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Searching the Gospels for a Compassionate Response to Reba Cobb

After reading in Baptist Press and EthicsDaily.com about a sermon preached by Reba Cobb, I am compelled to offer an additional ethical perspective that might help us reconsider how we face our own shortcomings and those of others with compassion.

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) resource center coordinator, Reba Sloan Cobb, was accused by Baptist Press of preaching a sermon that was taken in large part from another preacher. She responded with a statement of apology and explanation that an independent research assistant provided the material to her without acknowledgment of its source.

Two articles by Marv Knox and Mike Clingenpeel, which EthicsDaily.com carried, each take a similar ethical stand: plagiarism is wrong and sinful and anyone “caught in the act” should be publicly made into an example.

I find myself reminded of the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 7:53-8:11). The religious leaders caught a woman “in the act” of committing adultery and drug her into a public setting where Jesus was teaching.

The crowd reacted to the events in three ways: some accused her; others stood silently; and still others looked over the shoulder of Jesus in righteous indignation.

As the woman stood before Jesus, her accusers cited the Law of Moses, giving ethical and legal support for picking up stones and giving her a just punishment.

This offends our sensibilities, and yet we find other ways to destroy people caught in any act of sinning, often in the name of law, morality, biblical mandate or ethics.

I was startled to see articles on EthicsDaily.com that used the same basic tactics, which moderate Baptists have often deplored in their detractors.

For example, Knox said that Cobb’s sermon, “deliver[s] black eyes to her organization and to the cause of women ministers.” Is he ready to cast the same “guilt-by-association” stones that he condemns later in the article?

It also seems to me that neither of these articles takes seriously the fact that Cobb confessed and apologized, rather than denying or hiding. While Clingenpeel does credit her for admitting her mistake, his article goes on in a veiled way to accuse her of stealing, lying, laziness and spiritual poverty. More stones.

Others in the crowd must have stood by silently, ashamed yet unwilling or unable to speak up. I have certainly been tempted to join them. I’ve wished and prayed it would all just go away, giving private support but saying nothing publicly, just standing by and waiting to see what Jesus might do.

But Jesus did not fall into the trap set for him. He said to the religious leaders, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7, NRSV). Religious leaders are often on the receiving end of Jesus’ admonitions, and it is very easy to stand peering over Jesus’ shoulder and accuse them of being morally heavy-handed or hypocritical.

The funny thing about this story, however, is that Jesus bent over and wrote in the dirt. And those of us who are hiding behind him are left exposed. When we look down, we find that we, too, have rocks of righteous indignation in our hands! We are just as willing to attack others when we think they are wrong, especially when we think Jesus will protect us.

It is time to come out from hiding behind Jesus—to face him and to hear his admonition to each of us. Knox urged clergywomen to learn from African-American civil rights leaders, “to be twice as honest and never—ever—mess up.” I find this call for a double standard an ironic misunderstanding of the gospel. For we all mess up and when we face Jesus, we see that we all stand in need of forgiveness.

After Jesus spoke, the accusers put down their stones and walked away.

What will it take for us to put down our accusations and condemnations and walk away? More importantly, what will it take for us to act with the wisdom and spirit of Jesus, offering compassion and forgiveness to the accused? What will it take for us to accept the confession and apology of Reba Cobb, forgive her and move on?

Knox predicted, “The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and women ministers will live with this sermon for a long, long time.” We may indeed have to live with this sermon for a time, but I hope that we will not do so in a spirit of accusation like scribes and Pharisees, or in a spirit of shame like the silent crowd, or even in a spirit of righteous indignation like disciples who hide behind Jesus. I hope instead that we do so with compassion, forgiveness and the spirit of Christ.

Eileen Campbell-Reed is a doctoral student in religion and personality at Vanderbilt University and a member of Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. She is a former member of Baptist Women in Ministry board of directors and the CBF Coordinating Council.

Read Mike Clingenpeel’s column, “Speak for Yourself, Preacher.”

Read Marv Knox’s column, “Plagiarism Hurts Cause of CBF, Women Ministers.”