Southern Baptist sisters
Jimmy Carter resigned his membership over the status of women in his church, but local members say there’s no problem
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter recently resigned his membership in the Southern Baptist Convention after more than 60 years. He described the decision as “painful and difficult,” but also “unavoidable” after convention leaders declared that women should not be allowed to serve as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military, but should instead be “subservient to their husbands.”
Carter’s statement noted that patriarchy is a common problem among many organized religions and contributes to the discrimination of women in all parts of society, including limited access to education and a persistent gender gap in pay.
However, not all local Baptists agree with Carter’s characterization of their Church. Pastor Wil Nuckolls of the Fairvale Baptist Church in Fair Oaks does not see a disparity in his own congregation.
“Presidents, as we’re aware, are not God, they’re just men,” he said. “I think that [Carter] perceives that our view as a Southern Baptist Convention is being promoted by just a few influential conservatives.”
The Southern Baptist Convention consists of a loosely connected network of churches that are autonomous. A call to the Sacramento Association of Southern Baptist Churches requesting an interview with a church leader directed SN&R to any of the 82 Baptist churches in the Sacramento area. The Baptists are united by an annual convention, where resolutions and guidelines are discussed and enacted, and through a strong network of missionary work. Attendance at the convention and enforcement of the resolutions are not mandatory.
“I see a broad general consensus to agree with our Baptist faith and message,” he said. “But with all of our structure, with our missions, our seminaries and our publishing house—with all of these entities, I don’t see any one particular person or any one group or committee that’s dictating as to how the convention ought to go.”
The lack of hierarchy within the Baptist Church offers less likelihood of women, or any other member, being excluded from church activities. Nancy Freeman works at FBC as the “associate pastor” (an informal title) and is free to run singing, prayer, Bible study and other parts of the service. Nuckolls’ wife also plays a key role offstage in organizing the church choir. The only thing that women cannot do within the church is give the sermon, which remains one of the pastor’s main duties. According to Freeman, it is “traditional in Southern Baptists that a man is the shepherd of the Church and the one who will give the message of God’s word.”
“I feel like my thoughts and my work is respected in the church. I don’t feel put down in any way,” Freeman said. “I think that, in our church, women are very much respected. They are the ones who kind of carry the ball for any mission projects that we have. I think [men and women] work together well.”
As for why women are not permitted to be pastors, one of the few leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention, Nuckolls explains that it is about creating positive role models and protecting women within the church.
“We feel that there needs to be that particular role model for men, and also it keeps a woman from being a target,” he said. “Women are vulnerable to men, and yet we feel very strongly [for] the cause of women in our Church, [who] take up a large block within the Church.” Further, he pointed out, women “definitely need associate pastors or ministers who go and minister to that gender.”