This article was originally published on March 23, 2021.
Even before a member of a Southern Baptist church was accused of the Georgia spa massacre, motivated, he told police, by guilt over a “sex addiction,” the Southern Baptist Convention was under scrutiny over its teachings on gender and sexuality.
Just a week before, prominent evangelical Bible teacher Beth Moore announced she had left the Southern Baptists, primarily over what she described as denominational leaders’ misogyny as reflected in their support for Donald Trump.
And then came the attack on March 16, which left eight dead, including six Asian women. The suspect’s church has since expelled Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old charged in the killings, and condemned the actions as the result of a “sinful heart.”
No one is suggesting that the denomination was responsible for what happened.
But as a scholar of gender and religion and someone who grew up Southern Baptist, I am aware that holding girls and women responsible for men’s sexual urges is not uncommon in a denomination that expects women to submit to men. This expectation of submission was a theme that came up repeatedly in interviews I conducted with 159 current and former Southern Baptist women for my book “God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society.”
Common beliefs, not creeds
Southern Baptists, the largest branch of evangelicalism in the U.S., are noncreedal. This means Southern Baptists do not have a required dogma, although the denomination’s confessional statement, “The Baptist Faith and Message,” lays out commonly held beliefs. Not every Southern Baptist, then, believes the same things.
But since the 1990s, fundamentalists who adhere to a strict set of beliefs have controlled the denomination. Their approach to interpreting the Bible and their beliefs about gender predominate in Southern Baptist churches. They are taught in Southern Baptist seminaries, practiced in hiring for missionaries and agency workers, and reflected in curriculum materials for churches.
Central is the belief in Biblical literalism – a method of interpreting the Bible based on the belief that the text is literally true. Biblical literalists believe, for example, that God created the universe in six days, that a worldwide flood destroyed all but Noah’s family and the pairs of animals on the ark, and that the Red Sea parted so the Israelites could walk across on dry ground.
Literalism goes hand in hand with inerrancy – the belief that the Bible is without error, not only in doctrine but also in history and science.
This method of interpreting the Bible plays a significant role in how Southern Baptists come to many of their beliefs about gender.
The fall of Eve
Many Southern Baptists believe that the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible happened literally as described. That is, God created one man and one woman, put them in the Garden of Eden, and forbade them to eat the fruit from one tree.
Because Eve was the first of the humans to fall from God’s grace by eating the forbidden fruit, she became subject to man. And that subjugation fell on all women, according to Southern Baptist teaching.
Further, some Baptists argue that gender hierarchy was God’s original intention.
This interpretation of Eve as “first in the Edenic fall” was cited by Southern Baptists in a 1984 resolution calling for women to be excluded from ordained ministry.
This fits with the Southern Baptist principle of complementarianism, which holds that while God created men and women as equals, they perform separate but complementary roles: that men are to be leaders in home, church and society, and women are to be submissive helpers, primarily responsible for caring for the home and rearing children.
In this way, women are expected to submit to men in the home and in the church. Southern Baptist leaders point to the writings of the apostle Paul in the Bible (Ephesians 5:22) as evidence of God’s expectation of women’s submission: “Wives, submit yourself unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.”
This view of submission also means that women should not hold leadership over men or teach men in the church, hence the move to prevent women being ordained.
Sexuality and gender identity
The denomination’s teachings on sexuality are similarly rooted in traditional beliefs about women and men.
Humans were, according to Southern Baptists, created heterosexual, and sexual activity is acceptable only between a man and a woman in a lifelong heterosexual marriage. While 54% of Christians support acceptance of homosexuality, only 30% of Southern Baptists believe homosexuality should be accepted. In 1992, the Southern Baptist Convention amended its constitution to exclude churches that implied acceptance of homosexuality.
The executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recently ousted two churches that welcome LGBTQ people into membership.
Most evangelicals believe that God created humanity as male and female only. According to the denomination, only these two biological sexes exist, and gender aligns with sex.
In 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution affirming, “God’s good design” is “that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.”
These views on sexual activity and gender roles are reflected in the purity culture that influences many Southern Baptists. Purity culture focuses on abstinence outside traditional heterosexual marriage and dangers in girls’ and women’s sexuality. In particular, purity culture teaches that girls and women are responsible for boys’ and men’s sexuality and that they may cause boys and men to sin through expressions of their own sexuality.
These teachings are supported by an entire industry of purity rings, purity balls, purity curricula and purity music. Purity culture rarely talks about sexual violence or consent because of the assumption that controlling men’s sexual urges is women’s responsibility, and so, if women will be completely asexual, men will not be overcome by their sexual urges.
Taken together, these beliefs create a context in which men exert authority and control. Women are expected to submit to men and to constrain men’s sexual urges and behaviors through their pure lifestyles. Women are seen as important but secondary, equal in value but submissive in actuality.
None of this can excuse or explain the actions of the shooting suspect in Georgia. But Southern Baptist beliefs about sex and gender give context to the suspect’s apparent conviction that his sexual urges were wrong, and that the women he believed to have encouraged them were in some way responsible.
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