It's a familiar scene: Women gathered around the table, talking about men, talking about children, talking about life. Some are barely out of high school, too young to know the joys, or hardships, of marriage. Others have been married a while, long enough to nod in sage unison as the woman at the head of the table talks about love, loss, commitment. There is no coffee here – the 20-somethings prefer bottled water – and no pastries. But there is a thirst for knowledge, a hunger rumbling beneath the scritch-scratch of pens and soft snores of the black Labrador collapsed in the corner.
If there's controversy brewing here in Fort Worth – and some say there is – it's not on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and not in this room. Nine women have gathered for the college's latest offering, a female-only elective course designed to teach women how to better manage their households and, it is hoped, stanch the rising tide of divorce in the Bible Belt.
The class, "Biblical Model for Home and Family," is one of nine courses, with others focusing on the value of a child, clothing construction, nutrition, and meal preparation, that make up a homemaking concentration Southwestern began offering female humanities majors this fall.
The move has attracted criticism, but Bible-based homemaking courses aren't that unusual. Masters College, a Christian liberal-arts school in California, offers courses teaching women how to cook, manage time, and "joyfully submit to their husbands." Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., offers a marriage and family class teaching wives how to meet their husbands' needs and keep marriage exciting.
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Behind many of these classes are ideals as deeply rooted in the Southern Baptist faith as the oak trees that dot Southwestern's lawn. The husband is the head of the household. The wife is his helper. Both are equal in God's eyes, but their roles are not interchangeable. The Baptist Faith and Message, a doctrinal statement adopted in 2000 by the Southern Baptist Convention, outlines those roles clearly: "A husband ... has the God-given responsibility to provide for, protect, and lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband...."
Dr. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern, led the committee that wrote the statement of faith. His wife, Dr. Dorothy Patterson, the sole female professor at the college, teaches "The Biblical Model for Home and Family" from their home on campus. But make no mistake – though she lists "homemaker" as her occupation on tax returns, she's a trained theologian as well, holding multiple degrees.
Seated in a plush chair in the couple's expansive library, a glass of sweet tea in her hand, she commands respect. Ultimately, this is the message she teaches her students, respect for their husbands and for scripture, which she says trumps everything. Drawing inspiration from Titus 2:5, which exhorts women to love their husbands, love their children, and be "discreet, chaste homemakers," Mrs. Patterson broaches no apology for the course. "These women are going to be pastors' wives," she explains. "They need to know this."
Though women can choose from 10 program tracks at Southwestern, they aren't allowed to pursue a divinity degree – Southern Baptists assign pastoral leadership only to men. Likewise, men aren't allowed in any of the classes within the homemaking concentration. They have their own class – "The Christian Home."
Patterson says while she believes women are called to stay at home, and that men prefer them to, it's a choice that each woman must make for herself by examining scripture, praying, and discussing it with her husband. She says many women feel conflicted by the demands of work and family life as well as societal pressures to pursue a career. "The home has been so denigrated that women who choose to stay there are treated like they've lost their minds," Patterson says. "But if you're working for the people you love, that has to be at least as important as working in a restaurant."
She and others believe more traditional marriages could also help reduce the nation's divorce rate, which US Census Bureau statistics show is highest in the Baptist-heavy Bible Belt.
Yet others caution that both partners need to share common spiritual and ideological beliefs. "Feminists are right to be concerned about how this agenda plays out among nominal Southern Baptists," says Dr. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. "But this model works quite well for traditional religious couples. Conservative, Protestant, churchgoing women are happier than other wives, generally, and their work around the home is more appreciated than that of women who are not married to churchgoing, Protestant men."
Others are far more critical. They believe raising women to eschew careers for tradition sets them back decades, if not centuries, and closes women to anything but "pink collar" opportunities, such as part-time secretarial work. "I find it appalling," says Dr. Gail Streete, a religion professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. "I don't think it's at all defensible given the fact we're no longer in the first or second century. They're basically picking and choosing to support what is essentially a subordinationist theology."
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The sun slants low, casting long shadows across the lawn at Pecan Manor, the Pattersons' home at Southwestern. Seated at the dining room table, Patterson speaks candidly with the students, using the book of Ruth and examples from her life to illustrate her point: leaving your comfort zone, submitting to God's will, and committing to faith and marriage leads to redemption.
Scripture is paramount in class, and most students bring Bibles, marking passages that explain God's plan for women and their role in the home, the church, and creation. Three other books are required, one detailing the principles of family, one focusing on the calling of wives and mothers, and the third stressing ways women and men are different, yet equal.
The students, who also take Greek, Latin, and theology, say they enjoy the class and are frustrated by the negative publicity it has spawned. "Feminists think we're taking women back to the 1950s, putting that yoke back on us, but we don't see it as a yoke," says Emily Felts. "Being a helper is a beautiful thing, and we want to learn how to do it the very best we can."
Still, she admits, well-meaning friends and family have told her she's limiting herself by studying homemaking. Other students say they learn a lot, not only from Patterson, but from their married peers, such as Heather Dalton. Her husband, Billy, in his third year at Southwestern, is considering mission work. She attends school and cares for their two children. She says he encouraged her to take the course, and it's strengthened their six-year marriage.
"I was brought up as an independent person, but when I finally stepped back from leading and became a helper, he stepped up and became a Godly leader," she says. "I studied the Bible and realized I'm distinct and fulfilled in that role, and a lot of tension was just gone."
The students say they understand how hard women fought to enter the workforce, but they should have the same right to stay at home if that's what's best for their families. "When both halves are doing what they're supposed to do, there's a balance," says Ashley Mills.