At the small Southern Baptist college I attended, it was common and natural for students upon graduation to make a bee-line to a Southern Baptist seminary. All were tuition free, so it made economical and professional sense to seek out a Masters degree. There were several seminaries from which to choose. Their key distinctions were location, size and theological views of the faculty.
I chose the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The school’s faculty had an outstanding reputation and registered — for the most part — on the liberal end of the theological meter.
Most people have never seen a liberal Southern Baptist. They are now an extinct species, but I can confirm from personal experience that they did exist. Of course, all things are relative and the label “liberal” is no exception.
I attended Southern in the b.f. era – before the fundamentalists. There had always been plenty of fundamentalist students at Southern, but during the 1980s, fundamentalist religious leaders launched a strategic plan to take over the assets of the Southern Baptist Convention, particularly the education centers – the seminaries. Their biggest criticism of the seminaries was that some professors did not adhere to, and certainly did not teach from, a “literal” interpretation of the Bible.
Southern Seminary had several schools, each of which offered several degrees. I decided to pursue a Masters of Divinity and signed up for the “theology” track, a track taken by students preparing to be church pastors and by others wanting to focus their studies on theology (as opposed to music, social work or church education). I fell into the second category. I had no desire to be a preacher. I hated public speaking. But I loved the study of theology, church history, Greek, Hebrew and public policy.
The fundamentalists had just turned their attention to Southern when I arrived in 1983. To fundamentalists, a literal interpretation of the Bible means that women cannot be pastors. Accordingly, I was not welcomed by all on the theology track. When I co-chaired the Women in Ministry group on campus, one student went so far as to write an editorial in the school paper about the group. In it, he proclaimed that I was going to hell. Somehow, I found his proclamation to be validating.