Gender in the American Church: Why the Racial Past Matters

I have to talk about slavery.

Of course, being from the USA, I automatically think of the slavery specific to my own country, when white landowners bought and sold black human beings like farm animals. In my own city there are horrifying reminders of our shameful racist history.

Sign in front of 209 First Street, Louisville, KY USA

Sign in front of 209 First Street, Louisville, KY USA – one of many such signs.

To many black Americans, even the mention of slavery triggers a visceral emotional reaction which many white Americans, not to mention those from other parts of the world,  fail to understand.

Some folks would rather not talk about it, and I understand that. But it’s been said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and that’s surely true in some form or fashion.

And the fact is that we must talk about it. Because the parallels between the fight over human slavery in the church in the US, and the fight over women’s equality are strikingly obvious.

That’s why I was astounded by this 10 minute video on the Gospel Coalition blog of Justin Taylor.

Two Southern Baptist leaders discussed the issue of racial injustice in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and why it matters today. They didn’t have to elaborate- it is well known and documented that the primary reason for the formation of the Southern Baptist denomination was their strong support for owning black slaves, and their contention that such slave-holding was fully vindicated and supported by God and the Bible.

That seems ludicrous today, of course. The two men, Dr. Russell Moore,  President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Matt Hall, VP for Academic Services at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville, Kentucky,  seemed humble and apologetic as they discussed the awful, racist past of the Southern Baptist denomination and what relevance that has for them today.

“Frankly, I think the number one reason is missiological,” said Hall. “If we are going to be serious about the Great Commission, in the United States and beyond, that we need to carefully and honestly think through where we’ve come from, and the things that have provided some impediments and some obstacles in our witness and our testimony in the culture.

Of course, slave-holding was that impediment to the gospel preached by Southern Baptists in the nineteenth century. And I believe the oppression of women is that today, and that the detrimental effects of that oppression to the witness and testimony of the Southern Baptists and other gender hierarchist Christian groups will increasingly become a stone around their necks that they cannot bear.

Some folks, perhaps even many good Southern Baptist ladies, may object to my use of the word “oppression” to describe the gender based hierachy of the SBC. I’m sure a good many of these ladies don’t feel at all oppressed.

But then again, as Dr. Moore himself lamented, many of them are living in marriages that are functionally egalitarian. These couples may pay “lip service” to the gender hierarchy preached from the pulpit on Sunday, but  like many couples, they’ve found that a dictatorship doesn’t feel Christlike and doesn’t work well in their marriage. Following Philippians 2:3 and Ephesians 5:21, they consider each other more important than themselves, and they choose to submit to one another. That won’t feel like oppression to most women, even if the man carries a trump card that is seldom, if ever, played.

But a benevolent dictator remains a dictator, and for many Southern Baptist women, oppression is exactly what it feels like… and what it is… in their marriage, and in their church.

To say that one people group has less power than another people group based solely that person’s identity is, by definition, oppression. It was true for race, and it is true for gender.

And I was astonished that these men could discuss the one and not think of the other.

White Baptists in the south were so certain that their pro-slavery/ pro-segregation interpretation of the Bible was correct, they split their denomination, separated themselves from fellow Baptists, and formed a new denomination that favored racial hierarchy, segregation, and slave holding: the Southern Baptist Convention.

“The things that haunt me most is that how many people just like me could have been so wrong for so long,” said Hall. “In the Southern Baptist Convention we cannot afford, missiologically, to not be honest about these things….and we have a generation of pastors…who.. wonderfully and encouragingly…have a vision for what the Gospel calls from us in terms of the inclusive nature of the Kingdom, in terms of racial and ethic diversity.”

But what about gender diversity, Matt? When your churches are led exclusively by male pastors, teachers, and elders, isn’t a fundamental aspect of diversity missing?

And of course, Southern Baptists believe the Bible teaches it should be that way, just as they formerly believed the Bible taught slavery was normal and good, a belief they now decry, shaking their heads and wondering how people just like them could be so wrong for so long.

Really?

You are oppressing women in your churches. You are denying pastorates to female seminary students, denying leadership roles to qualified women, holding back able leaders who want to advance the Kingdom of God.

And that is evil. Not as evil as the slavery of a human being, but evil nonetheless, and detrimental to God’s Kingdom.  And these men don’t see it.

I’m sure they mean well, and these things are done with the very best of intentions.
Just like Jim Crow.

“One of the things I try to teach people,” says Dr. Russell Moore, “is that no one sees himself or herself as a villain. In the narrative of someone’s own life one is always the hero, the protagonist. So there are very few people that actually believe themselves to be plotting to do evil. They think they are doing something good, which of course is consistent with what Scriptures tell us, ‘there is a way that seems right to a man, the end thereof is death,’ Jesus says they will put you out of the synagogues and think they are doing service to God….. so when you think about people in the past who held to some really obnoxious views of white supremacy, who used levers of power of government and of the community and of the church to oppress people on the basis of skin color and ethnicity… what did those people think they were doing? How did they see themselvs as actually doing right?”

Matt Hall agrees.

“The irony and the tragedy is, I think, that Southern Baptists, out of often good intentions, thought they knew the way things really were around them. But they were blind and oblivious, often, to the world that black men and women inhabited in the Jim Crow south. And often they would appeal to the Bible….”

Yes. That. The irony and tragedy of the blindness required to use the Bible to oppress other human beings, who God created to bear His image.

But an even greater irony and tragedy is that these men could have this discussion and miss the heartache of the women who have seminary degrees but who can’t find a church that will hire them, who are the most qualified people in their churches to sit on the church board, but who aren’t considered because of their gender, or the women who are slaves in their own homes.

These things go on in their churches today because of their gender hierarchal doctrine, and these men are blind and oblivious to them.

Hall continues in the video:

“It’s a sobering warning to those of us who often see through our own blinders, and we don’t often see the world around us as other people, even often our brothers and sisters in Christ experience it. And I think that’s one of the great calls of the Kingdom of Christ: to see the world as others experience it.”

“Over and over again foreign mission board workers would appeal to Southern Baptists saying, ‘Please, please, stop this. You’re impairing the work of the gospel.‘ And that is one of the most heartbreaking things about this whole story.”

What’s even more heartbreaking is that these spiritual descendants of those racist Baptists of the south,  contrite and humble as they are over the blindness of their ancestors, fail to see the parallels between the racial oppression of the SBC of old and the gender oppression of the SBC today, often citing the same passages as proof-texts.

Just as their forebears separated from their fellow Baptists over the slave issue, Dr. Moore has separated from other Bible-believing Christians over gender hierarchy.

And just as the racist past of the SBC hampered their evangelistic efforts, the gender hierarchy they teach in the present impedes their witness and testimony today. To some degree all Christians are tarred and our evangelistic work also slowed by this false doctrine.

I do pray fervently, that Dr. Moore’s words at the end of the video come to pass.

“I hope that in the year 2065 a historian looking back at Southern Baptist life will write a very different chapter about the next few years to come.”

Amen, Dr. Moore. Amen.

 

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