When I was in seminary, the institution I attended experienced a radical shift to the far right. During those days I witnessed a theological battle that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On one particularly rough day, my Hebrew professor came into class and made one statement that has stuck with me ever since. “Theology is never the issue. It is always the weapon. Power is the real issue.
“I have often pondered those words, and particularly when I witness or hear of Christians using theology, and by this I mean what they consider orthodox theology, to oppress and exclude others by denying people their rights as human beings and their full participation in the body of Christ. While I could write in general concerning the violent tendencies of religious ideologies in all religions, including Christianity, I want to address here a more underlying and yet ever present force that some use to strengthen their long held prejudices.
In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, religious scholar and Baptist theologian Charles Kimball lays out five warning signs for when religious perspectives have gone too far and are on the brink of becoming evil. I don’t have the time or space to detail each of the five warning signs suggested by Kimball, but the first in order is what he defines as “absolute truth claims.” By absolute truth claims, Kimball means, “particular interpretations which become propositions requiring uniform assent and are treated as rigid doctrines.” Kimball goes on to argue that once we have established such truth claims, we can then justify our actions, any of our actions.
Of course, history has shown this to be true across the religious spectrum, as all kinds of atrocities have been executed in the name of religious truth claims. But even within the bounds of contemporary Christianity, and particularly conservative Christianity, we have witnessed beliefs and acts that though not violent, they are nonetheless mean-spirited and harmful forms of exclusion and repression.
One pertinent example is the prohibition against female pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as in other denominations. This represents a form of exclusion that denies one gender the right and privilege to serve a calling from God that is as equally valid as that issued to males. While those holding a position that forbids women from serving as pastors claim that their position considers women as equal in essence to men, they deny that females are equal in the role they play in the church, particularly in leadership positions. But such religious chauvinism has not stopped at banning women from the pulpit.
In recent years there has been a robust and calculated push to put women under the rule of their husbands. Instead of affirming the biblical egalitarian view that sees husbands and wives as equal and co-submissive to each other, this position claims that even in the modern world men should rule women and specifically in the confines of marriage. Tragically, one Southern Baptist theologian recently suggested in a sermon that some spousal abuse is the fault of women who do not submit to the rule of their husbands. His rationale is that when a husband’s leadership is threatened by a wife who is not submissive, that husband may respond with abuse. He clearly places the blame on the woman.
Gender inequality in the home and in the church, as well as other issues of inequality and repression, represent the idea that theology can be a powerful weapon of authoritarianism. While we can and do disagree on theological issues, they should not be used as litmus tests of orthodoxy and should not be used to deny persons their rights to live as they believe God intended them. Neither we nor our narrow authoritative interpretations of Scripture can stand in judgment of others. Only God is our judge.
Asserting absolute truth claims that are not central to the faith and that lead to the exclusion and repression of others is not the witness of the gospel to which Jesus has called us. The gospel’s truth cannot be communicated through propositions or prohibitions, especially when such propositions and prohibitions shackle people. The gospel is best communicated through acts of love and compassion and through attitudes of openness and humility. Love is the fulfillment of the law of God and love bears witness to the grace of God that calls all of us to put down our theological weapons and relinquish our power over others.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark.