“The Joe Lamb Award for Outstanding Youth Leadership goes to Laura Stephens.” I remember where in the worship space I was sitting, what I was wearing, and how doubtful I was that my jelly-fied legs would carry me to the front. I had never considered myself a leader in youth group. For that matter, up until the year prior, I wouldn’t even have called myself a willing participant in anything church-related. But with this public recognition of my gifts, a sense of call began to awaken within me. And my longtime struggle with the lack of inclusive language and female ministerial leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention intensified, because as a lifelong Baptist I saw no clear path for living into my call.
So I did what all nerds do when they run up on a problem: I studied. In my last two years of college I researched and wrote an honors thesis (very wordily) entitled “Attempting to Eschew The Handmaid’s Tale: The Interplay of Denominational Politics, Biblical Interpretations, and Women’s Ordination in the Southern Baptist Convention.” Through this project I learned about how women were gaining ground in Baptist leadership until the well-orchestrated fundamentalist takeover of the SBC in the 1980s. I read how the Convention’s adoption of a resolution that blamed women for the fall of humankind was critical to the fundamentalists’ platform. And I noted that the banning of women from ordination and the relegation of women to complementary status was essential to the fundamentalists’ plans to retain power over the long haul.
What then was I to do as a Southern Baptist woman called to ministry, now educated in the forces I was up against? My first impulse was to run from Baptist life like my hair was on fire. I went to a United Methodist seminary. I started denomination-shopping on Sunday. Nowhere felt homey to me. Then one evening I was watching the late news in my apartment. A local Baptist congregation was being disfellowshipped from the state convention for its inclusivity. I was in a pew at this church the next Sunday. Women prayed from the pulpit. I had never witnessed even this, much less a woman preaching. I cried in my seat.
This church was starting a Wednesday night series on what it means to be Baptist. A professor from a nearby seminary spoke about Baptists’ emphasis on the freedom to relate directly with God, to read and interpret the Bible for ourselves, to be ministers to one another, and to make decisions at the congregational level. I claimed this historical way of being Baptist nineteen years ago, and I affiliated with Baptist networks who hold these fragile freedoms dear. Though I have worked outside the Baptist world at times, I have always been clear about who I am and where my home is.
Because of my winding journey through Baptistdom, I am both close to and distant from, unsurprised and grieved about recent revelations of various abuses perpetrated against women by past and current Southern Baptist Convention powerbrokers. Part of me says, “The SBC’s doubling-down on inequality was always heading toward this reckoning, and this has not been my fight for nearly two decades.”
But that’s not true.
Anytime a person created by God is emotionally or physically harmed, we are all accountable for calling out the violence.
Anytime a person uses God as an excuse to abuse, we all must rise up and proclaim our belief in a God who loves and wants good for us all and who privileges the downtrodden.
Anytime our sisters are treated as less than, we all must point out that there is no male or female in Christ Jesus.
So this is my fight. And yours, no matter what your relationship (or lack of) to the SBC. Because as members of God’s one family, our flourishing is tied to each other’s. And this flourishing is rooted in healthy practices and policies, right relationships and righteous resolutions.
There is no such thing as benevolent patriarchy. Wherever there is inequality, the table is set for one group to exercise – misuse – power over another. May we all claim the power of love and justice so that all people might know safety, access to resources, and paths for living into the fullness of their personhood.