Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Oregon State University. She is an ordained Baptist minister and author of God Speaks to Us, Too: Southern Baptist Women on Church, Home, and Society and co-author of Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
Recent controversies surrounding popular evangelical Bible teacher Beth Moore offer a case study for the future of evangelical Christianity in the United States. Moore had been a superstar of conservative Christianity, packing arenas with women eager to hear her extol the virtues of traditional womanhood.
In March 2021, Moore announced that she was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over its misogyny and embrace of Trumpism. A few weeks later, she also tweeted an apology for her previous support for the primacy of complementarianism, the belief that, while men and women are equal before God, God has given them different roles that require women’s submission. Now, Moore calls herself a “soft complementarian,” still believing in gender roles and submission but no longer seeing them as essential for theological faithfulness.
Moore’s story points toward the increasing incongruence between male evangelical leaders’ beliefs about gender and the actual gendered practices of people in the pews and the culture at large.
Moore’s story points toward the increasing incongruence between male evangelical leaders’ beliefs about gender and the actual gendered practices of people in the pews.
Recent research found that more than 70% of evangelicals believe women should be allowed to preach in Sunday morning worship services. My own research among Southern Baptists, as well as my colleague Sally Gallagher’s research among the broader evangelical community, found that while evangelicals may profess belief in men’s headship and women’s submission, actual marriage relationships are much more pragmatic and egalitarian. More than a third of evangelicals (including 30% of Southern Baptists) also believe that homosexuality should be accepted.
The recent sex abuse scandals in churches are also a significant factor leading to disillusionment with evangelical leadership. In 2017, following the eruption of #MeToo, two former evangelicals launched #ChurchToo on Twitter, and the hashtag soon generated thousands of stories of people abused by pastors and other church leaders. In 2018, seminary president Paige Patterson, a leader in the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s, was fired for his mishandling of sexual assault allegations. Then, in 2019, the Houston Chronicle published a series of articles on the problem of sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches, igniting a firestorm of criticism. Although the convention made some moves to address the problem in the denomination, many survivors found the response to be inadequate.
Now, as evangelicals find themselves in decline and losing the so-called culture wars, they have turned their sights onto another target to attempt to revive their flagging fortunes: transgender people. Already in 2021, 33 states have introduced more than 100 bills targeting trans individuals. In 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution affirming “God’s good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception—a perception which is often influenced by fallen human nature in ways contrary to God’s design” and opposing any efforts to affirm transgender identities. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s Nashville Statement also denies that transgender identities are consistent with God’s design and claims that supporting transgender identities is sinful.
As evangelicals find themselves in decline and losing the so-called culture wars, they have turned their sights onto another target: transgender people.
Gender and sexuality intersect with race, and so the cultural struggles within evangelicalism reflect the anxiety of white men over their perceived loss of power. Anthropologist Ellen Rosenberg noted this as early as 1989, when she argued that, during the controversy among Southern Baptists, much of fundamentalist men’s emphasis on constraining women was in response to their loss of institutional power over Black people. Recent research also shows that, as demographics have changed, many whites fear losing out and see growing numbers of BIPOC people, especially immigrants, as an existential threat to white people.
The Southern Baptist Convention has also failed on the racial front, leading to the exodus of a number of prominent Black Baptist pastors and congregations. In 2020, the six white men who are presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries published a statement rejecting critical race theory, a method for analyzing structural racism, calling it “incompatible” with the denomination’s confessional statement. The denomination, founded on a commitment to the system of slavery, has struggled to come to terms with its past. It has often stumbled when called on to make strong statements about racism, include more Black members in leadership, and offer reparations as a way to atone for its legacy of white supremacy. Its alignment with Republican politics has also troubled many BIPOC members.
Some pundits suggest evangelical identity is in crisis. While the vast majority of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump, many, like Beth Moore, faced a moment of decision over the evangelical embrace of Trump. Evangelicals’ relationship with the Republican Party and close ties with white nationalist ideologies have also given some evangelicals pause.
Most of what those of us who are outside of evangelicalism see as crisis, however, is at the denominational leadership and public level, especially among Southern Baptists. Most people in the pews care little for what happens at the SBC level. They participate, not because of the denomination, but because of the local church. Since local Southern Baptist churches are autonomous, each church determines its own practices, selects its own leaders, and governs itself as it chooses. So, for most Baptists, the local church is what matters to them, and it may be their only level of engagement.
Most of what those of us who are outside of evangelicalism see as crisis, however, is at the denominational leadership and public level, especially among Southern Baptists.
Each local church is also free to determine practices around gender, and that has meant some Southern Baptist churches have welcomed women as teachers and preachers; they have ordained women as deacons and pastors; they have welcomed LGBTQ people, blessed their marriages, and called them to service. Often local Baptist associations have responded by “disfellowshipping” churches that have engaged in practices that group opposed, but churches could remain in the Southern Baptist Convention, even if they had been disfellowshipped at the local association level.
In 1992, the SBC amended its constitution to exclude churches that implied acceptance of homosexuality. Eventually, the convention began to expel churches deemed too inclusive of LGBTQ people, including two congregations that were ousted earlier this year.
As evangelical leaders, particularly in the SBC, continue down the path of ever more narrow definitions of Christian faithfulness, especially around gender and race, they will likely find themselves more and more irrelevant, as declining numbers and growing distrust of the institutional church suggest. Even as young evangelicals remain theologically conservative, they are more open on issues of gender and sexuality than their elders and may bring changes to church practices if they stay.
As individual Christians are able to find evangelical congregations that nurture and support them, they are likely to stay involved in local churches, even as they ignore denominational leaders. People are pragmatic about the practice of their faith, and so they will find ways to make their relationships and faith communities work for them, regardless of denominational statements about gender.
People are pragmatic about the practice of their faith, and so they will find ways to make their relationships and faith communities work for them, regardless of denominational statements about gender.
Perhaps more evangelicals will have a crisis of faith and identity like Beth Moore. All people have benefitted from the gains made by feminism and its challenges to the constraints of gender. In my own research, I found that even Southern Baptist women who do not consider themselves to be feminists agree that women are equal to men and deserve to be free from discrimination and violence. Women who see and experience growing equality in every other area of society may feel less inclined to accept unequal treatment in the church.
Likewise, growing social acceptance of LGBTQ people may push more evangelicals to accept diverse sexualities and gender identities, particularly as they come to know LGBTQ people, including their children, neighbors, and fellow parishioners. They may be less likely to tolerate sermons that demonize LGBTQ people when those are people they know and love.
Women and LGBTQ evangelicals will also continue to hear and answer God’s call to ministry and may find themselves at odds with their congregations and denominations, as did many Southern Baptist women in the 1970s and 80s who went to seminary professing a call to pastoral ministry. Given congregants’ openness to women preaching, despite denominational pronouncement, evangelical churches may become more likely to call women as pastors. Otherwise, they may well see an exodus of gifted women and LGBTQ people who find a more welcoming home in other denominations, as happened among Southern Baptists following the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.
Similarly, BIPOC members of predominantly white congregations and denominations may continue to leave as actions and pronouncements by evangelical leaders betray underlying white supremacist histories and beliefs. Particularly for BIPOC women and LGBTQ people, the intersections of sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia may well make continued participation in evangelicalism untenable.
Particularly for BIPOC women and LGBTQ people, the intersections of sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia may well make continued participation in evangelicalism untenable.
Progressive evangelicalism does offer hope for greater welcome for a wide diversity of people. Deep political divisions in the United States, however, may make their embrace of evangelical theology and progressive social concerns have limited appeal.
Gender, race, and sexuality remain central issues for evangelicalism as it moves toward the future. Likely, conservative evangelicals’ narrow and exclusionary stances may escalate the decline in church participation and membership as people come to expect greater equality and equity in treatment. Of course, many evangelicals will continue to cling to patriarchal and white nationalist beliefs and practices, but their influence may wane in a demographically changing society.