It’s gone on for millennia. Heck, it’s part of the first story. Adam blamed Eve for his indulgence in a snack that was high in fiber but also the knowledge of good and evil. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Timothy 2, said Eve was more culpable because she was first to give into temptation.
How was Adam less guilty for being the second one to yield to temptation? He gave in the first time he was tempted, just like Eve. Some will say, “Well, God inspired Paul’s words.” But God inspired those words the same way the Hebrew Scripture on divorce was inspired. You know, the part Jesus said was not from God but based on “the hardness of your hearts.”
Over the years, this male-pattern bald-faced blaming has been thoroughly ingrained in us. We are still haunted and burdened by the baggage of St. Augustine, who turned his own sexual guilt into an entire theological system rooted in shame about sex in general and his own particular lust for the female form.
Of late, all this struggle with sexuality and its overlap with the role of women has risen anew. The Southern Baptist Convention is dealing with simultaneous controversies over sexual abuse by pastors and over churches having women as pastors.
“We are still haunted and burdened by the baggage of St. Augustine.”
I have been reminded of my relationship with a now-deceased Southern Baptist pastor.
I served eight years as associate pastor at a church in Knoxville, Tenn., where Baptist churches outnumbered Starbucks and Dollar Generals by about 10 to one. Just down the street from my church was another Baptist church led by the late Jimmy Stroud, an ultra-conservative firebrand with whom I had a wonderfully bizarre friendship. We were members at the same swimming pool where I took my children and he took his grandchildren. We talked for hours over the years. Our churches, along with a Methodist church on our street, alternated hosting an annual meal on the Sunday evening before Thanksgiving.
Moderates reviled Jimmy for his apparent closed-minded conservatism. Conservatives exploited him for his willingness to stir the pot even if they found him to be a gadfly. Both moderates and conservatives could be caught rolling their eyes behind his back for the countless times he called some nitpicking point of order at regional, state and national business meetings. He could drive even an orthodox rabbi to drink bacon grease when it came to following the letter of the law.
As I got to know him, my irritation transformed to seeing him as, like me and most folks, yearning for connection but often fumbling around with how to do it. He was a big-hearted, kind soul who would argue the paint off a wall but, unlike me, would genuinely listen to anyone in the room. Against the stream of contemporary Baptist conservatives, Jimmy stayed rooted in Baptists’ heritage of separation of church and state.
In 2001, a few weeks after 9-11, I wound up on the cover of the local paper when I took a very unpopular stance opposing posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings unless all my neighbors were allowed to post their creeds. It got nasty. The phone calls to my house were overtly threatening to my career.
“It got nasty. The phone calls to my house were overtly threatening to my career.”
That year, the Thanksgiving dinner was at Jimmy’s church. When I walked in, I saw one of Jimmy’s male parishioners glaring at me across the room. I read his lips when he said, “There he is,” and the two men beside him joined in glaring at me in disdain.
A few days later, I ran into Jimmy at the local McDonald’s where he would sit for hours sipping coffee and prepping sermons. I told him about the hostility I had felt aimed at me from some of his members. He nodded and with utter sincerity, compassion and firmness said: “I overheard those guys mouthing about you, Brad. And I stepped up to them and said, ‘Listen to me. You leave Brad Bull alone. He is exactly right on this issue.’”
The next summer, sitting by the pool, he recited to me the entire history of Baptists giving the United States the gift of the doctrine of separation of church and state — a notion many contemporary conservatives see as liberal in the pejorative sense they use that word. Thus, Jimmy was enigmatic, as was our personal and professional relationship.
Two years before, I had gone to his office to upbraid him for making remarks about my Baptist-college alma mater, Carson-Newman University, on an issue of which he had little to no connection.
I said: “Jimmy, the local media exploit you. They know all they have to do is call you, and you’ll say the kind of inflammatory comment that sells papers.” In the course of the conversation, he said, “I don’t understand why Carson-Newman doesn’t trust the Tennessee Baptist Convention.”
I said, “I can’t speak for the college, but I can tell you why I don’t trust the convention.”
“He looked stunned that I would admit such a thing.”
He looked stunned that I would admit such a thing.
I went on. “Do you remember the convention in Kingsport — when the TBC voted to defund the college — and a speaker held up a flier and said Carson-Newman didn’t need TBC’s money anyway because the college’s own flier said they had a $50 million endowment?”
Jimmy nodded. “And then President Maddox raced to a microphone, called a point of personal privilege and said, ‘That flier announces the launch of a $50 million capital improvement campaign.’ Jimmy, that speaker didn’t know the difference between an endowment and a capital improvement campaign.”
Jimmy smiled and consolingly, if not patronizingly, said, “Now Brad, you can’t expect every messenger to the annual meeting to understand the nuances of higher education administration.”
“You’re right. But do you remember who that messenger was?”
“No, I don’t.”
I named the messenger. Jimmy nodded in recollection.
“Jimmy, he served multiple terms as a trustee at Southern Seminary. I do expect a two- or three-term seminary trustee to understand the difference between an endowment and a capital improvement campaign.”
“Now, Brad, you know as well as I do that trustee appointments are not based on merit; they are political rewards.”
Jimmy grinned again as he said, “Now, Brad, you know as well as I do that trustee appointments are not based on merit; they are political rewards.”
I scooted to the edge of my chair and leaned toward the desk that separated us. Setting my gaze with a hard stare, I said, “And that is why I don’t trust the convention.”
Jimmy’s face flushed white as his lips slightly parted in shock. I smugly raised my eyebrows to say, “How’s it feel to see all that wet paint around you there in that corner?”
I followed through. “Jimmy, you’re a good man with a good heart. Like me, you sometimes let your passion get ahead of your good sense. Let’s watch each other’s back. I want you to promise me the next time a reporter calls you with questions about Carson-Newman, you will ask to get back to them, and then you call me, and we’ll find out information before you make your comment.”
He nodded, and we shook on it.
A few days later, Jimmy was quoted in the Knoxville paper, making broadly critical assumptions about the newly named president of Carson-Newman. I called Jimmy and scolded him for breaking his promise to talk to me first. He apologized, saying he had let himself get riled up about a situation he admitted he knew little about. We talked for two hours. The conversation ended like this:
“Brad, I don’t understand how moderate churches can justify having women as deacons.”
I said, “Well, Jimmy, in Romans, Paul refers to Phoebe as a deacon. My seminary New Testament professor said in all of Greek Literature, there is not a single occurrence where the name Phoebe refers to a man.”
Jimmy replied, “But Brad, 1 Timothy 3:2 says a deacon is to be the husband of one wife. How can a woman be the husband of one wife?”
“By your interpretation of the passage, are you saying bachelors cannot be deacons? I mean bachelors are not the husband of one wife.”
I retorted, “First of all, it doesn’t say a deacon is to be a husband of one wife. The King James says ‘a bishop is to be the husband of one wife.’ But I’ll grant you that deacon is an acceptable translation since you’re willing to accept other translations than the King James, at least of that word. Second, by your interpretation of the passage, are you saying bachelors cannot be deacons? I mean bachelors are not the husband of one wife.”
I paused a few beats before saying: “Yeah, I’ll let you think about that. The bigger issue is that your reading of 1 Timothy would mean you think it is OK for women to covet.”
He said, “What!? Of course, I don’t. What makes you say that?”
I said, “I know you’ve got your King James handy. Reach over there and turn to Exodus 20:17.”
Pages ruffled. He read, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor….”
I said, “Stop! Read that last part again.”
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.”
I said, “Jimmy? The King James Version of the Ten Commandments only prohibits men from coveting other men’s wives. It does not prohibit women from coveting other women’s husbands.
Jimmy quickly retorted, “BRAD! That is ridiculous.”
“Scripture was written with patriarchal language where male terms applied to all people.”
I said, “Jimmy. I could not agree more. It. Is. Ridiculous. Scripture was written with patriarchal language where male terms applied to all people. If you are going to read Exodus 20:17 and all the other passages as applying to both men and women, then fairness demands you do the same with 1 Timothy 3:2. The passage is stating deacons need to be people of fidelity.”
There was a long pause. I told Jimmy I loved him and appreciated his honest struggles and his challenges to my own thinking. He assured me of his love, and we said goodbye.
While the issue of a woman serving a pastor didn’t come up, if it had, I imagine Jimmy would have cited 1 Timothy 2:12 where Paul — rooted in a culture that affirmed slavery and the subjugation of women — said, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” Paul very clearly said this was his personal policy.
Jesus said no such thing. A few minutes reading a commentary on this passage reveals it is far too complicated to be the basis of policy that flies against the Spirit of Christ and the overarching message of Scripture which says in Christ there is neither male nor female.
A few years after my conversation with Jimmy, I found myself and my family at an enormous church across town for a memorial held in conjunction with a morning worship service. I arrived late after speaking at an earlier service at my church. I entered facing the congregation just as all the “fathers and sons” were invited to come forward for prayer — a practice I knew to be a weekly convention of the congregation.
Going against the heavy stream of foot traffic, I got to the third pew, and someone told me to go forward. I smiled and shook my head no. I felt nearly 2,000 sets of eyes on me as I made my way down the pew and took a seat next to my 7-year-old daughter. The pastor looked at me with seeming consternation and said, “We do not invite only the fathers and sons because we discriminate against females. Females are sometimes wearing clothes that make kneeling difficult. Plus, in our culture, men need to practice humbling themselves.”
I thought, “Promoting humility in males is great. The rest of that is malarky.”
After the service, I asked my 7-year-old daughter how she felt when only fathers and their sons were invited forward for prayer. She said, “Left out.”
“I will never kneel at any altar where she, your mother, you or any other woman is not welcome.”
I said, “Delyn, your great grandmother Brown had a spiral notebook filled with names of people she prayed for when she got up every morning at 5 a.m. My name was added to the notebook on Dec. 2, 1965, and she prayed for me every day until she died at age 90. I make you this sacred promise. I will never kneel at any altar where she, your mother, you or any other woman is not welcome.”
Now, I’ve done some boneheaded and utterly sinful things in my life. I have believed and currently believe things that will, in the fulness of time, turn out to be factually incorrect or morally flawed.
The day Jerry Falwell Sr. died, I said I liked to imagine him showing up at heaven and having the gay actor Jim Nabors, who played Gomer Pyle, welcome him with a hearty rendition of “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” We are all destined to be surprised.
Part of the Christian hope is that we, like C.S. Lewis, will be “surprised by joy.” We can change for the better. It is past time for the church and its ministers to let go of the guilt-ridden yoke of Augustine — and even the Apostle Paul — and paradoxically move back to move ahead in the easy-burden yoke of Jesus, who selected as the first messenger of his resurrection: a woman.
I celebrate that I have been deeply blessed by female pastors like Amy Figg Ley, who was raised Southern Baptist but became Lutheran to live out her calling. At our graduation, I told her I would be honored to serve a church where she was senior pastor. When my son was critically ill with pneumonia, she was the first comforting presence at the hospital.
“I celebrate that I have been deeply blessed by female pastors.”
At a youth retreat in the 1990s, I heard campus minister Mari Wiles preach. She said something like, “You know that feeling when you find the perfect prom dress?” I quietly snickered, “No, I don’t.” Then I realized how often women’s experiences are totally omitted from male-dominated ministry.
When my son became a teen, I loved seeing how much he loved going to church because how much he appreciated the care of Krislyn Durham, another former Southern Baptist who went to another denomination. I could go on.
Fortunately, new manifestations of Baptists are creating opportunity for women to serve as pastors: Mary Alice Birdwhistell at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.; Leslie Limbaugh at Selma American Baptist, in Festus, Mo.; Carol McEntyre at First Baptist, Columbia, Mo.; and Melissa Roysdon at Providence Baptist in Cookeville, Tenn. I could go on.
Yet, the total is so small compared to the possibilities.
It’s sad women continue to suffer from oppression arising from interpretations of Scripture rooted in human shame rather than springing from the abundance of an inclusive Creator and Redeemer.
That tragedy is magnified by the fact that the folks driving the oppression don’t even know how much joy they are missing — and preventing. Thus, we must follow the instruction of Jesus to let the dead bury their dead, while we walk against the funereal foot traffic so we and others can affirm, support, and — yes, even be led by — the daughters of God.
Brad Bull has served as a chaplain, pastor and university professor. He now works as an online private practice family therapist in Tennessee and Virginia. His counseling and speaking services operate via DrBradBull.com.
A response to ‘The List’ | Opinion by Alice Cates Clarke
I’m one of the female pastors on the SBC’s hit list | Opinion by Carlisle Davidhizar
What Mike Law got right | Opinion by Jennifer Hawk
How dare they publish that list | Opinion by Arthur Wright Jr.