My denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, held its annual meeting last week. In response to current cultural trends, namely the #MeToo movement and the Paige Patterson fiasco, leaders and messengers spent a significant amount of time addressing women’s issues. The convention passed resolutions on the dignity of women and on abuse. But a lot of the chatter surrounding this year’s meeting was about the role of women in ministry, up to and including the possibility of electing a woman as SBC president. For example, pastor Dwight McKissic published his case for electing Beth Moore as SBC president at Christianity Today, and on a panel discussion pastor and former SBC president James Merritt said, “A woman can be the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t see anything in the Bible that prohibits that.” Though “complementarianism” is affirmed throughout the convention and its leadership, one could be forgiven for sensing a fair amount of equivocation on the term, if not an outright process of redefinition.

Part of the problem is our use of language. In an old military battle, the fight was for the high ground. In a cultural battle, the fight is always for the dictionary. Whoever defines the terms holds the high ground. In recent conversations we have imported modern language from either secular philosophy (e.g. critical theory) or progressive and liberation theologies. Terms like empower, marginalization, tearing down hierarchies, power structures, and key leadership positions are bandied about in discussions of women in the church. Following the purveyors of intersectionality, the intended effect of such language seems to be to create a victim class, whose complaints need to be redressed. Without discounting the many cases where women in our churches have been abused or mistreated—all of which I condemn—it is not at all clear that Southern Baptist women make up a marginalized victim class in need of empowerment to some vague office of Key Leadership Position. Nor is it obvious that the solution to documented cases of sexual abuse is an overhaul of the leadership apparatus of our churches and convention.

We would do well to return to biblical language. In recent days, much has been said about empowering women. But the use of empowerment language is a power play in the politics of victimhood. Instead of speaking about empowering women, what if we used the biblical word honor? The imago Dei entitles no one to power, but it requires honor. In fact, the Apostle Paul instructs us to outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10). How do we honor our sisters? We respect and value the works God has given them to do. We spur them on to love and good deeds in the roles God has assigned to them. We express gratitude. We do not demean the high calling of women by assuming it to be the lesser, disempowered position in which no one can be expected to flourish or be fulfilled. Forgoing empowerment language would have the effect of not devaluing motherhood and the teaching of women and children, which are primary vocations for Christian women. Our sisters who are “just a mom” do not lack power but are among the most powerful people on earth. They shape civilizations. But such social power is out of step with the modern world, and therefore it is out of fashion with evangelicals.  

The concept of honoring women also includes ensuring the opportunity to exercise the variety of spiritual gifts given to them by our Father. In my experience this has not been a problem as I’ve seen hundreds of faithful women serve in diverse ways in the churches I’ve belonged to. They are not stifled unless one considers the prohibition of teaching and exercising authority over men to be stifling. But serving the church in informal and traditional ways does not seem to be enough to some modern evangelical women.

“They are fighting to be seen as necessary beyond children’s ministry and women’s ministry. They are fighting to contribute more than hospitality or a soft voice on the praise team. They are looking for leadership trajectories for women in the local church and finding virtually nothing.” —Jen Wilkin

They want leadership trajectories in the local church, so I’ll suggest one for starters. And unlike key leadership positions, this one is actually in the Bible. I’m referring to the enrolled widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-12, the passage in which the early church grounded the office of deaconess. Paul lists the leadership trajectory, but I must admit that it is more difficult than a few years of seminary. She must be sixty years old and have been faithful to her husband, a reputation for good works, brought up children, shown hospitality, and served the saints and afflicted.

I’ll cop to being a little snarky in my suggestion, and I realize some dispute whether the enrolled widows made up a deaconess-type order or if they were the recipients of financial care in their widowhood. More clear is the teaching role Paul explicitly prescribes for women:

“Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.”—Titus 2:3-5

These two leadership tracks reveal two things. First, the fault line in our current debates is the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. The Apostle Paul is clear in Titus 2 about the normal and primary duties of women. Will we trust the word of the living God that this is right, good, true, and beautiful, or nah?

Second, they reveal why the previous paragraphs strike us as so odd, outrageous, and, possibly, mean: we are captive to the modern world. Our assumptions about family, child rearing, male and female roles, and economics are all shaped by late modern capitalism, a social structure dependent on the availability of interchangeable androgynous workers. Men are not men with a specific telos as ordained by God. Women are not women with a specific telos as defined by God. Men and women are not bound to one another, giving themselves to the mutual work of dominion through marriage, child rearing, and vocation. We become atomized individuals seeking our own personal fulfillment in a world where the only overriding value is equality.

I love my denomination. At our best we cooperate with more than 40,000 churches for global missions, evangelism, and theological education. I’m grateful for the men and women who stood for the inerrancy of the Scriptures and fought to turn back our denomination from theological liberalism thirty years ago. And I am thankful for my brothers and sisters holding fast to the Gospel now. But I am concerned for our trajectory. I’m concerned that we cannot imagine how a robust, thick complementarianism can lead to the flourishing of men, women, and families. I’m concerned that we may be redefining biblical manhood and womanhood to fit secular and modern categories. I’m concerned that we have somehow grown to enjoy our hair flapping in the cool winds of the zeitgeist.

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash