By Bob Setzer
In a recent Baptists Today article, I read about a 19th-century Baptist congregation that censured a slave for dancing. The slave was a “member” of the church, though as human chattel, it was his job merely to sit in the slave balcony, keep his mouth shut, be subservient as they believed the Bible required (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22), and count on his heavenly reward to someday make everything right.
But one Saturday night, this slave did too much drinking and too much dancing and was sanctioned by “his” church. Of course, the real irony was that the local brethren were incensed over the slave’s alleged misconduct while remaining oblivious to their own far greater evil of owning slaves.
Looking back, we wonder how good, well-meaning, God-fearing people could think owning slaves was consistent with following Jesus. They did so by cherry-picking Bible passages that seemed to countenance slavery while ignoring other passages that cried out for the liberation of all people in the name of God (Luke 4:18; Gal. 3:28; Philemon, etc.). And they read their Bibles the way they did because their economic interests, social conventions, and racial prejudices led them to do it.
Recently, the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) voted to exclude the First Baptist Church of Decatur for having a woman — my colleague and sister in Christ, Julie Pennington-Russell — as their pastor. Julie’s a gifted preacher and pastor and I doubt the GBC action will hurt her or her church, but it will certainly hurt the witness of Baptist Christians in the eyes of an unchurched world. And maybe in 25 years, or 50, or 100, the GBC action will seem as reprehensible to all Baptists as it does to me today.
On the “women’s issue,” or any other, I try to read the Bible in the light of Jesus, the One who told Mary to stay put, studying with the men folk, when her big sister, Martha, ordered her back to the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42); the One who commissioned a woman, Mary Magdalene, as the first evangelist of his Easter triumph (John 20:17-18); the One who unleashed a Spirit-breathed movement where the promise “your sons and your daughters [emphasis mine] will prophesy!” was sounded with joy and passion (Acts 2:17).
Yes, there are passages in the Bible that can be read as demeaning to women, as there are passages that can be (and were!) read as condoning slavery. But I choose to read such passages as speaking to a particular place and time while the universal word of the Gospel — the really Good News, the Jesus-emblazoned truth that should guide our reading of the Bible and the living of our lives — is this: “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female; for you all are one in Christ Jesus!” (Gal. 3:28).
It took the church 19 centuries to understand that passage applied to slavery. Maybe in the 21st century, all of God’s far-flung children will finally see it applies to women, too.
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