The platform was stacked with white men when the members of the 143rd Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (TBMB) voted not to seat the messengers of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City.
Many of the 858 messengers from 390 churches erupted in applause after they officially cut ties with a church they deemed unfit because they chose a woman to be their senior pastor. No one stepped forward to quiet the room or to call the behavior out of order.
What can we learn about a body of people who behave in this way?
In addition to transgressing the rules of polite Southern etiquette, disturbing the assembly as defined in proper parliamentary procedures, and violating the general implications of Jesus’ greatest commandment to love one another, there’s this:
1. Priorities: They are more interested in maintaining control than they are in practicing and sharing God’s love with all people.
First Baptist Church of Jefferson City has a history of loving God and loving people that began before the organization of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). One wonders if it will extend beyond the SBC’s life as well.
TBMB, the state’s connection to the SBC, seems more interested in theological homogeneity than diversity.
This is troubling because the great strength of Baptists historically has been in the diverse voices that paint a vibrant kaleidoscope of God’s love for all.
If we narrow those voices, we narrow our opportunities to experience God.
2. Biblical authority: They misuse Scripture.
The only rationale I heard in the meeting for not seating the church was a vague proof-text reference to what I presume was 1 Timothy 2:12, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”
It might be interesting to consider other verses that appear in the same chapter: “I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; also, that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy 2:8-9).
If we are to accept these verses as literal instructions from God for worship, then my congregation should get kicked to the curb also. I see designer clothes, pearls and gold every Sunday and often a woman will pray publicly.
Proof-texting as means of biblical interpretation does not work. It is a disrespectful, inappropriate use of the holy text to cherry-pick verses and selfishly use them to control and undermine people.
3. Our mission: There are people who have left the church because of its sexist views about a woman’s place in society, home and, of course, the church.
This is the reality of our culture today. One of the things I see in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection is a radical reinterpretation of the beliefs handed to him by religious authorities.
As he deconstructs what was handed to him by his tradition, he widens and deepens the love of God. He calls us to steward our lives accordingly.
What should our response to this reality be?
First, wake up.
The ugliness of the fundamentalist takeover that hit the SBC in the 1980s is coloring Tennessee’s work and the picture it paints is neither pretty, kind nor loving.
If your head is still in the sand, now would be the right time to take a look around and do some important soul searching.
Second, fear not.
Advent is quickly approaching; we will hear the angels proclaim that message to all the world. Lean in to the reality that God came to earth to be like us so that we might be like God. Radical inclusivity is among the better God-like characteristics we can attempt to imitate.
Third, pray as you read Scripture.
Consider the historical and social context in which these ancient words were written. Ask God to help you read with fresh eyes.
Pay attention to how Jesus, who we believe to be God-on-Earth, treated women. How might this apply to us? What is the purpose of the gospel message? What are we being saved from? What are we being saved to do?
It’s possible that you’ll hear stories of sexism in the church. We cannot confront what we cannot hear and we cannot heal what we cannot confront.
A lie I hear often is that equality doesn’t mean sameness. It reminds me of the separate-but-equal rationale that dominated school segregation conversations during the civil rights era.
Equality by definition does, in fact, mean same. God has been calling and will continue to call our daughters into all facets of ministry, including senior pastor positions. Who are we to attempt the usurpation of God’s authority?
After the unholy applause rang out, I and my colleague left the meeting.
Two women followed us into the lobby with kind smiles and warm words. They suggested that, “We may disagree but we are still on the same team.”
My honest response was, “I’m not sure that we are. My ‘team’ doesn’t kick people out. We welcome, partner and love.”
My prayer is that the Baptists of Tennessee will embrace this moment in history as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to love God and to love others.
May we courageously and proactively follow Jesus, “shake the dust from our sandals” and move on with those who want to partner in gospel work. That is the behavior I will continue to applaud.
Kelly Moreland Jones is a member at Nashville First Baptist Church and a second-year seminarian with Central Baptist Theological Seminary’s Nashville-based Women’s Leadership Initiative. Her writings can also be found on her blog. A complete transcript of her statement on the convention floor is available here.