Critical Theory and Gender in the SBC

As the old saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The ascendancy of critical theory among evangelicals in recent years has led to a thinning of our tool collection and a consequent restriction of our conceivable responses to diverse situations. When individuals are reduced to group identities, and those groups are (as the script calls for) assigned their white hats and black hats, it’s not difficult to foresee how the plot is going to unfold.

Critical theory’s hammer is calling out oppression of minority groups wherever it lurks (namely, everywhere, all the time, in every conceivable and inconceivable way). Oppression need not be proven in any individual case because it is the pervasive presupposition that defines the inherent structure of human society. Human beings are, according to critical theory, anonymous units of larger identity groups. Those identity groups are defined by power dynamics in relation to other identity groups, and thus all human relationships are viewed through the lens of a struggle for power, either in terms of solidarity (between the oppressed) or in terms of antagonism (between oppressor and oppressed).

Technically, women are not a minority group (they outnumber men), but they count as one because of their historically weaker position in society. Because women have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of ungodly men, evangelicals wielding the hammer of critical theory now eagerly search for a nail of oppression to whack in every situation involving a limitation on the power of women. Speaking about the recently controversial issue of women (at least occasionally) preaching in Southern Baptist churches, ERLC president Russell Moore remarked, “At the moment we’re in right now, to suggest that the problem is that women are speaking too much seems crazy to me.” The “moment” referred to is the news of widespread sexual abuse in the convention first reported by The Houston Chronicle. Jonathan Leeman commented on something like the aforementioned remark in his discussion with Mark Dever here (beginning at the 10:53 mark), which Dever referred to as “rhetorically unfortunate.”

Notice the conflation of two distinct issues in Moore’s statement: sexual abuse (primarily victimizing women and girls) and the question of women preaching (which Moore softened with the term “speaking”). The only implication one can draw from Moore’s statement is that anyone who favors restrictions on women preaching is contributing to the oppressive structure of a power dynamic by which men harm women.

The problem with such an argument is, quite simply, the Bible:

“Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” – 1 Timothy 2:11-12

“As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.” – 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35

“Older women likewise are to reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” – Titus 2:3-5

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” – 1 Corinthians 11:7-9

Examples could be multiplied, and certainly the meaning and application of each of the above passages has been debated extensively. But regardless of the specifics of how these verses apply to us today, what cannot be denied is that Paul (and other biblical writers) clearly recognized proper and improper dynamics of authority between men and women. And yet, the category of a proper, God-ordained structure that involves an inherent limitation on the kind of power that women can wield in the church and in the home in comparison to men is anathema to critical theory. It is one component of a larger pattern of oppression that must be called out in pursuit of justice.

If we follow this path of reasoning, we are throwing the Bible itself into the “oppressor” column and saying, essentially, that it is part of the problem. This is why conflating restrictions on women preaching with the issue of sexual abuse is a destructive method of argumentation, one that will ultimately undermine biblical authority itself.

The conservative resurgence was, above all, a battle for the Bible. I call on all Southern Baptists to be vigilant against subtle encroachments of critical theory into our discourse that would, over time, sow seeds of distrust in the Word of God written.

Published by Aaron O'Kelley

Aaron O'Kelley (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a pastor and theological educator who lives in Jackson, Tennessee, with his wife and their three children.

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