By Barbara W. Sessions

During the past two annual meetings, the Southern Baptist Convention has gone out of its way to declare women subservient to men in the home and the church.

The 1998 assertion, that women should “graciously submit” to their husbands, poses a real and present threat, as violence in the home is the leading cause of death and injury to women. The Convention has made an extraordinarily insensitive declaration, placing the burden of submission entirely on women and framing what is essentially an unregulated benefit for men. Women always would be answerable to their husbands; husbands only to God. No true partnership can emerge when one person is permitted to dominate another. Such a notion is so dehumanizing to women and so debilitating to the institution of marriage as to be unthinkable. Yet this declaration is now part of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement and all who call themselves Southern Baptists will be assumed to subscribe to it.

The 1999 assertion, that women should not pastor Southern Baptist churches, also devalues women and their potential as leaders, ministers, and persons called by God. It is particularly insulting considering that women comprise most of the membership in nearly every church. Yet this declaration is now part of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement and all who call themselves Southern Baptists will be assumed to subscribe to it.

It is the responsibility of every Southern Baptist to be aware of these declarations limiting women in marriage and discouraging our churches from using the very best people available to teach, preach, and evangelize. We have the further duty as followers of Christ to reject these harmful ideas and report our rejection to our churches, associations, and the Convention itself.

Be aware that these harsh attacks on women emerged without provocation. In fact, they are all the more astonishing when we consider that in 1996, the Convention sought to improve its record on human rights by apologizing for 150 years of racism by the Convention. The apology represented a significant about-face for an organization that dates its name to the sectional division of the Civil War. In order to apologize, the Convention had to de-emphasize verses in the Bible that advise slaves to be submissive.

For the Convention to say it was wrong on race is reason enough to admit it has also been wrong on gender, thereby opening all aspects of the church to full participation by women and people of color. As much as women in the church might cling to the status quo and protest that they’re meant to be subservient, not one would turn down an apology from the Convention or a new declaration that they are welcome to be leaders in any area that God calls or members elect.

Nothing would do more to slow the incidence of domestic violence and child abuse in our country than for our two largest religious groups, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church, to stop blocking women from answering God’s call to be pastors or priests. Until this happens, women will continue to be perceived as of lesser value. This appearance allows women to be marginalized and abused.

Violence against girls and women is pervasive. The Justice Department estimates that 25-33% of girls and women are sexually abused or raped by the age of 24. Physical abuse by male partners is the single most common source of injury among women, more common than car accidents, muggings, or rapes combined.

Some 2.8 million women are abused annually by their partners, and witnessing violence in the family is the most important variable associated with a child becoming a future aggressor or future victim. Over half of all teen pregnancies are caused by men in their 20’s. “Date rape” accounts for over half of all rapes of adolescents.

Domestic violence experts report that those who perpetrate sex crimes and batter women invariably hold rigid views of gender roles and feel justified in being jealous, possessive, and controlling. A former police chief who now counsels convicted wife abusers in north Texas says, “One hundred percent of the men I counsel believe religion is on their side.” The director of a domestic violence shelter in southern Oklahoma adds, “For women of strong faith who come here to the Shelter, it’s quite common for them to think the Bible requires them to submit to anything their husband does to them. Now abusers will be able to say, ‘the Southern Baptist Convention says that’s the way you should think,’ It’s real frustrating.” Most often, where domestic violence exists, child abuse also is occurring.

Over the past 40 years or so, obstacles to individual determination have dwindled because public and government institutions that blocked the advancement of minorities and women have made change. Sadly, the only institutions that appear to be lobbying against women right now are religious ones -- largely fundamentalist -- here and abroad. The very groups that ought to be leading the way in attending to women’s suffering are instead adding to it. It is now up to individual Southern Baptists to find women worthy of full personhood in moral and spiritual matters and to insist that the Convention do the same.

Here’s what you can do:

1.    If you are a member of an organization that practices prejudice and bias toward women, advocate for change. Do it now.

2.    If you are asked to serve on a Board or committee whose bylaws preclude election of women, decline to serve. Tell why.

3.    Speak up for women, children, and all who suffer from domestic violence and child abuse. Contribute to your local Domestic Violence Shelter. Volunteer as a Court-Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for children.

4.    Don’t make or condone statements or actions that belittle women or       minorities. Such form the basis for discrimination and abuse.

Perform individual acts of conscience like these at every opportunity. Have the courage of your convictions. Join with like-minded individuals.

Barbara W. Sessions 35 Fairway Dr., Burneyville, OK 73430; (580) 276-2333



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