NEW ORLEANS — Growing up in rural Mississippi, Gracie Robinson decided early on that she would never get married.
In her Baptist church, she heard the preaching: The Bible orders women to be submissive to their husbands. Robinson didn’t want to be submissive.
This summer, 26 and unmarried and enrolled in a seminary 300 miles from the dusty backwater she describes growing up in, she’s holding court, ranting over garlic fries and gumbo that she’ll never let a man control her.
“Every time I think about it, it just burns me up!” she says, as the other female seminarians laugh and clap.
And then Robinson’s tone changes. Matter-of-fact, she says about a husband: “True enough, he is the head of the household. And he is the spiritual leader.”
And her friends wholeheartedly agree to that, too.
This is the challenge and the contradiction of being an evangelical woman today: Embracing the beliefs of a community that teaches it’s the will of God for men alone to lead churches and families, while also fiercely arguing for women’s equal worth.
That complex position has exploded into public view over the past several months. The evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has faced a string of #MeToo scandals — the head of the denomination’s executive committee and the pastor grandson of its most famous evangelist Billy Graham both resigned over inappropriate sexual relationships; a Memphis church’s handling of pastor Andy Savage’s sexual encounter with a teenager was condemned in nationwide headlines; revered denominational leader Paul Pressler was accused of sexual assault.
But by far the scandal that has rattled the community the most is that of Paige Patterson. A towering Southern Baptist leader, Patterson was fired from his job leading one of the denomination’s six seminaries when it came to light that he had not reported two women’s allegations of rape to the police. When Patterson returned to the pulpit last week, he made comments about a woman’s body and questioned the validity of some sexual assault allegations.
Women were instrumental in Patterson’s downfall, signing a petition against him by the thousands. But women also continue to rally around him. When angry donors sent a letter after the meeting protesting Patterson’s firing, 14 of the 25 signers were women.
At the denomination’s seminaries, intellectual centers of evangelical Christianity, female students — who cannot be ordained as pastors — are wrestling with what exactly draws them to a faith that preaches their own ineligibility for leadership.
“Seeing something as God’s divine order, there’s a clarity to that. I think there’s also a strong dislike in many quarters of feminism and what some of these women believe feminism stands for — an anti-child or anti-family emphasis they perceive in feminism,” said R. Marie Griffith, who was raised Southern Baptist and who directs Washington University in St. Louis’s Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. “For many women, they do believe that’s God’s order. … The preferred mode would be: Okay, men will be the spiritual leaders.”
Southern Baptist seminaries enrolled 12 percent more women from 2012-2016, following more than two decades of gradual growth in women’s enrollment. Over those same decades, the denomination — led by Patterson and Pressler — doubled down on a theology of gender that emphasizes male leadership.
At New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a summer intensive just for women taught these same conservative principles — while students explored just where the boundaries lie.
“God created men and women equal in worth and value, but different in role and function. Different is just different. Different isn’t bad,” teaches Rhonda Kelley, the wife of the seminary’s president and the head of its women’s ministry program. “Our biblically assigned role is to submit to men that God placed in authority over our lives.”
She says that women who don’t obey this plan end up dissatisfied with their lives; on her PowerPoint presentation, bold letters describe it as a “sure path to destruction for home and family.”
Reading the Bible in Kelley’s class, students learn to scour passages for evidence of this Biblical plan for women. For instance, after reading the story of Deborah — the judge who led Israel for a time, including commanding troops on the battlefield — one student acknowledged that some readers see the story as the Bible condoning an example of a woman in power.
The student said she was searching for another interpretation: “What I settled on in my heart is Deborah did it in reverence for the leadership God intended men to have, in humility rather than saying, ‘I know what to do. I’m going to lead this battle,'” she concluded.
After the students read passages about the prophet Huldah, the judge Deborah, the prophet Miriam, and the queen Esther, Kelley put up a slide that concluded: “There is not a Biblical pattern of women in positions of spiritual leadership (i.e. prophet or judge).”
Her students, like the women who spoke out against Patterson, express their concerns as women even while pledging their adherence to tradition. When the class reads a book suggesting a wife should follow her husband if he wants to move for his job, many of them search for a way to reject that guidance, saying their own careers should be important, too.
“I agree with the Christian view. And I agree with, yes, woman as helper. But it’s the implications,” one says.
Nickolee Roberts chimes in. “I’m like yes, you’re right, this is biblical. Then I get to the practical applications and I’m like, no, I don’t agree with you. Let me throw the book out the window.”
That’s what seems to be quietly happening in some evangelical circles — throwing some older practices out the window, without throwing out the interpretation of the Bible at its core.
The shakeup around gender in the Southern Baptist Convention caused some subtle ripples in the classroom here. Jill Nash, studying for a master’s in divinity degree, sat down on the first day of her Christian ethics class and found that she was the only woman out of seven students.
What was unusual was the greeting the professor offered: “Obviously, Jill is the only female here. We should treat her like a sister in Christ,” he said, to Nash’s great surprise.
Nash, who works for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, didn’t marry until she was 42, so in the last few years, she’s given a lot of thought to the questions now bubbling up in the convention about what female submission means. “Sub — it means to come under — a mission. If you see the direction someone’s going that you’re dating as something you’ve got to really come under — can I come under that? Can I support that?” she said to friends after that Christian ethics class. “That husband is to love you as Christ loves the church. And who doesn’t want to submit to that? … I want to cook dinner for him every night. I want to wash his clothes.”