Before a member of a southern Baptist church was accused of the Spa massacre in Georgia, he told police that the Southern Baptist Convention had been revising its teachings on gender and sexuality because of its guilt for “sex addiction”.
Just two weeks ago, prominent Evangelical Bible teacher Beth Moore announced that she had left the Southern Baptists, largely because of the misogyny of denominational leaders reflected in her support for Donald Trump.
And then came the March 16 attack that killed eight people, including six Asian women. The suspect’s church has since expelled Robert Aaron Long, the 21-year-old charged with the murders, and condemned the acts as the result of a “sinful heart.”
Nobody suggests that denomination was responsible for what happened.
But as a scholar of gender and religion and someone who grew up a Southern Baptist, I understand that it is not uncommon to hold girls and women responsible for men’s sexual urges when women are expected to submit to men. This expectation of submission was a theme that recurred in interviews I conducted with 159 current and former Southern Baptist women for my book God Speaks Us: Southern Baptist Women About Church, Home, and Society.
Shared beliefs, not creeds
Southern Baptists, the largest branch of evangelicalism in the United States, are not rampant. This means that the Baptists of the South do not have a required dogma, although the denominational statement of the denomination “The Faith and Message of the Baptists” contains common beliefs. So not every Southern Baptist believes the same.
But since the 1990s, fundamentalists who hold strong beliefs have controlled the denomination. Their approach to interpretation of the Bible and their belief in gender prevail in the Southern Baptist churches.
Central is belief in biblical literalism – a method of interpreting the Bible based on the belief that the text is literally true. Biblical literaryists, for example, believe that God created the universe in six days.
Literalism goes hand in hand with error – the belief that the Bible is error free not only in teaching but also in history and science.
This method of interpreting the Bible plays an important role in how Southern Baptists arrive at many of their beliefs about gender.
The fall of Eve
Many Southern Baptists believe that the story of Adam and Eve literally happened as described in the Bible.
Because Eve was the first of men to fall from God’s grace by eating the forbidden fruit, she was subjected to man. And this submission fell on all women according to the teachings of the Southern Baptist.
This interpretation of Eve as “first in the fall of Eden” was quoted by the Southern Baptists in a 1984 resolution calling for women to be excluded from ordained service.
This fits with the South Baptist principle of complementarism, according to which God created men and women equal, but they play separate but complementary roles: men should lead the home, church and society, and women should primarily be submissive helpers responsible for caring for them of the home and raising children.
In this way, women are expected to submit to men at home and in church. Southern Baptist leaders refer to the Apostle Paul’s writings in the Bible (Ephesians 5:22) as evidence of God’s expectation of submission by women: “Wives, submit to your own husbands like the Lord.”
Sexuality and Gender Identity
According to the Southern Baptists, people were created to be heterosexual, and sexual activity is only acceptable between a man and a woman in a lifelong heterosexual marriage. While 54 percent of Christians support the acceptance of homosexuality, only 30 percent of Baptists in the South believe that homosexuality should be accepted. In 1992 the Southern Baptist Convention changed its constitution to exclude churches that implied acceptance of homosexuality.
According to the denomination, only these two biological sexes exist, and the sex corresponds to the sex.
In 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution affirming that “God’s good design” “determines gender, not self-perception,”.
These views on sexual activity and gender roles are reflected in the purity culture that influences many Southern Baptists. The purity culture focuses on abstinence outside of traditional heterosexual marriage and on dangers to the sexuality of girls and women. In particular, the culture of purity teaches that girls and women are responsible for the sexuality of boys and men and that they can cause boys and men to sin by expressing their own sexuality.
Purity culture rarely speaks of sexual violence or consent, as it is believed that controlling sexual urges in men is the responsibility of women. So when women are completely asexual, men are not overcome by their sexual urges.
Taken together, these beliefs create a context in which men exercise authority and control. Women are expected to submit to men and limit the sexual needs and behaviors of men through their pure lifestyle. Women are seen as important but secondary, equal but actually submissive.
None of this can excuse or explain the shooting suspect’s actions in Georgia. But Southern Baptist beliefs about sex and gender provide context for the suspect’s apparent belief that his sexual urges were wrong and that the women he believed encouraged were in some way responsible for it.
Shaw is a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Oregon State University. This piece was published by The Conversation.