How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
In the wake of Bill Hybels’s resignation from his role as senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, the conversation about the “Billy Graham Rule” reignited. Adherents to Graham’s policy of never meeting, eating, or being alone with a woman point to the “rule” as the solution to accusations of sexual misconduct or harassment. Vice president Mike Pence has openly advised following the rule so as to avoid any misconduct or the appearance of it, and others have blamed instances of harassment on a failure to follow the rule. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Daniel Akin made this point on Twitter, and others expressed fear that the situation would cause churches to more strongly adopt the principle.
Enter the next evangelical internet controversy: comments made by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson encouraging abused women to submit to their husbands and pray instead of leaving. It started with a recorded Q&A during a conference in 2000, in which Patterson vehemently claimed that no level of abuse justified a divorce. It included a story about counsel Patterson offered an abused woman, that she should pray for her husband—telling her that this could make him more violent. She followed the advice and returned to church with two black eyes (but with a church-attending husband!). Then a sermon began circling that included Patterson eyeing a teenage girl to make a point about why men need women.If we are not listening, if we are not in community with people of color, women, the poor, the disabled, and the marginalized, we are guaranteed to make theological errors.
Evangelicals clearly have some issues with gender to work out. But something more profound connects these cases. While the temptation is evident in a case like Hybels’s to push women further out of church leadership, Patterson’s comments make it clear: we desperately need the influence, leadership, and inclusion of women.
The only way that men like Patterson, men who love God and know the Bible incredibly well, can use Scripture to justify domestic abuse (or abuse of power), is when they have spent their entire adult lives studying the Bible, doing ministry, and developing spiritually without the influence of women.
One of the reasons we’re often so quick to defend our leaders—past and present—for moral failures, particularly when it comes to issues of gender equality and racial justice, is because we struggle to reconcile their faithful ministry in some areas with their error in others. We face this difficulty even more strongly with leaders of the past, and we twist ourselves into even greater theological gymnastics to justify their abhorrent beliefs. We don’t know what to do with the men who founded the Southern Baptist Convention so that slaveholders could become missionaries, or the men who founded many Christian private schools to avoid desegregation. We can condemn those actions broadly, but it gets uncomfortable when we have to address specific individuals who displayed great faith or theological depth in other areas.
We struggle to understand how Christians, believers being sanctified by the Holy Spirit, could believe horrible things that degrade people of color and women. How is it even possible? If we really believe diversity is as vitally important as we say we do, the answer is clear: without listening to marginalized perspectives, we will get really important things very wrong. The only way that men (and women) who love God, earnestly seek to follow Him, and give generously of themselves to the service of His church, can make such grave theological errors is if they aren’t listening to people who are different from them.
What does this have to do with the Billy Graham Rule? Whatever you make of the rule, this much is clear: churches and seminaries need the perspective, influence, and involvement of women. We can’t do theology correctly without each other, and we can’t minister well without each other. It takes a lot of hubris on our part to look back at the past and think “they” had it all wrong, but we somehow know better now. The failure of generations of white Christian men to see theological errors that led to the subjugation of people of color and the degradation of women was due to a problem that we are just as susceptible to today. If we are not listening, if we are not in community with people of color, women, the poor, the disabled, and the marginalized, we are guaranteed to make theological errors.
It’s not that some of us are susceptible to error and some of us are not. It’s not that certain groups of people understand Scripture better than others. It’s that we all need each other, as fallen and sinful humans who are all susceptible to error. This is why seeking and valuing diversity is not about checking a box or patting ourselves on the back, it’s about not missing a huge theological truth, like the full humanity and dignity of women.
Patterson’s comments reveal a deep need in evangelical institutions for the influence of women, especially in seminaries. I’m deeply concerned for the men at SWBTS who listen to Patterson’s words and take them as a guide for their own ministry. But I’m even more deeply concerned for the men in seminaries across the country who can complete their theological training with little to no influence by women—as professors, fellow students, and ministry partners. Women don’t have greater theological insight, but they do have different insight and a different perspective, a perspective that should help us avoid errors like the harmful counsel Patterson gave an abused woman.
Men who are wrestling through what the Bible says about divorce will benefit from study and interaction with women who, whether by first-hand experience or not, approach the issue of abuse and the power dynamics in a marriage from a different perspective. In one of my Greek classes in seminary, we spent two class periods on 1 Timothy 2:12. Every once in a while, when the discussion reached a controversial place or the comments got a little heated, a few of my classmates would turn and look at the women in the room with an odd expression. It didn’t dawn on me until later, but I realized that they may have never in their lives had a conversation about this verse (how to translate it from the Greek, what the cultural and historical context was, how to apply it) with women present. Even if our theology doesn’t change by studying it with both genders, our realization that our theory affects the lives of real people will hopefully change our sensitivity while discussing it and the humility with which we apply it.
Unfortunately, many of our churches and seminaries still make it perfectly possible for men to study, grow, and minister without the robust involvement of women. Even when women are on staff at the church or enrolled in the seminary, we often separate by gender in our meetings and study groups, our committees and our clubs. The physical presence of women has a limited effect on our theology, but their inclusion in our study and work has a great one. If more seminaries made it impossible for men to graduate without working with women, reading women theologians, and learning from women professors, a lot less men would graduate without their theology being refined and improved. Perhaps even more importantly, they wouldn’t be able to graduate without learning to value women and their contributions to theology and ministry.
Patterson’s comments are disturbing even if they’re just coming from one man. But they aren’t: the comments influence hundreds of future and current pastors, and they have been given full support by his institution. I’m encouraged by the men, particularly from the Southern Baptist Convention, who have condemned his comments. But I also hope that we’ll see them not as the theological misstep of one man, but as indicative of a larger problem. Abuse is a legal, social, cultural, and theological problem. We don’t solve it by removing women from the equation, but by more fully including them.
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