Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On President Carter's Decision to Leave the Southern Baptists

Back when I was in college, and was still under the care of the Presbytery of Louisville (now called "Mid-Kentucky Presbytery"), I had a generally supportive group of liaisons and other members of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry. Because I didn't actually live in Kentucky for most of that time (I was already a student at Montreat College when I started), we had to make special arrangements to make sure that I was getting all the care and training that I needed in the Presbyterian tradition — specifically, the PC(USA). I used to joke that their main fear was that I was a closet Southern Baptist.

For those that know me today, that statement needs unpacking. Although Montreat College is affiliated with the PC(USA), it is very much in the "south," and I always had the impression that there were more students there who were Baptists than those of us who were Presbyterian. Although we had some significant disagreements on several issues, I came to view my friends with respect, and I did, in fact, attend worship at Southern Baptist churches on quite a few occasions.

One of those areas of disagreement — and hopefully of a good amount of reasoned discussion — was the area of women in ministry. Although I confess that I wasn't then as solid in my affirmation of the right of women to all areas of church service as I am today, I grew up accepting that women were able to become elders and pastors. No doubt many of my college friends think that, if I wasn't at least mildly disobeying God for my acceptance of women in ministry then, I'm definitely in full-blown rebellion now. This recognition saddens me deeply, but I remain convinced that the Bible doesn't mean what they think it means when it comes to God's opinion on the matter.

One line of argument that I almost always find irritating is when one side accuses the other of being more influenced by modern secular culture than by the Bible. For one thing, I feel that this attitude assumes a naive attitude about Biblical interpretation, as if it were possible to understand the Bible completely separate from the cultures in which is was written and in which it is read today. For another, it seems to assume that, if we were really serious about seeking God's will, we would all come to the same conclusions about what the Bible means for our lives, and for the lives of our churches.

Through a Facebook friend, I learned a couple of days ago about former President Jimmy Carter's recent decision to cut ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. Carter made the decision to leave the denomination he has been a member of for "over six decades" primarily because of their continued stance on the subservience of women. It's not like this stance is anything new, and Carter's position against this teaching has been known for quite some time. Indeed, Carter has increasingly distanced himself from the denomination for years now, although retaining a few ties. I take it that he has simply come to a place where, having tried to remain a voice of opposition from within the Southern Baptists for so long, he has come to a point where he feels that he can do more by leaving and making it clear why.

In his statement, Carter does discuss the fact that the Bible can be used to defend equality for women just as readily as it has been used by some to argue against it, but it is clear enough that the bulk of his argument comes from instances of discrimination throughout history around the world. I can already hear my conservative friends argue that Carter is allowing "the world" to influence his understanding of the Bible. To that, I can only say, "Yes. He is. And good for him!"

As important as biblical primacy is, this is simply one of those areas where we have to accept that neither side is ever going to win any arguments on the basis of the biblical witness alone. David Scholer always used to open his class on women and the Bible by noting that "starting points" are very important. Accepting the exegetical principle that "clear texts illuminate unclear texts," some people start by suggesting that some texts are "clear" that other people suggest need context to be properly understood. We can go back and forth on that, and never get anywhere, no matter how honest our intentions to follow God.

So, when President Carter appeals to the ways in which religious arguments have been used throughout history to subjugate women, in an attempt to demonstrate how evil such a use is, I say "Thank you!" The Bible has at least as much to say, if not many times more, about God's desire to help those who are downtrodden. When we look at the ways in which people have been abused, specifically in the name of God, I have no doubt that God weeps bitterly. I want to say "Thank you" to Jimmy Carter. I know that this decision has been a painful one for you, Mr. President. I hope that people's eyes and ears are opened by it.

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