While chronicling his mother’s recent struggle to become a Southern Baptist pastor, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Steven Lipscomb uncovers a whirlwind of change within the Baptist church and a rising tide of conservative opposition to women as senior church leaders. Battle for the Minds, an award-winning, thoughtful and probing film, presents commentary from leaders on both sides of the divide and illustrates the ways in which the fight over the ordination of women is part of a broader, highly charged ideological debate over the future of the Baptist church itself. Battle for the Minds will air nationally Tuesday, June 10 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. Celebrating its 10th anniversary season, POV moves into its next decade of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
“In April 1995,” recalls Lipscomb, “I was on the phone with my mother, Dixie Petry, who is the third generation in my family to attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY and become a Southern Baptist pastor. She told me of places that she was not allowed to speak and meetings she was not allowed to attend, because she is a
Lipscomb was stunned. “I couldn’t believe something like this was happening in this century,” he recalls. “It felt like a moral imperative to tell people what was going on.” Two weeks later, Lipscomb who was at the seminary, reported what he calls “truly remarkable events.” For example, Molly Marshall, a charismatic and devout tenured professor of theology, had been forced to resign, staff were being prohibited from challenging the administration, and new faculty members were being asked to sign documents declaring their stance against abortion, homosexuality and women pastors.
Lipscomb set out to explore the story. Eagerly and adamantly, the Baptists he encountered while filming expressed their convictions. “[God] said that women should keep their tongues quiet in the church, and I believe that in all ways,” a young man says. “Jesus chose the apostles and they were all men. I believe that women need to sit in the pews,” a woman adds firmly. “The Bible is crystal clear that in the church of God, women are not to have the position of ruling and teaching over men,” says Dr. Paige Patterson, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “I don’t know all the reasons why God did that…but he said it and I can’t be committed to the authority of God’s revealed word and take a position other than what his word takes.”
Dr. Henlee Barnette, senior professor of ethics at Southern, sees the issue in a different light. “Why do we raise such a ruckus over a woman being a senior pastor?” he asks.
“Why don’t we raise a ruckus over slavery? The Bible [also] teaches slavery.” He points out that the Bible also mandates capital punishment for adulterers: “That’d take care of the population,” he concludes. “You see, what they do, they pick and choose different passages to support their own prejudices.”
A distinguished array of theologians also trace the rise of the Baptist movement in America, beginning with Roger Williams, who established Rhode Island as the ” first experiment in true religious liberty in America,” according to Paul Simmons, former professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary. “Following Williams, there was John Leland and Issac Baccus who along with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson insured what is now the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. That was a Baptist contribution — the notion of religious liberty and the separation of church and state in the United States.”
Shifts and changes within the power structure of the Southern Baptist Convention have caused a widening schism between conservatives and moderates–a battle waged at the seminary level and at the annual Southern Baptist Convention. Battle for the Minds captures this pivotal chapter in Southern Baptist history with respect and insight, chronicling turbulent exchanges at the Southern Baptist Convention, tense meetings of seminary trustees and a passionate, song-filled candlelight campus vigil.
First time producer/director Lipscomb had unusual access and deeply personal motivations for capturing the drama. “Having grown up in a family steeped in this tradition, the film comes directly from my heritage and in a way, from my heart. I felt like it was a story that needed to be told, because people were not able to tell it themselves. There were people who had been silenced,” says Lipscomb.
The debate rages on. For the single largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with nearly 40,000 churches and almost 15 million members, the future remains uncertain. There are no easy answers, but what seems clear is that Southern Baptists, fortified by their strong faith in God and the power of the Scriptures, will continue to fight for what they believe in. “Despite the fact that we see difficult things taking place in this film, the grand ray of hope is that there are women, despite all the things that have happened to them, who are out there doing extraordinary things,” says the filmmaker. “Nothing will keep these women down and they will continue to touch lives as only they can.”