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Growing Number of Southern Baptist Women Question Gender Roles

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FILE - In this Tuesday, June 11, 2019 file photo, Janene Cates Putman of Athens, Tenn., holds a sign during a demonstration outside the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala. Among the millions of women belonging to churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, there are many who have questioned the faith’s gender-role doctrine and more recently urged a stronger response to disclosures of sexual abuse perpetrated by SBC clergy. (AP Photo/Julie Bennett)

Emily Snook is the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor. She met her husband, also a pastor, while they attended a Southern Baptist university

Yet the 39-year-old Oklahoma woman now finds herself wondering if it’s time to leave the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, in part because of practices and attitudes that limit women’s roles.

“Every day I ask that,” Snook said. “I don’t know what the right answer is.”

She’s not alone. Among the millions of women belonging to churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, there are many who have questioned the faith’s gender-role doctrine and more recently urged a stronger response to disclosures of sexual abuse perpetrated by SBC clergy.

For many SBC women, even those committed to staying, the topic of gender became more volatile this month when popular Bible teacher Beth Moore said she no longer considered herself Southern Baptist. Moore, perhaps the best-known evangelical woman in the world, had drawn the ire of some SBC conservatives for speaking out against Donald Trump in 2016 and suggesting the denomination had problems with sexism.

Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has belonged to an SBC megachurch and wrote a passionate article in February explaining why she remains Southern Baptist.

Yet she is among a number of SBC women publicly sharing their dismay about sex abuse and the vitriol directed at Moore.

“Beth has been scorned, mocked, and slandered while doing exactly what the denomination has determined she could and should do: be a woman teaching other women,” Prior said via email.

“I cannot count the number of women who have reached out to me over the past few years, lamenting and grieving the way women have been and are being treated in some SBC churches and by some denominational leaders,” Prior added. “If these women leave, it won’t be because Beth left. It will be because the men the Baptist Faith and Message says are supposed to lead in Christ-like ways have failed to do so.”

Prior was referring to the doctrine adopted by the SBC in 2000 which espouses male leadership in the home and the church and says a wife “is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” It specifies that women cannot be pastors, citing the Apostle Paul’s biblical admonition, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; instead, she is to remain quiet.”

Moore, through three decades as a Bible teacher, focused her outreach on women, but sometimes taught before audiences that also included men.

Snook, who lives in Norman, Oklahoma, said she grew up being taught that men were leaders in the church and the home “to protect women, to lift them up.”

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David is a New York-based reporter with The Associated Press, covering national social issues. His past postings include Nairobi, Johannesburg, Paris, Sarajevo, and Toronto.