomination’s confession of faith (The Baptist Faith and Message) in 2000, I feel compelled to respond.

First, the Southern Baptist confessional statement does not state that “women are to be subservient to men.” Southern Baptists are clear that men and women “are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image.”

Most Southern Baptists do believe that while husband and wife are equal, that in a marriage the wife is to voluntarily place herself under “the servant leadership of her husband.” They also believe 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.”

Why do they believe these things? They believe this is the clear teaching of the New Testament, which they take as authoritative for faith and practice in the home and the church.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians, he states clearly that husbands are to love their wives with the sacrificial love with which Jesus loved the church and gave Himself for it (Eph. 5:25). This was a radical doctrinal teaching in a first-century world where women had virtually no rights. In fact, one of the most extraordinary things about the New Testament is the prominent role accorded to women in its pages. As stated earlier, the Apostle Paul tells the wife to place herself under her husband’s servant leadership.

Similarly, in the first of his pastoral epistles (how things are to be done in the church) to Timothy, his son in the faith, the Apostle Paul instructs that “a woman is not to usurp authority over the man” (1 Tim. 2:12). As have adherents to many other Christian faith traditions, most Southern Baptists have understood this to mean that women are not to be pastors of local churches, since the pastoral office is a position of authority. Consequently, the Baptist Faith and Message declares 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.”

For Baptists, who make a strict distinction between the local church congregation and other denominational or parachurch ministries, such a statement would not preclude women “gifted for service” from serving in leadership positions in the denomination as opposed to the local church. For example, the Washington office of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was led for several years by a woman who served ably in that role.

These theological convictions about the limits on women in leadership in the home and the church have nothing to do with women serving in leadership roles in public service. Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals with similar beliefs do not go beyond where they believe the New Testament leads them. And where the New Testament is silent, so are they. They do not extrapolate from biblically dictated spiritual roles in the home and the local congregation to other roles in society.

Consequently, Southern Baptists and similarly inclined Evangelicals have no problem with a woman serving in a leadership role in public policy or business. There is no inconsistency or hypocrisy involved in taking such a position, and there is no belief in any inferiority of women whatsoever.

As far as the right to believe and practice such theological doctrines in their homes and churches (both voluntarily joined institutions), that is guaranteed by the First Amendment’s “free exercise” protections.

And as for David Gushee’s assertion that such beliefs are “archaic,” it should be noted that ancient and archaic are not synonyms. Webster’s defines archaic as “relating to, belonging to, or having the characteristics of an earlier and often more primitive time” and ancient as “having had an existence of many years existing from a long-past date or period” and “of early origin.” To be ancient is not to be “primitive,” or “out of date” — or wrong. You cannot judge the rightness or wrongness of an argument by its age.

Whomever Southern Baptists support in the election is up to them, but they certainly are not restricted by their confessional statements of belief against voting for a female candidate for any public policy position.

If Gushee, Quinn and the other critics actually knew more Southern Baptists and Evangelicals they would understand our ability to treat the pulpit, the home and public office as the different spheres of life the Bible presents each to be. Also, they would know that unlike the dilemma wrongly assumed by them, we thirst for political leadership consistent with our values without regard to gender. In the end, the “predicament” is theirs and not ours.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and author of “The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match!” His education includes the D.Phil. from Oxford.

    About the Author

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land, D. Phil, is the Executive Editor of the Christian Post, having previously served as president of the ERLC (1988-2013) and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (2013-2021). He also serves as the chairman of the advisory board at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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