Guest: Mary Jane Wheaton (David’s Mom)
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored” Titus 2:3-5
This Mother’s Day Weekend, you will hear from an older woman of the faith — my mom. She is 76 years old, the mother of four and the grandmother of six, and has been a committed follower of Jesus Christ for 52 years.
This will be our fifth annual Mother’s Day interview with my mom and the focus this year will be on feminism and its influence on Christian women and the church. My mom has told me, “If I hadn’t become a Christian, I was on track to be a feminist.”
What is feminism and how does it manifest itself in Christian women and the church? How can Christian mothers teach their daughters to become women, wives, and mothers to the glory of God? Find out this weekend on The Christian Worldview.
For critics of the Southern Baptist Convention, former President Jimmy Carter is the gift that just keeps on giving. Over the last several days, yet another round of news reports has trumpeted the news that the former president has resigned his membership in the Southern Baptist Convention. Almost a decade after he first made this announcement, his repetitive return to this theme set up a new avalanche of news reports. Reports, we might add, that are not news. Adding insult to injury, the reports are about a “resignation” that isn’t even a resignation. Try explaining that to the international media.
Back in October of 2000, President Carter sent a letter to some 75,000 Baptists, indicating that he intended to separate himself from the Southern Baptist Convention — a denomination with which he had historically been associated through church membership, public identification, and personal involvement. He spoke of this as “a painful decision” that was made necessary by the convention’s stated convictions on a number of issues. For some years, Mr. Carter had been publicly identified with the more liberal wing of Southern Baptist life. He was well known for holding liberal positions on an entire range of issues that set him at odds with the denomination. The catalyst for his public announcement was the revision of the denomination’s confession of faith earlier that year.
Any honest observer will be compelled to clarify that Mr. Carter’s action was an exercise in public relations. Individuals are not members of the Southern Baptist Convention, and there is no mechanism for individuals either to join or to resign from the denomination. Local churches indicate their desire to identify with the Southern Baptist Convention through contributing to its causes and declaring themselves to be “in friendly cooperation with” other churches in the fellowship of the convention. As more careful media sources indicated back in October of 2000, President and Mrs. Carter actually remained members of a congregation that is, as The New York Times then explained, “still affiliated with the convention.”
Just a few years later, the former president reiterated his desire to separate from the Southern Baptist Convention, producing a series of news reports that rarely referenced the fact that Mr. Carter had made such a public announcement years earlier. Over the last two weeks, the pattern has erupted all over again.
The latest eruption of reports about President Carter’s severing of ties with the Southern Baptist Convention came in the aftermath of an article published in the July 12, 2009 edition of The Observer [London]. In this article, Mr. Carter claimed to speak on behalf of “The Elders.” The group’s website identifies “The Elders” as “an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.”
In his article, President Carter reiterated his decision to sever public ties with the Southern Baptist Convention. In his words:
So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service. This was in conflict with my belief – confirmed in the holy scriptures – that we are all equal in the eyes of God.
To his credit, President Carter apparently did not claim that this was a new decision or a fresh announcement. Though some media sources jumped on the announcement as “news,” others were careful to put his statement in an appropriate historical context. Furthermore, President Carter’s reference to the Southern Baptist Convention was not the main point of this article. Instead, his reference to the Southern Baptist Convention introduced his argument that any religious teaching that denies what he construes as full equality for women “is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God.”
That, suffice it to say, is a mouthful. This is not a new argument for the former President. But in his article in The Observer he does make some interesting assertions. While acknowledging that he has not been trained “in religion or theology,” he went on to argue that “the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths.”
All this fits a pattern for which Mr. Carter is now well known. He simply rejects the texts in the Bible that clearly establish different roles for men and women in the church and the home. He dismisses these verses for the simple reason that he also rejects the inerrancy of the Bible.
He may well be the world’s most famous Sunday School teacher, but over just the last several years he has publicly expressed his rejection of the belief that persons must come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in order to be saved. He has also stated that his faith would not be shaken if Jesus did not perform some of the miracles attributed to him in the New Testament. His denial of biblical inerrancy is not merely theoretical — he actually operates on the assumption that at least some texts of the Bible are false, untruthful, malignantly oppressive, and thus untrustworthy.
President Carter actually makes no argument for women as pastors. He simply dismisses out of hand what the Christian church has believed for centuries — and what the vast majority of Christians around the world believe even now. His argument should embarrass any serious person who considers this question, for it is grounded in little more than his own sense of how things ought to be. He makes claims about the Bible that are reckless and irresponsible and historical claims that would make any credible church historian blush. He straightforwardly rejects what he admits some texts of the Bible teach.
Then, he opens and closes his article by citing as his main authority the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. This text, we might note, also declares “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” as basic human rights. The more important question is this: Does President Carter really believe that he will convince Christians — Southern Baptist or otherwise — to see any human statement as holding a higher authority than the Bible? That question, more than anything else, points to the real reason that President Carter and the Southern Baptist Convention have parted ways. The point of division remains the ultimate authority and total truthfulness of the Bible as the Word of God.
As Mary Zeiss Stange sees it, women are being denied their rightful place of leadership in American religious life. Her logic is clear, and she writes with a mixture of exasperation and energy. Her op-ed column in today’s edition of USA Today, “Do Women Have a Prayer?,” reflects the way many people naturally frame the issue of the role of women in the church.
Women report far higher rates of religious belief and participation than do men, according to studies as recent as The Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Women are indispensable to the life of our congregations and are more likely than men to participate in church life in some congregations and denominations.
This leads Professor Stange to write:
One would think that these facts would translate into women’s rise to positions of spiritual leadership — surely the mark of genuine equality — in the various denominations. Alas, as a glance at some of the largest organized religious groups in the country shows, the picture is at best mixed when it comes to women’s ability to break that stained-glass ceiling.
Mary Zeiss Stange is Professor of Religious Studies and Religion at Skidmore College in New York. In the paragraph cited above, she refers to “that stained-glass ceiling” that, in her view, keeps women from positions of church leadership. In her understanding, full access to all positions of leadership is “the mark of genuine equality” that is missing from most American churches.
Thus, this article gets right to the heart of the issues at stake. Professor Stange writes from a recognizable point of view. She sees equal access to leadership as integral to genuine equality for women. If any office in the church is limited to men, women are treated as unequals. Following her logic, this pattern can only be explained by prejudice and intractable tradition — thus the stained-glass ceiling as a religious form of the so-called “glass ceiling” that has limited the role of women in other sectors of society.
Professor Stange points her argument toward the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention as examples of denominations that illustrate the “stained-glass ceiling.” She does recognize that both the Roman Catholics and the Southern Baptists base their understanding on theological commitments, but she sees this pattern as rooted in prejudice that should be overcome.
“The better news is that among the so-called mainline Protestant denominations, women have made considerable progress in attaining positions of religious authority,” she reports. She cites the fact that, for example, the United Methodist Church has ordained women to the ministry for decades now. Yet, as she also notes, “in a pattern familiar among churches that do ordain women — few of these women hold senior positions in large congregations.”
Accordingly, Professor Stange declares her verdict:
It is a truth so familiar as to have become cliché: Women are the driving force behind organized religion. They fill the pews, they bring their children into the fold. The Pew data help make sense of these facts. But the same data highlight the cruel irony that in far too many religious contexts in this country, women remain second-class citizens.
Like all of us, Professor Stange operates out of a set of presuppositions and intellectual commitments — a worldview. In her worldview, any limitation of leadership to men is based in prejudice that must be overcome in the name of liberating women. Churches are seen as human institutions marked by human prejudice, pure and simple.
Completely missing from her analysis is any concession that God might actually have ordered this pattern of leadership restriction for our good and His glory. Her perspective on the issue is fundamentally secular in approach. In this view, where men alone can hold positions of authority and responsibility, prejudice must be the cause and access to these positions for women must be the solution.
We live in a society that considers itself pledged to equality as a basic principle. We also live in a society that is, indeed, marked by many prejudices that are evidence of human sinfulness, pure and simple.
Nevertheless, those who believe that the church is an institution established by Jesus Christ and who believe that the Bible is our sole final authority for belief and practice must obey what the Bible teaches. This means that we must also follow the pattern set out in the Scripture as the pattern set out by God himself.
Men and women are indeed equally created in the image of God, equally in need of the Gospel, and equal in terms of salvation. Both men and women are called to lives of discipleship, service, and witness. Mary Zeiss Stange is surely right when she suggests that churches depend upon the dedicated service and faithfulness of women. But this does not mean that the pattern for the church set forth in the Bible is to be rejected in light of current conceptions of gender equality. Those who believe that the Bible is indeed the inerrant and infallible written revelation of God are obligated to perpetuate and honor the pattern of leadership ordered within the text of Scripture.
Furthermore, we must see this pattern, not as evidence of human prejudice, but as God’s revelation to us — a revelation by grace that is for the good of both men and women and the pattern by which God brings glory to himself.
Two very different worldviews stand at the intersection where this issue is now debated. In her own way, Mary Zeiss Stange helps to clarify what is at stake, and to show how different worldviews lead to very different (even diametrically opposed) conclusions. Opportunities for this quality of clarity are not to be missed.