Subjugating Women in the SBC

by Dr. Bruce Prescott & Dr. Rick McClatchy

Women and the SBC

While many of the earliest Baptist churches expected women to be involved in the affairs and ministries of the church and readily ordained women, women in the SBC have had to struggle to find a place for service .

When Southern Baptists organized in 1845 the participants (messengers) at the annual meeting were men. In 1885 women were refused admission to the SBC’s annual meeting, and the SBC’s constitution was changed to state explicitly that only men could serve as messengers. In 1888 the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU) was founded in the basement of a Methodist church because they were not allowed to meet in a Baptist church. In 1904 four women were allowed to attend classes at Southern Seminary but they could not take part in class discussions or receive credit for the classes.

Finally, in 1918 the SBC allowed women to serve as messengers. By 1929 a woman was permitted to address the SBC by giving the WMU report (previous WMU reports had been given men). Pioneering women like Lottie Moon were instrumental in expanding the role of women — at least, on the mission field and in spite of opposition by many male Baptist leaders. Eventually, as the role of role of women grew in the workplace and politics of American society, Southern Baptist women began to have broader involvement in their local churches.

In 1964 Addie Davis became the first Southern Baptist woman ordained to the ministry. By the 1970’s hundreds of women were enrolled in ministerial degree programs at SBC seminaries. By the early 1990’s more than 1000 women had been ordained, more than 50 served as pastors in SBC churches, and others served as professors at Southern Baptist universities and seminaries.

This expanding role of women was strongly opposed by a coalition of Baptists led by Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. They diligently worked to erase the gains made by women and place them under the authority of men. The clearest examples of the SBC’s subjugation of women are seen in their treatment of the WMU, ordained women and wives.

Women’s Missionary Union

“Simple justice demands that women should have equal rights with men in mission meetings and in the conduct of their work.”

Lottie Moon (1840-1912)

The WMU is an independent auxiliary of the SBC, which means that it is not part of the SBC’s legal structure — even though it works to advance mission education and to support SBC missions.

For the Pressler-Patterson coalition, the independent, auxilliary status of WMU — rendering it free from denominational control — is a symbolic reminder of the liberation of women from masculine dominance and the increasing independence of women in American life.

In 1993 Adrian Rogers, a key leader in the Pressler-Patterson coalition, declared that WMU must be “hard-wired” into the convention structure. If not, it would lose key positions on SBC policy-making bodies. “Hard wiring” meant that the SBC would select the WMU’s board of directors instead of their being elected by the women in the various state WMU organizations.

When the WMU refused to submit to the wishes of the Pressler-Patterson coalition, it was targetted for attack. In 1995, in a letter mailed to 40,000 pastors, Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board (IMB) and appointee of the Pressler-Patterson coalition, publicly denounced the WMU for publishing mission education material for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) — even though the WMU had done such things for other groups in the past. The chairman of the trustees of the IMB likened the WMU to an adulterous woman for producing mission education resources for the CBF. WMU also learned in 1995 that the IMB had secretly applied to trademark the name “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” — the name WMU has used for decades to collect mission offerings.

In 1998 James Hefley, another key leader in the Pressler-Patterson coalition, stated that there were two “possible outcomes” of attempts to marginalize WMU’s influence in SBC life. First, the SBC could revoke its relationship with the WMU and start a similar new organization under SBC control. Second, the SBC could prepare it own materials for missionary education and women’s ministry. The second strategy is being implemented gradually as other SBC agencies have started producing competing women’s ministry materials.

At present, the WMU is in a state of decline. As long as it remains independent, the new leaders of the SBC will work to hasten its demise. As the WMU declines there will emerge in the SBC a new women’s ministry that will unquestioningly submit to male authority.

Ordained Women

The Pressler-Patterson’s coalition’s first volley against ordained women was fired when the Convention met at Kansas City in 1984. They passed a resolution affirming a hierarchical chain of command characterized as “God’s delegated order of authority (God the head of Christ, Christ the head of man, man the head of woman, . . .).” The resolution went on to say that women must be excluded from pastoral leadership “to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.” Women, it said, were limited to “work other than pastoral functions and leadership roles entailing ordination.” Ordination of women as deacons was frowned upon as equally as ordaining women as pastors.

Though resolutions are not supposed to be binding in Baptist life, the Pressler-Patterson coalition treated them as though they were. Their trustees at SBC mission agencies began refusing to appoint ordained women as missionaries and their trustees at SBC seminaries began implementing policies prescribing that women in ministerial degree programs must take “alternative courses . . . instead of the normal courses in preaching and pastoral leadership.”

The most recent bombshell dropped on Southern Baptist ordained women was delivered by the revision of the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) adopted in 2000. For the first time in history, a Southern Baptist confession of faith denied God’s power to call a woman to pastoral ministry and revoked the freedom of autonomous Baptist churches to affirm whomever the Holy spirit led them to call as pastor. The 2000 BF&M decrees that “the office of pastor is limited to men” and ignores examples in both the Old and New Testament that God calls women to positions leading men in worship and service (Ex. 15:20; Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14; Micah 6:4; Joel 2:28-29; Luke 2:26-28; Acts 2:16-21; Acts 18; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5; Rom. 16:1,7).


The Pressler-Patterson coalition’s subjugation of women extended to the privacy of Baptist homes when a statement on the family was added to the BF&M. In line with the chain of command made explicit in the 1984 resolution, the 1998 family amendment advised wives that they must “graciously submit” to their husbands.

The unconditional nature of the wife’s subjugation became clear at the official press conference following the statement’s adoption. Dorothy Patterson, wife of Paige Patterson and a member of the committee that drafted the family statement, said, “When it comes to submitting to my husband even when he is wrong, I just do it. He is accountable to God.”

Such interpretations ignore the grammatical (in the Greek) and logical priority that must be given to the command to mutual submission in the family (Eph. 5:21). It also makes the husband “lord” of the wife rather than acknowledging that Christ is Lord over both and that submission is only proper when a request is worthy of Christ — “as unto to the Lord”

(Eph. 5:22). Compounding these misunderstandings is their insistence on viewing the metaphor “head” (Eph. 5:23) as an image of a proud and powerful “military ruler” rather than as an image of a self-sacrificing and humble “suffering servant” who voluntarily sets aside power and glory and gives his life for his family (Philippians 2:3-8).

These and other recent instances of the SBC’s subjugation of women have led many women to question how they can continue to conscientiously support a denomination so opposed to their values.



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