When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed because he simply looked “suspicious,” initiated by the fact that Zimmerman viewed him as “suspicious” and chose to pursue him against the order of the police department, it was a personal, powerful, picturesque and emotional moment for me to hear Fred Luter address this matter as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
I never thought I would live long enough to hear a SBC president redemptively, righteously, and prophetically address a matter when a young black man was needlessly shot because the idea was stimulated by unfounded suspicion and his killer not following a police order.
If a Hispanic person were addressing immigration issues while serving as president of the SBC, it would likely have a radically different tone and project the SBC as compassionate on the immigration question.
Imagine for a moment with me, what if the person serving as SBC president at this hour was a competent, accomplished, biblically sound, orthodox female who could address the multitude of questions and issues the SBC is facing regarding women? The criticism and skepticism would be less dramatic if the SBC historically had demonstrated confidence and belief in the gifts and value of SBC women serving at all levels of leadership in SBC institutional life within the boundaries of the Bible.
To say this is a critical hour in the life of the SBC is an understatement. The presidency of the SBC is by design weighted more toward symbolism than governing. There is no budget, personnel, office space, and extremely limited authority that are presumptive or inherent in occupying the office of president of the SBC.
Yes, the SBC president appoints the committee on committees that appoints all of the SBC committees, presides over the annual SBC gathering, serves as an ex-officio trustee of all SBC entities, and serves on the committee on order of business. Yes, the SBC president serves as an official representative of the SBC to the public at large and as a representative to other parachurch or denominational gatherings.
But beyond those responsibilities, the SBC presidency has no decision-making authority. Again, the SBC presidency is largely symbolic, not authoritative. Therefore, a woman would not be usurping authority over a man by serving as SBC president.
The SBC is an entity head and trustee-driven governmental system. The SBC president is not an entity head or voting trustee of any of the entities. The president of the executive committee of the SBC, which is a job currently vacant and most recently held by Frank Page, has oversight of a colossal budget and staff and is appointed by the executive committee trustee board.
That position, totally distinct from the office of the president of the SBC, inherently has much more authority than the elective office of the president of the SBC. Clearly, the SBC president has a large “bully pulpit,” if they choose to use it; and a great deal of influence, but very limited constitutional authority. Succinctly stated, the president of the SBC is not a position of inherent authority, but usually widespread name recognition and influence, based on ministry history and convention support.
The current presidential candidates
I’ve never met or communicated with current presidential candidate J. D. Greear in any context, to the best of my recollection. His ministry reputation is impeccable. His record on race is impressive. Greear’s noble act, in standing down, so that unity and the election of Steve Gaines would stand up, was so impressive to me that made up my mind then that I was going to vote for him, regardless to who his opposition might be. I tweeted my support for Greear before Ken Hemphill also announced his candidacy for the presidency. I remain true to my commitment to vote for Greear.
However, Ken Hemphill is a man that I know personally and deeply love and respect. If he had announced first, I would have been not only supportive of his candidacy, I would have voted for him. As many have noted, we will be in good hands as a convention with either Greear or Hemphill.
My appreciation for Hemphill lies in the fact that he was an incredible president at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). He was and is deeply loved, respected and appreciated by black seminarians, because he was kind and fair toward us. SWBTS National Black Alumni held a once in a lifetime reunion during Hemphill’s tenure at SWBTS and honored him. A portion of that two-day reunion was held at Cornerstone Church, Arlington, where I serve as pastor.
Hemphill’s record concerning women is also impeccable. Black female seminarians loved Hemphill. They were allowed to take preaching classes with males, without any professor speaking despairingly toward them. Hemphill was pressured to resign at SWBTS because of his favorable disposition toward women in ministry. Karen Bullock taught church history during Hemphill’s tenure and preached in chapel at SWBTS. Allowing her to preach infuriated certain SWBTS trustees, and that led to his untimely departure. Sheri Klouda was hired by Hemphill to teach Hebrew, approved by the trustees. Later, her hiring was labeled “a momentary lapse in parameters.”
Hemphill was exemplary and biblical in how he affirmed, valued, and elevated women in SBC life within biblical parameters. Hemphill is a continuationist and has documented that in his book on spiritual gifts. When many were criticizing a chapel sermon that affirmed continuationist I preached in 2006, Hemphill released a statement to the Baptist Press affirming continuationism. He could have chosen silence. There was nothing for him to gain by affirming continuationism in the context of my chapel sermon, but he did. Much respect for Ken Hemphill. (During his tenure and Dilday’s tenure, I probably preached chapel ten times at SWBTS. Chapel preaching invitations from SWBTS ceased after my 2006 sermon affirming continuationism. I have continued to support SWBTS with generous annual contributions and funding SWBTS with tuition assistance for students who attend my congregation, Cornerstone Arlington.)
Many black female seminarians confided in me that there was an atmospheric change on campus and mainly in classrooms, after the departure of Hemphill, which in part may also explain the drop in enrollment after he left.
Potential to nominate a woman
The two greatest institutional systemic sins that the SBC has practiced throughout her history are racism and sexism. Those twofold demons seem to inevitably and periodically raise their ugly heads in SBC life. The SBC system produced and covered the racism and sexism. This cannot be laid at the feet of any one person. None of what’s being questioned and voted as unacceptable today, would not have even been questioned in the ‘70’s, ‘80’s, ‘90’s and even 2000. The initial infomation that caused the recent uproar was widely publicly known in 2000, and it was met with a yawn.
What have changed are the SBC people, who are no longer willing to tolerate certain behaviors as they once did. The SBC sin of sexism was passed down generationally and is only now being seriously challenged. To deny a woman from serving as a SBC president or vice president is purely sexist from my vantage point. But if this is the SBC’s position, it needs to be stipulated in the bylaws or constitution. It is fundamentally dishonest to know for certain that the SBC would not elect a woman president or allow a woman to serve as a vice president of an entity, but yet not put this belief in writing. We owe it to women to be honest with them regarding their mobility and potential in SBC institutional life.
If I thought Beth Moore would accept the nomination or be agreeable to being nominated, because of her qualifications and the current context the SBC finds itself in, I would nominate her for SBC president.
The SBC is a parachurch organization—not a church. Therefore, there is not one Bible verse, nor prohibition in SBC constitutional bylaws or the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M 2000), against a woman serving as SBC president. Tradition, sexism, fear, and other non-biblical factors would probably prevent any woman, including Deborah, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Lydia, Junia, or Priscilla, or Lottie Moon from being elected president of the SBC; but, I repeat … there is not one Bible verse or SBC constitutional prohibition.
Therefore, I could vote for a qualified woman with a clear conscience for president of the SBC. The 1 Timothy 2:12 passage is reference to local church leadership, not parachurch leadership. The statement on gender roles in the BF&M 2000 does not prohibit female leadership in the SBC as a convention or entity life. To impose 1 Timothy 2:12 as a prohibition on a female SBC president would be tantamount to imposing Genesis 9:25-27, as a prohibition for a black, Asian, or Hispanic SBC president. Neither Scripture is addressing prohibitions in parachurch offices. Historically, though, they have been used or misused to draw such erroneous conclusions.
1 Timothy 2:12 is the verse that erroneously cost Karen Bullock and Sheri Klouda, their jobs at SWBTS. In 2010, I submitted a resolution that was denied that appealed to the SBC to repent for their attitude, actions, and disposition toward women. Women have been denied VP roles in SBC entities because of 1 Timothy 2:12; that’s sinful and shameful, God’s judgment has come upon us, “Shall we continue in sin?” Had the SBC repented of her proclivity toward sexism in 2010, we may not be facing our current crisis.
[Editor’s note: Next week, delegates at the annual meeting may consider resolutions “On Affirming the Dignity of Women and the Holiness of Ministers” as well as “On the 100th Anniversary of Women as Messengers to the SBC.”]
The state of the convention
To elect Beth Moore would do more to heal our convention, seal women within our convention who have lost hope and right historic patterns of wrong toward women, without compromising qualifications, integrity, competency, or Scripture. The questions are, “Are we there yet?” or do we have to wait 100 more years and experience more of God’s judgment? Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) recently elected a woman as chairman of their trustee board. Progress is being made. Serving as an ex-officio officer of SBC entity trustee boards is one of the duties of an SBC president. By already permitting women trustees and a woman chairperson, the precedence is already set.
I believe The Sovereign God of the Universe is responsible for the current happenings in the SBC. God wants the SBC to set its house in order—racially and gender-wise. He is cleaning the SBC house, so that he can bless the SBC house with a mighty manifestation of his presence to equip, empower, and enlighten his people to be his salt and light on earth. We are experiencing a purging, that is a necessary prerequisite for the empowerment of his people.
The purpose of this article is simply to stimulate our thinking, so that we will begin to ponder how to empower and value the gifts of SBC women within the boundaries of Scripture, rather than majoring in how we can restrict them. Could it be that what was intended toward women as evil in the SBC, God will now turn it around and use it for good (Gen. 50:20)?
There are too many cases of women prophesying to men, in Scripture, publicly to hide behind 1 Timothy 2:12 as an excuse to not elect a woman as president or vice president of our convention.
Dwight McKissic is senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. This article originally ran on the site SBC Voices and has been republished with his permission.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.