NEW ORLEANS — Growing up in rural Mississippi, Gracie Robinson decided early on that she would never get married.
“Every time I think about it, it just burns me up!” she says, as the other female seminarians laugh and clap.
And then Robinson’s tone changes. Matter-of-fact, she says about a husband: “True enough, he is the head of the household. And he is the spiritual leader.”
And her friends wholeheartedly agree to that, too.
This is the challenge and the contradiction of being an evangelical woman today: Embracing the beliefs of a community that teaches it’s the will of God for men alone to lead churches and families, while also fiercely arguing for women’s equal worth.
That complex position has exploded into public view over the past several months. The evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has faced a string of #MeToo scandals — the head of the denomination’s executive committee and the pastor grandson of its most famous evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, both resigned over inappropriate sexual relationships; a Memphis church’s handling of pastor Andy Savage’s sexual encounter with a teenager was condemned in nationwide headlines; revered denominational leader Paul Pressler was accused of sexual assault.
But by far the scandal that has rattled the community the most is that of Paige Patterson. A towering Southern Baptist leader, Patterson was fired from his job leading one of the denomination’s six seminaries when it came to light that he had not reported two women’s allegations of rape to the police. When Patterson returned to the pulpit last week, he made comments about a woman’s body and questioned the validity of some sexual assault allegations.
Women were instrumental in Patterson’s downfall, signing a petition against him by the thousands. But women also continue to rally around him. “I’m a Southern Baptist lady,” said a pastor’s widow who took the microphone at the denomination’s annual meeting. “I am not a #MeToo.” When angry donors sent a letter after the meeting protesting Patterson’s firing, 14 of the 25 signers were women.
At the denomination’s seminaries, intellectual centers of evangelical Christianity, female students — who cannot be ordained as pastors — are wrestling with what exactly draws them to a faith that preaches their own ineligibility for leadership.
“Seeing something as God’s divine order, there’s a clarity to that. I think there’s also a strong dislike in many quarters of feminism and what some of these women believe feminism stands for — an anti-child or anti-family emphasis they perceive in feminism,” said R. Marie Griffith, who was raised Southern Baptist and who directs Washington University in St. Louis’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. “For many women, they do believe that’s God’s order. . . . The preferred mode would be: Okay, men will be the spiritual leaders.”
Southern Baptist seminaries enrolled 12 percent more women from 2012-2016, following more than two decades of gradual growth in women’s enrollment. Over those same decades, the denomination — led by Patterson and Pressler — doubled down on a theology of gender that emphasizes male leadership.
At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a summer intensive just for women taught these same conservative principles — while students explored just where the boundaries lie.
“God created men and women equal in worth and value, but different in role and function. Different is just different. Different isn’t bad,” teaches Rhonda Kelley, the wife of the seminary’s president and the head of its women’s ministry program. “Our biblically assigned role is to submit to men that God placed in authority over our lives.”
She says that women who don’t obey this plan end up dissatisfied with their lives; on her PowerPoint presentation, bold letters describe it as a “sure path to destruction for home and family.”
Reading the Bible in Kelley’s class, students learn to scour passages for evidence of this biblical plan for women. For instance, after reading the story of Deborah — the judge who led Israel for a time, including commanding troops on the battlefield — one student acknowledged that some readers see the story as the Bible condoning an example of a woman in power.
The student said she was searching for another interpretation: “What I settled on in my heart is Deborah did it in reverence for the leadership God intended men to have, in humility rather than saying, ‘I know what to do. I’m going to lead this battle,’” she concluded.
After the students read passages about the prophet Huldah, the judge Deborah, the prophet Miriam, and the queen Esther, Kelley put up a slide that concluded: “There is not a biblical pattern of women in positions of spiritual leadership (i.e. prophet or judge).”
Her students, like the women who spoke out against Patterson, express their concerns as women even while pledging their adherence to tradition. When the class reads a book suggesting a wife should follow her husband if he wants to move for his job, many of them search for a way to reject that guidance, saying their own careers should be important, too.
“I agree with the Christian view. And I agree with, yes, woman as helper. But it’s the implications,” one says.
Nickolee Roberts chimes in. “I’m like yes, you’re right, this is biblical. Then I get to the practical applications and I’m like, no, I don’t agree with you. Let me throw the book out the window.”
That’s what seems to be quietly happening in some evangelical circles — throwing some older practices out the window, without throwing out the interpretation of the Bible at its core.
The shake-up around gender in the Southern Baptist Convention caused some subtle ripples in the classroom here. Jill Nash, studying for her Master’s in Divinity, sat down on the first day of her Christian Ethics class and found, not unusually for a seminary class, that she was the only woman out of seven students. (Kelley, who runs the program of women-specific courses, calls the core courses required of all M.Div. students, male and female, “the boy classes.”)
What was unusual was the greeting the professor offered: “Obviously Jill is the only female here. We should treat her like a sister in Christ,” he said, to Nash’s great surprise. She thinks Patterson was on the instructor’s mind.
Nash, who works for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, didn’t marry until she was 42, so in the last few years, she’s given a lot of thought to the questions now bubbling up in the convention about what female submission means. “Sub — it means to come under — a mission. If you see the direction someone’s going that you’re dating as something you’ve got to really come under — can I come under that? Can I support that?” she said to friends at dinner that night, after that Christian Ethics class. “That husband is to love you as Christ loves the Church. And who doesn’t want to submit to that? … I want to cook dinner for him every night. I want to wash his clothes.”
Milly Horsley, 26, agreed: “Who doesn’t want to submit to that kind of love?”
Horsley is no stranger to male-dominated professions — not only is she a seminary student, but she also patrols the campus with a firearm in the wee hours of the night, as the only female officer of the campus police. She said she has felt frustrated that Southern Baptist men don’t always listen when women try to tell them about important issues, including sexual abuse in the church.
But she doesn’t think the solution is opening more jobs to women. “I’ve never met a Southern Baptist lady who said, ‘I’m doing all this. I wish I could be a pastor.’ If I really wanted to be a pastor, I would change denominations. But I believe we’re the closest to the Bible. If I disagreed with it, then I wouldn’t be here,” she said. “Scripture says a man shouldn’t be constantly under the headship of a woman. … That has to be our model above all.”
Jade Perkins is also getting a master’s degree at the seminary but agrees women shouldn’t be pastors. First, she’s not sure a woman could handle the criticism: “Women are more emotional than men. People in the church can be harsh. A woman can break down emotionally more.”
And second, there’s the wardrobe: “Men, Sunday after Sunday, have to preach in front of their congregations, and they’re going to wear a suit. A woman instead would have to make sure her outfit looks good, she’s modest, her hair looks good, her makeup looks good. A woman’s going to be pulled apart about what she looks like.”
Perkins said she takes these stumbling blocks as a sign from God that women really don’t belong in that pulpit.
But all the same, she’s frustrated with the career opportunities available to her and to her fellow female seminary graduates. “Especially in the Southern Baptist realm, you’re not going to have a woman as the pastor. Or the associate pastor, typically. Rarely the youth pastor. So if you’re a woman, you have to be the children’s pastor,” she said. And then she pointed out that most churches don’t have the budget for a fourth pastor, so that means a woman won’t get hired for a ministry job at all. “Usually, women are secretaries.”
This is the push-and-pull of the evangelical woman: Believing in the basic rightness of a hierarchy that puts men at the top of the church and family; pushing at every boundary for more opportunities as a modern woman.
In the classroom, Kelley passed out a list of 83 different roles of authority in a church, from church treasurer, to writer of biblical commentary, to singer in the choir, to greeter at the door. Wayne Grudem, the prominent conservative theologian who wrote the list, argued that 14 out of the 83 jobs should be for men only — including serving as a deacon or elder of the church, serving on the governing board of a denomination, presiding over a baptism, teaching theology in a seminary, preaching regularly to the church, and being ordained as a pastor.
Students skimmed the fine-printed list. They thought of each role they play in their own churches, where they teach and babysit and lead committees and organize events and preach and counsel and befriend and console.
Silently, they pondered whether the Bible meant for them to do it all.