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COLUMN ONE

They love to do their homework

At this Southern Baptist seminary, women who serve God also serve their husbands. Baking, sewing and laundry are part of the curriculum.

October 11, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

FORT WORTH, TEXAS — Equal but different.

You hear that a lot on the lush green campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

God values men and women equally, any student here will tell you. It's just that he's given them different responsibilities in life: Men make decisions. Women make dinner.

This fall, the internationally known seminary -- a century-old training ground for Southern Baptists -- began reinforcing those traditional gender roles with college classes in homemaking. The academic program, open only to women, includes lectures on laundering stubborn stains and a lab in baking chocolate-chip cookies.

Philosophical courses such as "Biblical Model for the Home and Family" teach that God expects wives to graciously submit to their husbands' leadership. A model house, to be completed by next fall, will allow women to get credit toward bachelor's degrees by learning how to set tables, sew buttons and sustain lively dinnertime conversation.

It all sounds wonderful to sophomore Emily Felts, 19, who signed up as soon as she arrived on campus this fall.

Several relatives have told Felts that she's selling herself short. They want her to become a lawyer, and she agrees she'd make a good one. But that's not what she wants to do with her life.

More to the point, it's not what she believes God wants of her.

"My created purpose as a woman is to be a helper," Felts said firmly. "This is a college education that I can use."

Seminary President Paige Patterson and his wife, Dorothy -- who goes by Mrs. Paige Patterson -- view the homemaking curriculum as a way to spread the Christian faith.

In their vision, graduates will create such gracious homes that strangers will take note. Their marriages will be so harmonious, other women will ask how they manage. By modeling traditional values, they will inspire friends and neighbors to read the Bible and then, perhaps, to follow the Lord.

"I'm personally going to teach the course in table manners," Paige Patterson said, moments after sneaking scraps of poached chicken off his lunch plate for his black Labrador, Noche.

His wife shook her head affectionately.

"Oh my," she said, in her gentle Southern lilt. "We'll have to pray for some help with that."

So far, just eight of the 300 students in the undergraduate program are enrolled in the homemaking concentration, which is similar to a major and counts toward a bachelor of arts in humanities. Many more women, including graduate students and wives of seminarians, study traditional gender roles in courses such as "Wife of the Equipping Minister." On a recent evening, more than 50 women -- some in sloppy sweats, others in prim sweater sets -- pulled out notebooks as class opened with student presentations.

One woman talked about her hobby of cross-stitching. Another showed how she uses the Internet to track grocery coupons.

Laney Homan, 30, drew excited murmurs with her talk on meal planning, complete with a recipe for a surefire "freezer pleaser" -- a triple batch of meatloaf (secret ingredient: oatmeal). Thanks to a computerized system for generating grocery lists, Homan said, "I've actually trained my husband to shop for me."

Laughing, she threw her palms toward the heavens and added: "Praise Jesus!"

For the rest of the nearly three-hour class, guest lecturer Ashley Smith, the wife of a theology professor, laid out the biblical basis for what she calls "the glorious inequalities of life."

Smith, 30, confided that she sometimes resents her husband for advancing his career "while I'm changing diapers and getting poop all over me."

But then she quoted from Ephesians: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord." And from Genesis: God created Eve to be a "suitable helper" for Adam.

"If we love the Scripture, we must do it," said Smith, who gave up her dreams of a career when her husband said it was time to have children. "We must fit into this role. It's so much more important than our own personal happiness."

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More moderate Southern Baptists disagree, and counter with their own biblical references. When Jesus dined at the home of two sisters, he praised Mary, who spent the evening studying his teachings, above Martha, who did chores. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes that "there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ."

"We're confusing 1950s culture with the teaching of Scripture," said Wade Burleson, a Southern Baptist pastor in Oklahoma. "I nowhere see where the Lord Jesus places limitations on the role of women in our culture."

One of the largest Southern Baptist seminaries, Southwestern draws students from around the world to its 200-acre campus, fringed by trees that set it apart from a rundown neighborhood in south Fort Worth. Nearly three-quarters of the 3,000 students at this campus are men, and many are older, having felt a call to ministry in midlife. The seminary caters to their families, with shaded sidewalks for strollers and a duck pond much beloved by toddlers.

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