In a move that demonstrates the conservative hold on the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday amended its official statement of belief to declare that wives must "submit graciously" to the leadership of their husbands.
"A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ," said the resolution.
The vote by the convention, which is meeting in Salt Lake City, marked the first time in 35 years that the Southern Baptists have amended their statement of "Baptist Faith and Message," which sets out principles that Southern Baptists are expected to follow.
Husbands and wives are of "equal worth before God" and both bear "God's image," but in differing ways, the statement said. A wife "has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing her household and nurturing the next generation." A husband "is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family."
The messengers, as the Baptists call their convention delegates, rejected an amendment that would have said that husbands and wives should submit to each other.
The convention's position is hardly unique within the world of evangelical Christianity. Promise Keepers, the fast-growing Christian men's group, for example, espouses a similar view.
But because of their numbers, particularly in the South where they are by far the dominant religious grouping, statements by the Southern Baptists always attract additional attention. The new statement underscores how deep is the continuing debate over the changing roles of women in America.
"It represents a further tightening of the conservative understanding of the marriage roles of husband and wife," said John Orr, professor of religion at the University of Southern California. "While it affirms [gender] equality under God, it creates marriage roles that will bring the church into tension with a large segment of the American Christian church."
The statement drew immediate praise and criticism from outside the 15.8-million-member denomination.
"It sounds very Biblical," said Paul L. Hetrick, a vice president of Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian organization led by James Dobson, who is scheduled to address the convention on Thursday.
Hetrick cautioned "secular society" against reacting to the new statement without reading it in its entirety.
Realities of Modern Society
Submission is "not something [a wife] is doing because she's commanded to do it, but it's something she will want to do as the response to the right kind of loving leadership from him, just as the church has responded to Christ," he said.
Others, however, questioned whether the doctrine of male leadership of families is consistent with the realities of modern society.
"Given today's economy I don't know how realistic that is," said Cecil M. Robeck Jr., professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
Robeck said the Southern Baptist statement reflected societal stress over gender roles in the modern world.
"There is a tension over how to interpret [gender roles] in such a way that it doesn't sound demeaning to women within that marriage relationship," Robeck said.
The statement does cast husbands in the role of loving servants, he noted, which is not necessarily the role they have always played. "At the same time it seems to limit women in terms of role to 'raising the next generation,' " said.
Liberal church leaders offered sterner condemnations.
The Rev. Edwin Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and a leader in efforts to persuade that denomination to bless same-gender unions, declared the Baptist position "unjust."
"It ignores a central teaching of Christianity that in Christ there is neither male nor female and callously ignores that husbands and wives have very mysterious and complex roles," he said.
In addition to the declaration about husbands and wives, the convention also approved a statement clearly placing Southern Baptists in opposition to same-sex unions.
"Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime," the statement declared.
"It is God's unique gift to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to Biblical standards and the means for procreation of the human race.
"The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people."
The Baptist convention has taken a steady series of conservative positions on issues of family and society since the early 1980s, when conservative leaders within the denomination began taking control of Baptist seminaries and church organizations away from theological moderates.
Much of the debate between the two camps revolved around the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, which holds that the Scriptures are free of error and are literally the inspired word of God.
Tuesday, the convention elected one of the chief leaders of the inerrancy movement, Paige Patterson, as the convention's new president. Patterson, 55, is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.