(Before reading this, please review Part 1 from last week’s Messenger.)
Historically, Baptists have been opposed to creeds, or official lists of things a person has to believe. This is because of the bedrock conviction that the Bible alone is our source of revealed spiritual truth. Seeing how the Roman Catholic Church had, over the centuries, declared as Christian truths things that are not taught in the Bible, the Baptists wanted to avoid this by committing themselves to the position that their only creed was the Bible itself. This affirmation was combined with a conviction known as “soul competency,” or “the priesthood of all believers,” which means that every individual believer is able to understand personally what God is saying in the Bible, without leaders telling them what the official interpretation is.
It’s for this reason that the Southern Baptist Convention existed for its first 80 years, from 1845 to 1925, without any official statement of faith. The struggles between Modernism and Fundamentalism in the beginning of the twentieth century are what caused the denomination to move away from their ant-creedal roots. The word creed was carefully avoided when the first version of Baptist Faith and Practices was approved in 1925, but the document very quickly became used in that way, as a measure of orthodoxy and faithfulness to the truth and as a way of weeding out leaders who might deviate even slightly from acceptable interpretations and applications of the Bible. In 1963, when Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler and others began the Conservative Resurgence in the Convention, the creedal non-creed was tightened and narrowed. This nooselike squeezing continued in another 2000 version, with the result that the Baptist Faith and Message became one of the most hard-line expressions of belief within American Christianity.*
The Southern Baptist Convention’s current official view is that
“The Holy Bible has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.
Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”
Of course, you don’t have to read far in the Bible before you find some things that appear to be errors, such as the disagreement in population counts between the books of Samuel and Chronicles, the different genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, apparent confusion about the place from which Jesus ascended into heaven, Bethany or the Mount of Olives. These are explained away by in-house scholars who are very clever and creative. But the most natural way of reading the Bible is to see that God used very average people, who were limited by their times and their cultures, to write down the things he revealed to them and pass them on to others. The great and wonderful truths he entrusted to them are contained in thought and word packages that are human, earthbound and imperfect.
Let’s look at the place of women in family life and society. It’s clear that in virtually every culture and civilization we have been able to study historically, women have been treated as subordinates. They don’t hold leadership positions in society, and they are expected to be under their husband’s authority in their family. The Bible sees women the same way, from the story of Adam and Eve in the Creation account, to the way patriarchal families are structured in the Old Testament, to the leadership that emerged in the early Church. There are some glimpses in the teachings of Jesus of a more enlightened view emerging, and there are hints of coming change in some of Paul’s writings, but the truth is that the place of women in the Biblical world mirrored the pattern throughout most cultures in world history. The statement in the Southern Baptist document Baptist Faith and Practices is a pretty good summary of where the Bible places women:
A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
According to the document, the implication of this in church leadership is:
While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
But there’s been a revolution. From the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and the Women’s Sufferance movement, to the struggle for equal pay and insistent attempts to break the glass ceiling, right up to the current #MeToo movement, women are asserting their rightful claim to equal value and opportunity. Families are no longer ruled by authoritarian men. This is a reality, and it’s progress over the old ways of keeping women in their subordinate roles.
In the 1970s, the congregation of Altadena Baptist Church decided to embrace this affirmation of women as equal in every way. We changed the church Constitution to allow women to become Deacons, and soon we had a woman as a Pastor. She’s proved the wisdom of the church’s decision ever since.
There were some people who felt we were going against the Bible in doing this; in fact, three left the church. We didn’t deny that our decision was contrary to some specific Bible teachings that could be quoted. We took this action with full knowledge, because we believed that in those statements about women’s subordination the Bible writers were passing on an error, reflecting the long-standing injustices of societies around them, rather than expressing the eternal will of God.
The Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence leaders took the opposite approach. They doubled down in both their extreme view of Biblical inerrancy and their re-affirmation of the subordination of women. This allowed Dr. Paige Patterson to feel justified in sending a woman back to her abusive husband, only for her to be beaten more severely.
However, reality caught up with him, and since last week’s Messenger was written, he was terminated from his job and demoted from his title. Let’s see if the denominational leaders are able to go one giant step farther and see that the real cause of the holy hypocrisy practiced in the “evangelical” church world is in their careless claims about the nature of the Bible’s authority. The Bible is the Word of God, but not every word in the Bible is equally a word from God.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*You can learn more about the narrowing of this document in this PDF.