Biblical inerrancy was supposedly the reason for the hostile takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, or conservative resurgence, as some prefer. I contend that biblical inerrancy was a mere tool for the preservation of patriarchal power and white male privilege.
I was unwittingly in the cross hairs of it all, having begun my Ph.D. at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1979, the year of the first fundamentalist victory following the Pressler-Patterson playbook. By the time I joined the faculty there in 1984, the controversy was at full throttle, and one’s position on the role of women in ministry became the litmus test for inerrancy. As a working pastor in the SBC at the time I was hired, I became exhibit A of all that male leaders feared: an ordained woman who claimed her rightful place as a pastoral leader.
In the summer of 1984, the convention had notoriously resolved that women should be barred from pastoral ministry because of Eve’s “priority in the Edenic fall.” Talk about selective inerrancy! Proponents picked one obscure text as proof of God’s enduring disposition about female culpability and therefore incapacity to lead a church. Of course, this is the only place in all of Scripture (other than Genesis) where Eve is mentioned, and the hermeneutical approach of the Southern Baptist conservatives conveniently ignored the majority of the Pauline corpus with its accent on Adam’s transgression.
Ossified theology has been the hallmark of the conservative resurgence, and Paige Patterson stands as chief exemplar of this tradition. Destructive in its application, this theology has fostered cruel outcomes. While I eschew the proposition of inerrancy, believing that it claims for Scripture something it does not claim for itself, Patterson’s selective inerrancy has been pursued out of self interest and fear of the power of women. Better to control them with jackleg complementarian theology, he concluded.
Patterson read those historically situated warnings or prohibitions about women’s leadership literally while ignoring all those texts that name the leadership and accomplishments of women. A masculinist rendering of texts has held him captive, and the crushing damage of his lightweight approach to theology has now come to light. Demanding that women keep silent about abuse and submit to male headship is all about patriarchy and nothing about biblical values.
A saint of Southern Seminary from an earlier epoch, W.O Carver, wrote: “Through the centuries Christian women have witnessed and served and waited on God to enlighten Christian men concerning their place and capacity in Christian institutions.” In more recent years, the means of God’s enlightening has come through the witness of contemporary women God has called to proclaim, produce scholarship, and call out the toxicity of male domination in the SBC that has allowed criminal behavior toward women.
I worked on a book project in the early ’90s with Paige; he was a part of a conservative team of authors, I was with the moderate team. The resultant volume was Beyond the Impasse, a destination that eluded us. What struck me immediately was his incapacity to listen to anything that challenged his fundamentalist world view. I remember one exchange between distinguished Old Testament scholar Walter Harrelson and Patterson about their approach to Scripture and what was at stake if you let go of inerrancy. “If there is no literal historical Adam and Eve,” Patterson purported, “then we have no doctrine of sin.” Harrelson responded with his characteristic kindness, yet incisive perspective: “O my dear brother, my questions are so much larger than that!” He wisely knew that a false assumption about Scripture would not allow a coherent faith.
Patterson’s obscurantist vision also permitted him to overlook numerous flags about Pressler’s untoward behavior with young men. As long as his own place of honor was preserved, he could look a blind eye at his close colleague’s alleged overtures, whose case is now in court. The goal of reclaiming the SBC from its liberal drift mattered more than the integrity of those guiding this pursuit, as recent disclosures confirm.
Today is a time of reckoning for Southern Baptists, as even Albert Mohler has observed. It seems like he is hastening to get toward the right side of history on sexual abuse — distancing himself from his colleague — even though he was a pawn in the larger conservative movement. His ambition blunted his theological perspicuity, and he changed his course for the sake of being acceptable to his sponsors. As a professor when he was a graduate student, I remember a different persona.
Selective inerrancy is as damaging as cherry-picking of texts that reinforce liberal presuppositions. Reading the whole of the human-divine text tells the story of God’s engagement with humanity in the various epochs of forging the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible relentlessly speaks of societal changes and the hope that the new community forged by Christ will override patriarchal structures.
Hiding behind inerrancy in order to preserve male privilege does irreparable damage to a lucid Christian witness. Lord knows, we need to tell our story better and live it more fully, so that both women and men might flourish.