Can Anything Good Come from the SBC Scandal?
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Of the morning my grandparents were baptized in an old, wooden Baptist church on a back road in Louisiana, I seem to recall so much detail. The hairdryer Maw Maw packed in her oversize purse was tan with black lettering. The drive to the white-steepled meeting place was quieter than usual. The sound of the blinker was loud and intrusive as Paw Paw signaled to turn in.
The pew cushions must have been near-new because they were plump and comfy. Nevertheless, I was bored. I could tell something big was coming, but the waiting seemed like it might kill me.
Maw Maw passed me a mint to keep me from squirming and fidgeting. I couldn’t have been more than five or six. She popped a mint in her own mouth too.
She was nervous, I could tell. She’d explained to me before we left the house that morning that she and Paw Paw were going to be dunked in water and it meant that they were starting a new life with Jesus. I remember when the preacher came out in his robe and I saw Maw Maw descend into the baptismal, I grew stock-still. She looked so vulnerable and earnest; different in every way from the boisterous, life-of-the-party, chain-smoking Maw Maw I knew. The preacher was gentle with her; he smiled at her in a broad way that seemed to mean love.
After they were finished being baptized, my grandparents returned to the pew to sit beside me and they held hands. They were smiling, and a funny feeling came over me. I now know that feeling to be the peace of the Lord; but, then, at six years old, I didn’t realize that destinies were being altered in that Baptist church and that my world had shifted on its axis, propelling me in a new, altogether beautiful, direction.
As the years went by, I attended Sunday school in that church and Vacation Bible School in the summers. I was always loved, fed and encouraged by these every-day saints. Their warm smiles and open arms seemed to mean love, to me. The little Jesus-seeds in my heart were being given the elements they needed to grow.
One day, we my grandparents stopped going to the church. When I asked why, later, Maw Maw told me it was because they told her she must obey her husband in all things. She would have none of it. Her marriage was an equal partnership — always had been, always would be.
Still, I loved that church and missed it. I always wished we could go back.
On the other side of town, my parents began putting my siblings and I on The Church Bus, as we came to call it. That behemoth of a vehicle would come every week, rain or shine, offering our little hearts some predictability. That Baptist church was somewhere to look forward to going, a place I felt I always belonged.
Brother Bob and Brother Bill were the leaders of our scraggly bus-crew and they were also predictable and I treasured that quality in them. Each and every week they met me with a smile, asked me about my life and seemed genuinely interested. They did a lot of nice things for us, like opening their homes for cook-outs and backyard fun; taking us to McDonalds and treating us all to Happy Meals; singing songs with us to and from our homes; helping us memorize Bible verses.
One of the most important things Brothers Bill and Bob did for me, though, was introducing me to my voice. For a long time, I feigned shyness with them. I wanted to blend in to the backdrop until I understood what kind of people they were and whether I could trust them. Once I knew I could, I opened up, revealing a bit of the big mouth I’m (still) known to have.
It wasn’t long before they were reading passages from the Bible and asking me what I thought about them. During these moments, they didn’t tell me what the passages meant. They seemed to want to know my estimation of it all.
Startled, at first, I stammered. I whispered. I shrugged.
Eventually, I gave it some thought. I evaluated. I spoke.
Boy, did it feel good!
Later, they announced that I had a good singing voice and asked me to sing a solo in church. Anyone that knows me, understands what a tall tale they were weaving! Yet, their confidence in me made me feel – well, confident in myself.
It was as if the singing wasn’t what was important, but the fact that I was using my voice, giving a part of myself back to God and others.
When it was time to perform my solo, I invited my family. Brothers Bill and Bob put a microphone in front of me and sat on the front row, smiling in a way that seemed like love. They didn’t say anything at all, but I could hear them cheering.
I sang Victory in Jesus, terribly. They smiled anyway. My daddy cried. That Jesus- seed sprouted in me and something began to grow.
I learned that day that my spiritual expression held power, both within me and outside of me.
Eventually, we moved and Brothers Bill and Bob and The Church Bus became memories. Yet, oh, how I wish I could find them now and show them the generation-changing fruit that grew up in me as a result of their love, their care, and their intentional tending to the development of my voice! Two Baptist men were catalysts to plant and cultivate that Jesus-seed in me.
That seed continues to be everything.
I’ve told you those stories so that you can understand what I owe the Baptists. Where would I be without them?
That’s why, when I read the Houston Chronicle’s piece about the sexual abuse cover-ups in the Southern Baptist Convention, my soul pitched. When I watched the video of the little girl who reported that her “church man” molested her, I wept.
Her church man hurt her. My church men helped me. For every church man like hers, there are scores of church men like mine.
The Southern Baptist Convention should not be defined by the sins of a few; but it will be defined by its response to those sins.
When something like this happens, and failures are exposed, the time has come to re-evaluate everything.
The outpouring of female confessors who took to social media and shared their stories of sexual abuse by members of the church, their resulting shame and confusion, and how, many times, their church families failed them, should shake every Christian to the core.
The questions must be asked and answered: How can this many women go so long in silence? Why did they not use their voices to tell what was happening?
If these questions are to be answered honestly, the SBC must evaluate their policies of female subordination with sobriety.
Consider the following scenario:
If a girl is born into a church which holds to a theology of gender hierarchy, she is taught about power structure from birth. She may never hear the words complementarian, headship, authority, or submission, but she is making meaning of her environment and experiences before her vocabulary catches up. She sees that only males are on the elder board, or behind the pulpit, or teaching in her parents’ Sunday School class. She begins to understand, intuitively, that men hold the power in the church. She also realizes that she is not a man and, therefore, disempowered.
From there, she enters adolescence and is immediately indoctrinated into the notion of sexual purity, in which she learns that her body is a weapon used by Satan to cause men to lust. She learns that her ultimate goal in life is to remain a virgin until marriage and, if she fails, she’s like a chewed- up piece of gum – no one will want her (actual example given in purity curricula). She absorbs the message that her purpose is to be a godly, submissive wife and completely devoted mother. She finds out that men hate a loud-mouthed woman and it is better for women to be quiet (if not silent) in church.
Finally, the girl enters the last level of her subordination training when she becomes a woman and prepares for marriage. In her marriage, she is expected to submit to her husband in all things – her own will, her own desires, perhaps even her opinions are now to be considered, but not to be the final say in matters. If she wants to be a truly godly wife, she must relinquish her own spiritual agency and expression if it is not in line with the will of her husband.
My question is this: In this scenario, how can it be expected that a woman will have the courage to use her voice?
The equation doesn’t compute toward empowerment:
Silenced at every turn + Indoctrinated to believe that men are above them in a spiritual/physical/social hierarchy + Taught that their bodies are weapons to be covered because they could be used to bring down their brothers + Instructed that they’re more prone to deception, so their sense of reality cannot necessarily be trusted + Educated with slut-shaming paradigms hanging over their heads = A REALLY GOOD REASON TO STAY QUIET.
I pray, with my whole heart, that the Brother Bills and Brother Bobs of the SBC will step up to the frontlines during this time of upheaval and call for a re-examination of what the Word of God really has to say about women. I pray that they do the hard work of grappling with the few verses that seem to indicate women are subordinate and re-evaluate whether the verses stand as prescriptives for all people, throughout all time. I pray that they re-look at the entirety of the Bible and realize that God’s Word and His notions bend toward gender harmony and not hierarchy.
Mostly, I pray that they bless their women with the gift of confidence, perhaps even putting a microphone in front of them and watching them use their spiritual expression in complete freedom. I pray that they’ll be the church men who sit on the front row and cheer them on, knowing that what they’re giving them is the opportunity – the space – to let that Jesus-seed grow.
One of my dear friends cautioned me about throwing the baby out with the bath water because of this ordeal. I smile as I type this, because that’s the last thing I’d ever want to happen to the beloved Baptist churches which comprise the SBC. Instead, I hope we can dry that baby off and give her what she needs to grow.
Perhaps there is a tremendous blessing on the other side of this horror. What if we took a look around with sober eyes, asked ourselves the hard questions, dug deep together to find the truth and ended up with something whole and good from this devastation – something that seems a lot like love?