When leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention meet during their annual gathering in Nashville, Tennessee, in June 2021, the issue of three women being ordained to ministry will likely be an intense topic of conversation. Convention leaders had decried the moves in May by Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, California – one of the demonination’s largest churches – as a violation of biblical teaching and the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance on women in ministry.
As someone who was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1993, I know that opposition to women’s ordination has always existed, but many denominational leaders, seminaries and local churches have supported the practice.
For Southern Baptists, ordination is an affirmation of a call to ministry that enables the church in its work in the world. Ordination recognizes a person’s calling and gifts for leadership and allows people to carry out certain ministerial duties such as being a pastor, administering communion, performing baptisms and officiating weddings. It does not necessarily bestow any religious authority.
The first woman to be ordained by a Southern Baptist church was Addie Davis in 1964 at the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.
At the time, the Watts Street Baptist Church was already known to be a progressive congregation that was supportive of the civil rights movement. So ordaining a woman fit within the church’s progressive vision, although most members weren’t aware they were making history with Davis’ ordination. The church’s pastor and Davis did receive some letters opposing her ordination, but the Southern Baptist Convention meeting a year later did not take up the issue.
However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that more women were ordained. As the women’s movement began to have influence across society, many churches and individual women began to recognize that if women could be CEOs and university presidents, they could also be pastors and denominational leaders. Soon, greater numbers of women began attending Southern Baptist seminaries, professing a call to ordained ministry. I was among them.
As a scholar who writes about Baptist women, I know how fundamentalists within the Southern Baptist Convention continue to oppose women’s ordination. I also know that there is not an awful lot fundamentalists can do to prevent it. Local churches are fully autonomous, and the Southern Baptist Convention cannot tell them what to do. At most, it can expel a congregation from membership.
Controversy over role of women
In the 1970s, Southern Baptist publishing houses, seminaries, boards that appointed missionaries and commissions organized a number of national gatherings focused on the role of women in the church. Subsequently, a group known as Women in Ministry, SBC was formed.
During its first meeting in 1983, the group adopted a purpose statement that it should “provide support for the women whose call from God defines her vocation as that of minister … and to encourage and affirm her call to be a servant of God.”
But by this time, fundamentalist Southern Baptists had a begun to wrest control of the Southern Baptist Convention from more moderate voices.
This controversy set up a bitter dispute within the Southern Baptist Convention over the role of women, especially in ordained ministry. From the early 1980s, some local churches ordained women as pastors. However, some local Baptist associations ousted such churches.
A year after the formation of Women in Ministry, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution entitled “On Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry.” This resolution stated that women should be excluded from pastoral leadership “to preserve a submission God requires because man was first in creation and woman was first in the Edenic fall.” The resolution concluded by encouraging “the service of women in all aspects of church life and work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.”
Nonetheless, by 1987, Southern Baptist churches had ordained nearly 500 women, 18 of whom served as pastors. Women in Ministry, SBC changed its name to Southern Baptist Women in Ministry to highlight the organization’s independence from the Southern Baptist Convention.
Women’s ordination sparked a backlash from fundamentalists who gained control of the Southern Baptist seminaries, mission boards and publishing house. Their views on women’s ordination became a litmus test for faithfulness to Christian belief.
As Bill J. Leonard, a historian of religion, wrote in a 1995 paper, scholars who supported women’s ordination were removed from teaching positions, and new hires had to affirm women’s exclusion from ordination.
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary barred women from preaching and pastoral care classes. Mission boards stopped appointing women to equal positions with men. Southern Baptist publications asserted women’s submission.
By the late 1990s, women’s ordination among Southern Baptists seemed a settled issue in favor of exclusion. A 2000 revision of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith reaffirmed this: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Finding themselves no longer aligned with the fundamentalist-dominated Southern Baptist Convention, many individuals and churches left it to form the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the progressive Alliance of Baptists, both of which support women’s ordination and women in the pastorate.
In 1995, Southern Baptist Women in Ministry again changed its name, this time to Baptist Women in Ministry, to reflect its complete break from the Southern Baptist Convention. Today Baptist Women in Ministry supports and advocates for women in ministry through educational and networking opportunities and awards that recognize preaching and pastoral leadership. As of 2017, nearly 2,500 Baptist women had been ordained, and 174 served as pastors in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance churches.
For Southern Baptists, most of whom likely thought the issue of women’s ordination was settled, the ordinations at Saddleback Church renewed the controversy over women’s roles in the church. Saddleback is the largest and most prominent Southern Baptist church to ordain women since the fundamentalists gained control of the denomination.
Already, a number of Southern Baptists are calling for the Southern Baptist Convention to investigate and possibly expel Saddleback Church for its ordination of women. When asked about the ordinations, one of the candidates standing for election as Southern Baptist Convention president when it meets in June responded, “The BFM [Baptist Faith and Message] is clear that Southern Baptists do not believe in women serving as pastors. Churches which ordain or call female pastors are not acting in friendly cooperation with the SBC and should either change, withdraw, or be subject to our disfellowshipping processes.”
The upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention will certainly test Southern Baptists’ willingness to exclude even an eminent church and its celebrated pastor over the issue of women’s ordination.