“But girls can’t do that.”
I was 17 years old and a counselor at a Baptist summer camp in Hammonton, NJ. Being raised Methodist, I never really thought about what it would mean to be on staff at a camp of a different denomination and gave no thought to voicing my calling of being a preacher at an all-staff meeting.
“Excuse me?” I said to the boy who voiced the above corrective. “What do you mean girls can’t be preachers? That’s ridiculous.”
“Nuh huh,” he said gravely. “It’s in the Bible. Paul said it. Women preaching is a sin.”
And just like that, someone put limits on a previously unlimited grace.
“Oh, are you with the liberal seminary?”
I was 27 and recruiting for George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Truett, for those unaware, is the seminary on Baylor’s campus, and I had been a student for a few years. I was largely disillusioned with Baptist culture and polity by this point, but I still believed in Truett. I had spent nearly five years watching the casual and formal silencing of women’s voices by colleagues, the impossible task that women had finding permanent jobs in senior ministry, and had heard countless stories of abuse – both disclosed and non – which appeared rampant throughout southern Baptist cultures, but I was still ready to defend the goodness I knew lurked within.
But defending women in ministry as “liberal theology” instead of just a reality was exhausting.
“Well, what do you mean by liberal?” I replied to the confident-bordering-on-cocky lad in front of me.
“I mean that seminary that doesn’t teach the Bible.”
“Well, then that’s not us. Truett takes Scripture seriously,” I replied confidently.
“Not if you let women be pastors,” the kid countered with a smirk. “It’s clear in Scripture that women are to be silent in church.”
Is it clear? I thought to myself. Is is though? Could it possibly be more complicated than that? Could it be more cultural? And what about you is so comfortable limiting God to make sure He thinks like you and shares your reproductive organs?
I said none of that.
Instead, I said, “Scripture repeatedly communicates that God values all people, all of his creation, and loves us all, and that we need as many people as possible to be part of Kingdom work. If you interpret a handful of verses differently than millions of others throughout history and you’re not willing to explore that difference, then perhaps Truett isn’t quite the right fit for you.”
As he and his smirk strolled off, I was reminded that this conversation would probably be happening for the rest of my life.
And just like that, I was exhausted all over again.
On the day that Pepper Hamilton released its report about their investigation into Title IX violations at Baylor, I watched with abject horror and grief as the deepest fears I had about how our community treated women were confirmed. I haven’t set foot in a Baptist church since 2008 and only plan to in the future for weddings or funerals, but lawd jaysus do I love a lot of people who call this sect “home.” Pastors, professors, lay people – I love so many. Through them and my five years as a Baylor student, I have come to love pieces of Baptistness – priesthood of the believer and the fight for religious liberty are both so holy and important to me. I am grateful for so many Baptist forebears who ensured these ideas permeated American religious culture.
But my first thought reading that report was that it was communicating not a Baylor problem, but a Baptist problem.
My sociology brain kicked in and I wondered if I was right. I hoped I wasn’t – that this ugly, undulating, seething culture of silencing women and shaming survivors was limited to one campus and could be easily blamed on Texas football culture run amok. But I’ve been researching and paying attention to the intersection of women in Protestantisms for about twenty years, and my gut told me I was going to find ugly if I dug deep enough.
Turns out, I didn’t have to dig at all.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve been slowly conducting a research project of alumni from Baptist seminaries (1). I’ll talk to anyone from any seminary in any graduating class, as long as they’re willing to talk to me about women. How were women spoken about? How were they spoken to? How were they promoted or silenced? Were you taught by women? Did you read theological works by women? If you identify as a woman, what was your experience? Do you think women are safe on your campus? Are women supported and championed?
So far, my survey’s been taken by about 200 people and I’ve interviewed about 50. I have 50 or so more folks willing to talk, but a: this project is meant to be slow and as thorough as possible and b: time zones make interviews a challenge sometime. I take every conversation as sacred and some have lasted over an hour as people have poured out their hopes, frustrations, pains, stories, and quite a few “I just think we can be better”s. A few have left the faith all together, but most are still in the trenches of professional ministry in some way. These people, this second group, they clearly love the Church. They love being part of the Kingdom and getting their hands dirty and serving. They’re mostly even proud to be Baptist and think the tradition has a lot to offer. Some lived through the split of the SBC in the late 1980s, some were born while it was happening.
The one thing they all have in common? They all think Baptist culture has a woman problem (2).
When social scientists use the phrase “rape culture”, they don’t mean a culture where literally everyone is raped. They mean a culture where rape is permissible because women are less valued than men.
I can see eyebrows raising and arms folding, so give me a minute, if you will.
In the United States, the default position of authority is male. We often refer to this as “the patriarchy”. This means that the standard for leadership and for decision makers is male. Women’s voices are still “othered”, meaning they are noted as different and not the standard. In golf terms, men are all scratch golfers and women all have handicaps before we even step onto the course. This is how the culture is wired and it is reinforced by each one of us in small and large ways every single day.
By “othering” women, the patriarchy also silences them. If default authority is male, then the default narrative of “right” in any disagreement is also male. When an abuse victim/survivor comes forward, they are generally expected to prove their narrative (3). For a woman who has been sexually assaulted, this becomes questions about what she must have done to bring this on, what she was wearing, was she drinking, was she drunk… all of which boil down to the assumption that she deserved it somehow. Then, because scientific evidence must enter into the picture to counter the male verbal defense, her body is subjected to more invasion if she chooses to go to the police. (If you don’t believe me, please watch the first episode of the third season of Broadchurch, which painstakingly shows a woman getting a SANE exam. I wept.)
This othering, this silencing, this default position of disbelief – that is rape culture.
It is undeniable this culture exists at Baylor. Even this week, more evidence came out that victim blaming and shaming is the mental attitude of some senior administration members, who set the tone for the campus culture. It’s so pervasive and apparently entrenched that the campus satire group is taking it upon itself to fundraise to get rape kits examined, since the administration does not seem too particularly fussed to do so heretofore.
As so many others have pointed out, Baylor is by far not the lone university in the United States to deal with a sexual assault pandemic. Title IX violations are cropping up as frequently as jokes about liberal arts majors. (Or were until Secretary DeVos made different choices.) Many others have kind of wiped their hands at this point, blaming millennials for the crisis (“snowflakes who should just suck it up” has actually be said to me, hand to God) or saying that we shouldn’t expect more from college boys.
First of all, not expecting more from boys is one of the foundational structures of rape culture and I think nearly every man I have ever met deserves to be thought higher of than that. My brother was a student at Baylor and to say that it was just expected of him to sexually assault his fellow students as he felt the need to is disgusting, insulting, pedantic, and missing the damn point entirely.
Second of all, communities of faith are called to higher standards. Women who came forward about their assaults at Baylor mentioned this specifically; that their spiritual life was deeply changed by the indifference of the institution. Survivors of clergy sexual misconduct report similar difficulties imagining how someone who claims to love the same God they do could commit such acts or sanction them or turn a blind eye to them.
Third of all, for the love of everything, why are we taking a posture that how it is is how it should be?
In my interviews several themes have emerged. The first is that seeing women in positions of leadership in Baptist institutions is rare. The default gender of authority is male and that means folks who have lived in Baptist spaces their entire lives tend to be deeply uncomfortable with women in charge of things outside of the home since they may literally have never encountered it before.
The second is that women’s voices – both their physical voices and their ideas – are also rare. They’re rare in both institutional decisions (deacons, elders, seminary deans) and also theological guidance (pastors, seminary professors, theological authors). This means that male voices are the default of correctness.
The third is that consent is not a conversation Baptist spaces are having. One of the questions I’ve been asking to folks regards sexual education in churches. I get about halfway through the question of “did you ever get any sexual health education in your church” before over half have busted out laughing.
If women are largely silent, and men are taught both overtly and covertly that they are the authority, and no one has ever had a conversation about sexual consent, then it’s almost shocking it has taken this long for a Baptist institution to be embroiled in an assault scandal (4).
The research is fresh. In academic terms, this is a “research note”, an analysis of the in-between space where a lot of work has been done but there is more to go. I’m seeing patterns, and so are my colleagues helping me with analysis, but there so much more to analyze, more people to talk to, more secondary sources to read, more more more more.
Most importantly, there are more questions. If this is true, that the silencing and othering of women in faith-based spaces helps enforce the silencing and othering of women in all spaces, including violent spaces, then what does this mean? Is that something people want to change? Is that something people are comfortable with?
For anyone who wants to talk this out, I’d love to listen. If you have stories of pain or triumph, stories of grief, stories of goodness – I would be honored to listen. If you’re willing, I’d love to go past listening and see if your stories fit the patterns of other people’s and then maybe, if the data proves and justifies it, things might change.
If you or someone you know would be willing to participate in this research – again, this is open to anyone who has ever graduated from any Baptist-affiliated seminary at any point in history – please pass on the survey link. Thank you. If you’d like to stay abreast of my questioning and not be apart of the research, then please sign up for this newsletter, sent whenever I think I have something you’d like to hear.
(1) Methodological note: this is an independent research project I’m conducting through my research consultancy business, and I had collegial oversight from fellow sociologists. Participants have been gathered through convenience and snowball sampling, and preliminary findings have been prepared and are in the process of peer review. All participation is anonymous and confidential and participants are welcome to withdraw at any time.
I know this is small, by the way, when there are hundreds of thousands of self-identified Baptists in the world. I’m mostly hoping this study is a launching pad for further research, both for myself and possibly for others. I’m talking to whoever I can find who’ll talk to me, but it’ll still be small. It’s a “Here’s who I talked to and what I found, here’s how I found them and how I protected their anonymity. Let’s go find out if their truth resonates with other people’s.” For those not familiar with qualitative research, this is the bog standard routine.
(2) So far, this is true. As I tell everyone I talk to, I would love to talk to folks who prove me wrong, I really would. All research is limited and perhaps mine is far too much. If you think my findings are completely off base, please take my survey and have an interview! I would love to be told I’m wrong, I promise.
(3) This gets complicated when we talk about male/male abuse or when we introduce racial differences, I admit. This is simplified and I acknowledge that.
(4) It’s actually not shocking since local church autonomy is also a core tenet, meaning that there is no reporting structure in place, but the rhetorical pattern really worked for me. In other news; these folks are trying to figure out how to work through that.