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Southern Baptist Convention will decide whether to expel churches with women pastors

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The nation's largest Protestant denomination will make a big decision tomorrow. At its annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Convention will vote on a constitutional amendment that would essentially ban churches where women serve as pastors, including positions that are not the head minister. Now, proponents of this say it is important to unify the church around gender roles in ministry. Beth Allison Barr would disagree. She is the James Vardaman professor of history at Baylor University and a former Southern Baptist herself. Beth Allison Barr, hi. Welcome.

BETH ALLISON BARR: Thank you.

KELLY: So a little bit more context for people - this is not the first vote. There was a preliminary vote on this last year, which went overwhelmingly in favor of this amendment to prohibit female ministry. What are you watching for? How likely do you feel it is that this will pass when it comes up for the vote tomorrow?

BARR: I think it will pass. I - last year was so overwhelming, and the precedent in the Southern Baptist Convention is that when an amendment has received a first overwhelming vote, it always passes. However, it might be closer than we were expecting. There's been a significant amount of opposition within the party as of late, which might make it be a much closer vote than we would expect.

KELLY: OK. And what are you hoping for from the vote?

BARR: I could go either way with this. On the one hand, if the vote passes, I think it continues the trajectory of what the SBC has been doing, really, since the late 1970s and again picking up steam since 2019. I think it'll show the world who the Southern Baptist church really is, and they are - they directly oppose women in any sort of leadership position.

At the same time, the implications of this for women serving in Southern Baptist churches are really severe. Women will have to be continually justifying their ability to serve in ministry, and it will also make churches have to continually justify what their women are doing.

KELLY: I introduced you as a former Southern Baptist. I want people listening to know you are married to a man who's an ordained Southern Baptist pastor. Why former? What happened?

BARR: Yes. So both of us had been - grown up in the Southern Baptist world, and my husband unquestioningly went to a Southern Baptist seminary. But since 2016, my husband and I have moved away from complementarian theology. And this has been a big part of my academic work as well as my personal life. And...

KELLY: Complementarian - I should just explain. This is where - gender roles where men are leaders.

BARR: Yes.

KELLY: OK.

BARR: That's the best way to explain it. Yes, where men are leaders and women are to be only in subordinate roles. It is the primary theology of the Southern Baptist Convention. But my husband - the church that we are currently at is a very small church in Waco, Texas, and it has had women in the pulpit since the 1930s. And in the past couple of years, with the momentum in the SBC targeting churches that have women pastors, my husband worked hard to get us taken off - officially taken off the list because we have an ordained woman serving on our pastoral staff, and we wanted to protect her.

KELLY: And she continues to serve, this ordained woman on the pastoral staff?

BARR: She continues to serve, indeed.

KELLY: Is this controversial within your church?

BARR: No, it is not controversial at all. Our church has had women serving in pastoral roles throughout its history. So this is - I think in many ways, our church represents what the SBC used to be, and that was empowering both women and men to serve in leadership positions even though women were still always in the minority. And this has been a significant shift within the SBC.

KELLY: So big picture - Southern Baptists have been trending more conservative in a number of ways, not just to do with gender roles. And that's been going on for decades. I will note that simultaneously the Southern Baptist church has steadily been losing members. How do you see this all eventually playing out for the church in which you were raised?

BARR: I think this trend is going to continue. I think the SBC has lost the focus of what it claims it was built for, and that was for evangelism and global - you know, spreading Christianity throughout the globe and instead has become fixated on these problems that focus on pastoral ministry and how to control local churches. And people are finding other churches to be a part of. Women are realizing that they can still be Baptist and not be a part of the SBC. And so I think the SBC is its own worst enemy. And I think because it is still so big, it's not realizing the impact of that. But I think in 10 years' time, that impact is going to begin to be felt.

KELLY: Beth Allison Barr - she is the James Vardaman professor of history at Baylor, also author of the book, "The Making Of Biblical Womanhood," and, as you heard, a former Southern Baptist. Professor Barr, thank you.

BARR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEE SACRED SOULS SONG, "EASIER SAID THAN DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.