Feminism in the SBC

Doug Ponder

How an Unbiblical Ideology Has Infected America’s Largest Protestant Denomination

A few years ago, after a particularly long week of teaching and preaching, my voice was fatigued much more than usual. Cough drops provided temporary relief, but the pain kept coming back. After three weeks of consuming cough drops like an addict, I began to suspect something more sinister than an overstrained voice and a lingering cold were to blame. I headed to a specialist for some answers, but he found no vocal polyps, no throat cancer, and no immediate signs at all explaining why my throat was so inflamed. “Maybe you have silent reflux,” the doctor said as he handed me a prescription to treat that ailment. But it did nothing.

Then, one day, as I was reaching for another cough drop to take the edge off the pain, my wife asked me, “Do you think maybe those are what’s actually causing all this?” Sure enough, among the ten natural herbs that make this particular brand so loved by so many were a couple of ingredients that I’m apparently allergic to. Thus, what I had thought was the cure (of the symptoms, at least) had actually been the underlying cause of my problems. If not for that proper diagnosis, the cycle not only would have continued but would have worsened as well. 

The Feminist Problem in the SBC

I thought about that episode of self-sabotage recently when considering the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Clearly, something is off. Very few debate this. But the diagnosis differs from person to person or camp to camp. And though it will seem paradoxical to some (yet obvious to others), my contention in this essay is that one of the SBC’s deepest problems is a growing case of feminism, which, if left untreated or if treated with the wrong course of action, will continue to worsen in ways that could seal the SBC’s trajectory on its present and undesirable path back to a pre-Conservative Resurgence condition.

To begin with, consider the two issues that have dominated national discussions in the life of the SBC for the last few years: the sexual abuse allegations and the question of whether the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 permits churches in friendly cooperation with the SBC to appoint women to the role of “pastor.” It is not happenstance that these issues have become a fury-laden focal point, for both relate to women, who are one of the hallmark interests of our modern age.

This focus on women is especially noteworthy against the backdrop of ubiquitous warnings about “toxic masculinity,” which are raised in an era when men are far less likely to act in stereotypically masculine—and much less chauvinistic—ways than ever before. Relatedly, the narrative that women are “systemically oppressed” in the West is based on outdated and/or misinterpreted data. For example, several studies show that the so-called gender wage gap in the workforce is not a result of gender discrimination. Meanwhile, women earn 50% more college degrees than men, and women today are nearly 20% more likely to be hired than men. If anything, therefore, current statistics show that it is actually men who suffer disproportionately today (as even some secular thinkers have begun to recognize). And, given God’s design for the church and the family, this rise in male suffering is all but certain to increase the suffering of others. 

Given this situation, you would expect to see a widespread focus on men in the church, exhorting them to become who God created them to be. Instead, we find that secular thinkers largely drive the conversation about manhood and masculinity, while many churches take pains to platform women’s ministries and put women in staff positions, as if that were the most pressing issue facing the church in the West today. 

Whenever the actions of an individual or an institution fly in the face of the best available data (not to mention the teachings of the Bible, which assert the headship of the man from the opening chapters of Genesis), we don’t have to guess the source driving people to shout “Fire!” when there’s really a flood. In particular, the demonic force in the driver’s seat seems to be that many millions of people—including millions of Southern Baptists—have drunk deeply from feminist wells without recognizing the source nor the consequences of the polluted ideas they have been imbibing. 

How We Got Here: Feminism Defined and Explained

Though proto-feminist ideas were published as early as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the feminist movement began in earnest at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, a two-day convention of various leaders who met to consider the social condition and civil rights of women in America. Now called the “first wave” of feminism, this aspect of the movement is primarily remembered for their efforts to pass what would become the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote in the United States.

However, this is an oversimplification of feminism’s origins and emphases. From the beginning, many of the movement’s leading figures also espoused a strong disdain for marriage1, a rejection of male headship in any context2, and the framing of any “unchosen pregnancy”—even as a God-ordained consequence of sexual activity in marriage—as “forced maternity.”3 The solution to so-called “forced maternity” was “voluntary motherhood,” a concept that led Margaret Sanger to regard abortion as the key to female freedom.4

That is why, when the birth control pill was introduced to the American public on May 9, 1960, there were throngs of women (and men) who were eager to separate what God had joined together, namely, sexual activity and the fruit of such a union. In essence, this technology facilitated the construal of children as an on-demand commodity (instead of a God-ordained outcome), which, in turn, further gave credence to the notion that being a woman had nothing to do with being a wife or a mother, except by mere choice. In effect, the pill promised that women could live just as men did as if to say that men and women were essentially interchangeable and should be treated as such.

The woman who gave voice to this growing sentiment was Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, became the touchstone of feminism’s second wave. For the next two decades, women were encouraged to reevaluate traditional gender roles in the name of ending “sexist discrimination.” That sexual discrimination existed, I do not doubt. But not all that goes by the name of “discrimination” is accurately so-called (cf. Isa. 8:12), and much of what women in the 60s and 70s sought to overthrow in the name of “gender equality” turned out to be a rebellion against the differing roles allotted to men and women within the order of God’s creation (cf. Titus 2:5). 

This also explains why feminists have been among the most ardent supporters of abortion. When the pill failed to make good on its promise of gender interchangeability, feminists turned to abortion as the “solution” and pushed to keep it legal for decades. If a woman could not guarantee she would never have to be a mother, except on her own terms, then (feminist logic insists) she must be able to kill any unwanted child.

Fast forward to 1989, when Kimberlé Crenshaw, a gender and critical race theorist, coined the term “intersectionality.” Though the word would not catch on until later, the concept became a defining mark of what came to be known as the third wave of feminism, which centered on the free expression of the individual woman’s self-conception of femininity. In other words, what it meant “to be a woman” was a question best left to every individual woman…even if “she” is a he. 

If there is a fourth wave of feminism (some debate this), it is an intensification of the aims that third wave feminists did not fully achieve. However, since by this time (ca. 2010), most traditional gender roles had been thoroughly deconstructed, the new enemy became ideas and systems that allegedly perpetuate misogyny in various forms. Hence the advent of “slutwalks,” which aim to show that rape is always a (sinful) choice—which it is—but which also destroy the commonsense connection between “slutty” behavior and undesirable consequences. Then there’s the Everyday Sexism Project, which obsesses over microaggressions as evidence that misogyny is alive and well. Finally, there was the virality of the MeToo Movement, which highlighted “power dynamics” over truth and demanded that we “believe all women” (because they are “the oppressed class,” to use Marxist terminology), even to the point of holding someone guilty until proven innocent, instead of innocent until proven guilty (cf. Prov. 18:17; 1 Tim. 5:19).

Though there are important differences (in goals and emphases) among the waves of feminism, they are unified in one important sense. As one feminist author explains, “[F]eminism boils down to ending gender discrimination and bringing about gender equality.” To be sure, there is a world in which those goals, as stated, could be pure, but we do not live in that world. For much of what is called “gender discrimination” is simply the stubborn differences of God’s design, and much of what is called “gender equality” is really the fallacy of gender interchangeability, that is, the misguided notion that men and women are so similar that they can perform the same tasks and fulfill the same vocations as well as the other. 

The fallacy of interchangeability is the sine qua non of feminism, which is ultimately rebellion against the design of the Lord. Unfortunately, the seeds of this rebellion have long been growing in evangelical churches, such that even conservative denominations like the SBC have many leaders who are endorsing ideas with evidently feminist roots.

Where Feminism Has Infected the Church

I was recently made aware of a sizable church in my region that was advertising for a staff position with the title “Pastor/Director.” The slashed title was just a placeholder. The announcement explained that if a man were to be hired for the position, he would serve as a “Pastor.” But if a woman were to be hired for the same role, then she would be a “Director.” In both cases the responsibilities of the job were identical. 

This is an easy example of how the feminist fallacy of gender interchangeability has infected the church. Sadly, I suspect some complementarians might be fooled into appreciating this church’s decision. After all, the thinking goes, doesn’t this demonstrate that a (nominally) complementarian church wants to limit the pastoral office to men in accordance with the biblical use of the term as reflected in Article VI of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000?5

In a word, no, it doesn’t. What that situation actually shows is that this church, and hundreds (thousands?) others like them, are hiring women to function as pastors/elders/overseers while denying them the title that fits the work they are doing. It’s an incoherent position, and there are only two ways to resolve that incoherence: either complementarian churches start acting like the office of overseer/elder/pastor (and its functions) is limited to men, or else they own the logical end point of their feminist convictions, become egalitarian, and confer the title of overseer/elder/pastor on a woman who is fulfilling the kind of work that is biblically assigned to the same.

Ironically, this is a solution that both consistent complementarians and egalitarians (aka evangelical feminists) can agree on: if a woman is acting in the capacity of an overseer/elder/pastor, then she is an overseer/elder/pastor in that church. The folks who take issue with this line of reasoning are those who subscribe to the impossible-to-maintain middle way of permitting a woman to act as an overseer/elder/pastor without being labeled an overseer/elder/pastor. In truth, it is this position that is most insulting to women. For it says, in effect, “You may function in every way as a pastor in this church, but we will (arbitrarily) deny you the title for the very role that you hold.” 

The reason we have arrived at a position of such incoherence in the church is due to the rise of a “nominal complementarianism” watered down by feminism until little but the label remains. The essence of nominal complementarianism is the failure to see the reasons behind the “rules and roles” given to men and women in God’s Word. These reasons go far beyond a few Pauline-proof texts. Rather, as I have argued elsewhere, the whole Bible shows that men and women are different from each other and different for each other. Those differences are diminished to the detriment of both sexes when men and women are treated as functionally interchangeable units, precisely as feminism insists that we are.

Now consider the abuse allegations in the SBC. It’s essential to note from the outset that two separate inquiries (the Houston Chronicles and the Guidepost independent investigation) found 409 confirmed abusers who were at some point affiliated with an SBC church. At a minimum, this number also entails 409 human beings who suffered unjustly, and every single instance of abuse is known to the Lord, and every single unrepentant abuser will be judged severely by him. (For my part, there is no question that convicted abusers should be prosecuted to the extent of the law, even while we preach the necessity of repentance and the possibility of forgiveness to them behind bars.)

Yet, as many have pointed out (see here and here), the number of abuse cases within the SBC falls considerably short of the numbers among the general population. In fact, the number of people (mostly women) who were abused in the SBC’s +47,000 churches over the course of two decades is less than the number of sexual abuse allegations in the Chicago public school system in a single year. Additionally, the SBC’s president, Bart Barber, has publicly said that the independent investigation found that the SBC’s leading entities never intentionally failed to report abuse when it was known. 

None of this means individual cases of abuse did not occur; they did, and they were horrific acts of cruelty. Yet, it does mean that the SBC doesn’t have a systemic abuse problem, and this should be a cause for celebration. After all, what sort of person would want there to be an abuse crisis when the best available data suggests precisely the opposite to be true? A feminist-influenced one, to be precise.

This is true in two ways. First, the abuse allegations have led detractors of complementarianism to blame the system (fourth wave feminism) for the results. The thinking goes, “If churches stopped saying that God made men to lead, then they would see less abuse. Therefore, complementarianism is evil and must be rejected.” But, as I said above, the prevalence of abuse in the SBC is lower than it is elsewhere. Furthermore, plenty of egalitarians have been found guilty of the same crimes (e.g., John Stackhouse and Bill Hybels), so rejecting complementarianism is no safeguard against abuse. In fact, the opposite is the case! As Nancy Pearcy has pointed out, committed evangelical men (who are overwhelmingly complementarian) are statistically the most loving to their wives, most engaged with their children, least likely to divorce, and have the lowest rates of sexual abuse and domestic violence. 

Second, feminism has also contributed to the SBC’s mishandling of these allegations—not with facts (truth) but with committees driven by feelings of empathy. Specifically, because feminism insists on the interchangeability of men and women, it fails to recognize that the differences between men and women, which God intended for our good, can become a terrible evil when ignored or misplaced. As Joe Rigney explains, “[W]hat is a blessing in one arena is a curse in another. The same impulse that leads a woman to move toward the hurting with comfort and welcome becomes a major liability when it comes to guarding the doctrine and worship of the church. There are times—usually involving grave error or gross sin—when God forbids empathy and pity.” 

The notion that God would forbid empathy or pity in certain times and places probably comes as a shock to many, but that astonishment is further proof of the advance of feminism in our midst. Justice was traditionally depicted as being blind for a reason; namely, the hard matters of truth and morality are not arenas where empathy is a benefit but rather a burden. As the Lord himself says, “You shall not yield to him, or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him” (Deut. 13:6-10; cf. Deut. 7:16, 19:13, 21).

The Anti-Feminist Solution

Against the feminist myth of interchangeability, with its failure to recognize the unique strengths and weaknesses of men and women, Christians insist there were good reasons why God issues sex-specific roles. That is to say, there are good reasons why the Lord prohibited women from serving in Israel’s military, just as there were good reasons why he restricted the priesthood in Israel to qualified men (in contrast to the pagan nations around them, where priestesses were quite common). In the same vein, there are good reasons why the New Testament everywhere assumes, and sometimes explicitly states, that God has restricted the office and the corresponding functions of the elder/overseer/pastor to qualified men. (And, I would argue, the same is true for the sort of non-pastoral leadership positions where characteristically masculine strengths are best fitted.)

The way out of the feminist trap—and all that it destroys—is to reaffirm the consonance (or, to use an old-school term, the “meetness”) between the commands of God and the creation of God. The Lord is no arbitrary deity; he does not give commands without good reasons, and these reasons boil down to God-intended differences between the sexes. In other words, we must accept the fact that men and women do not come into the world as blank slates for self-identification but as complementary persons with masculine and feminine strengths and weaknesses (1 Pet. 3:7), as well as sinful tendencies (1 Tim. 2:8–10), all of which must be harnessed by the Spirit in service of our various vocations, some of which are uniquely masculine or feminine.

There are many places where this battle must be fought in the SBC, but the most obvious point involves resisting those who are leading the charge for Southern Baptists to accept churches that call women “pastors” (in violation of the BFM 2000) as still being “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC. In the short term, this means passing the Law-Sanchez amendment in June (see also Five Reasons to Support the Law Amendment and A Taxonomy of Bad Arguments Against the Law-Sanchez Amendment).

The failure to do so, as Jonathan Leeman recently explained, is equivalent to quitting the battle at precisely the point where the world is attacking God’s design most fiercely. Not only does such a course of action diminish our collective witness to the world, but it fails to recognize that many of our churches—whether they know it or not—have already been infected by feminism, which is steering them to treat men and women as interchangeable neutrals with disastrous results in many spheres. Operating from within this framework, these churches will increasingly feel the pressure (which isn’t going away anytime soon) to take the implicit logic of their position to its natural conclusion. And when they do so, they will force others to accept their course as legitimate. As the legalization of gay “marriage” revealed, it’s not enough for rebels to achieve parity; rebels always want—demand—to be celebrated for having done what is right.

In the final analysis, we are fools if we think permitting women to serve as “pastors” but not as “elders” or “overseers” (or the extra-biblical “senior pastor”) will serve as a bulkhead to stay the feminist forces at work in our midst. In reality, such a move is an extension of the very problem itself—like taking cough drops that cause an underlying condition while only seeming to relieve its symptoms. Besides, anyone who has ever lived near the coast knows that no man-made bulkhead lasts forever. The waters that continually lap against them eventually wear them down. The only way to stop the waves of feminism from destroying the peculiar glory of the sexes, and the sanctity of the pulpit, is to stand firm on the limits placed by the Lord himself, who once said to the seas that he formed, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11). 

  1. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Susan B. Anthony, “It is in vain to look for the elevation of woman so long as she is degraded in marriage,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Letter to Miss Susan B. Anthony,” Seneca Falls, March 1, 1852. Elsewhere Stanton wrote, “I frankly admit that to be a ‘mistress’ is less dishonorable than to be a ‘wife;’ for while the mistress may leave her degradation if she will, public sentiment and the law hold the ‘wife’ in hers. . . . The legal position [of a wife] is more dependent and more degrading than any other condition of womanhood can possibly be,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Marriage and Mistresses” in Revolution, Oct. 15, 1868. ↩︎
  2. First wave feminist Katherine Bushnell argued that Genesis 3:16 was problematic, that God’s design for the sexes was actually arbitrary “fate,” and that marriage turned women into a “prostitute class.” See Katherine Bushnell, Dr. Katherine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of Her Life Work (Hertford, UK: Rose and Sons, 1930), 14 ↩︎
  3. Treva B. Lindsey, “What Did the Suffragists Really Think about Abortion?” Smithsonian, May 26, 2022. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-did-the-suffragists-really-think-about-abortion-180980124/#:~:text=According%20to%20Tracy,of%20women%E2%80%99s%20rights. ↩︎
  4. See Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentano’s, 1920). Sanger’s demonic dreams began to come true in 1961, when the birth control pill was approved for public use, and in 1973, when abortion was publicly enshrined as a “constitutional right.” Together these technologies provided women with the means for achieving “voluntary motherhood” and the “right to marriage without maternity.” ↩︎
  5. The distinction between “pastor” and “elder” is historically novel and exegetically unsustainable, being advanced almost entirely by those who wish to affirm an increasing role for women in church leadership without openly violating their doctrinal statements of faith. The problem is that the New Testament uses the terms “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” to refer to the same ecclesial office. First, note that the qualifications given for an “overseer” (ἐπισκοπή) in 1 Tim. 3:1–7 and those given for an “elder” (πρεσβύτερος) in Titus 1:5–10 have significant overlap, even identical phrases. For example, both include the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2Titus 1:9). Second, Paul uses the terms “elders” and “overseers” interchangeably in Titus 1:5 and 1:7. Third, when Paul gathers the elders (πρεσβυτέρους) of the church in Miletus together in Acts 20:17, he exhorts them to “pay careful to yourselves and to all the flock [τῷ ποιμνίῳ], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [ἐπισκόπους] to shepherd [ποιμαίνειν] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis added). Similarly, Peter exhorts his “fellow elders” (1 Peter 5:1) to “shepherd [ποιμάνατε] the flock [ποίμνιον] of God among you by exercising oversight [ἐπισκοποῦντες]” (1 Peter 5:2, emphasis added). And he concludes with a reference not to the “chief Elder” but to the “chief Shepherd” [ἀρχιποίμενος], further establishing a link between “elder” and “pastor/shepherd.” Fourth, Paul mentions “shepherds and teachers” [τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους] in a list that also includes apostles, prophets, and evangelists (Eph 4:11). Note that Paul here refers to persons, not skills, as he does when he speaks of “prophecy” (Rom. 12:6) or “teaching” (Rom. 12:7). Relatedly, Paul clearly distinguishes the office of apostle from ministerial gifts of the Spirit when he says, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28, emphasis added). Yet in Eph. 4:11 Paul does not speak of “apostleship” but of “apostles,” not of “prophecy” but of “prophets,” not of “evangelism” but of “evangelists,” and not of “shepherding and teaching” but of “shepherds and teachers [τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους],” two nouns sharing a single definite article. What is conspicuous by its absence, however, is any mention of “elders” or “overseers” precisely at the point where one might it expect it. The absence of these terms would make sense, however, if Paul sees “shepherds [i.e., pastors] and teachers” (or perhaps the “shepherd-teacher”) as constituting an office in the church that is identical with that of “elder” and “overseer.” Finally, the verb “to pastor” (ποιμαίνω) is never used to describe the ministry of any person—men or women—who did not hold some ecclesial office (John 21:16Acts 20:281 Pet. 5:12). In other words, “pastoring/shepherding” is something that elders do, and separating the function from the office is misguided, at best, and deliberately misleading, at worst. ↩︎
  • Doug Ponder

    Doug Ponder is the Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimké Seminary and a teaching pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He holds three advanced degrees from Southern Baptist seminaries. In the past he has served as a trainer for church planters in the SBC of Virginia and as an editor for the International Mission Board.