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Women and the SBC: Carter vs. Land

Does the Southern Baptist Convention discriminate against women? President Jimmy Carter says, “Yes.” Richard Land, SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president, says “No,” and adds a few disrespectful remarks about the former U. S. president.

Two weeks ago, the former chief executive spoke to what was billed as the “world’s largest Bible study class” during the centennial meeting of the Baptist World Congress in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Birmingham, England.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
“Despite the fact that Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator of women, some male leaders of the Christian faith have continued the unwarranted practice of sexual discrimination, derogating women and depriving them of their equal rights to serve God,” Carter asserted.
 
In an AgapePress article by Allie Martin, Richard Land responded: “It’s some surprise when former President Carter gets something right, not when he gets something wrong.”
 
Land continued: “We have a choice. We can either follow the spirit of the age and follow syncretizers and compromisers like Jimmy Carter—or we can follow the Apostle Paul. And we’d rather have the approval of God and the Apostle Paul than Jimmy Carter.”
 
Land’s negative comments about President Carter remind me of a dog barking at the ocean, as if his yelps would turn the tide! Though typical of Land’s response to adversaries, the SBC leader’s disparaging remarks stood in stark contrast with the respectful and peaceable spirit of the president’s words.
 
As an ethics teacher and a minister, I am grieved and amused when religious leaders align themselves with Paul and God, while labeling as “syncretizers” and “compromisers” any who interpret the Bible differently from them. Amused because when people have no strong basis for a position, they usually resort to name-calling. Grieved because Richard Land knows better.
 
The comments of President Carter upset Land because they challenged the current SBC position on women in ministry developed during the last two decades by leaders of the “conservative resurgence” takeover in the denomination. This position has now become the law of the Medes and Persians for SBC agencies and some state conventions. Before that change, autonomous SBC churches were allowed to determine, from their own study of the Scriptures, what is the biblical role of women in the church.
 
In 1984 the SBC passed a resolution on “Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry.” In one of the “Whereas” statements, the writers of the resolution asserted, “While Paul commends women and men alike in other roles of ministry and service (Titus 2:1-10), he excludes women from pastoral leadership (1 Tim. 2:12) to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall (1 Tim. 2:13ff).”
 
President Carter, in his address to the Baptist World Congress audience, noted this first SBC attempt to put women in their place was a statement that twists the meaning of Genesis and “puts the blame for Original Sin on females.”
 
Carter admitted that selected passages from the Bible can be used to imply that Paul “deviates from Jesus and has a bias against women, suggesting they should be treated as second-class Christians, submissive to their husbands, attired and coifed demurely and silent in church.”
 
Though Richard Land obviously disagreed with the president’s conclusions, the statement that brought Land’s strongest reaction followed: “I would never claim the Scriptures are in error,” said Carter, “but it is necessary in some cases to assess the local circumstances that may have existed within a troubled early church and to study the ancient meaning of some of the Greek and Hebrew words.”
 
Carter illustrated his point by noting modern Baptists ignore Pauline admonitions forbidding women to worship without wearing veils or braiding their hair, or wearing rings, jewelry, or expensive clothing. (This principle of biblical interpretation is named cultural relativity and is widely accepted by conservative biblical scholars.)
 
Land responded in the AgapePress interview by alluding to the books of 1 Timothy and Titus (without specific verse citations), stating that the New Testament spells out requirements for pastors and church leaders and the SBC follows those qualifications.
 
“We’re going to go ahead and practice what the Bible teaches us and that is that,” he responded. “While God calls both men and women to service in the church, the office of pastor of a local church is reserved for qualified men.”
 
President Carter ended his speech in a more conciliatory fashion, noting he was “grieved” because these “bones of contention” have separated the SBC from other Baptists.
 
While Carter said he believes deeply in equality for women in the church, it should not be a litmus test for membership in the BWA or a barrier to Christian unity.
 
“Let some Baptists discriminate against women,” said the former President. “Let other Baptists…. say ‘Let’s treat women like Jesus did.’ And let both groups work together in harmony.”
 
According to Mr. Webster, the word syncretize means “to unite,” and the noun compromise is from the Latin compromissum which meant “a mutual promise.”
 
Maybe Richard Land’s description of President Carter is more accurate than even he realized.
 
Joe E. Trull is Editor of Christian Ethics Today. He and his wife, Audra, are also contributors and editors of Putting Women in Their Place: The Baptist Debate Over Female Equality.