Baptists: Remember Your Baptism

The first words of faith are egalitarian

On Tuesday, the Southern Baptist Convention will gather in Nashville amid controversy and crisis. In recent months, several high profile members have left the SBC charging the group’s leadership with racism, bigotry, sexism, psychological terrorism, and covering up sexual abuse cases. In the last two weeks, Russell Moore, the president of the SBC’s powerful Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, didn’t just accuse them of such. He brought receipts in the form of two letters, the content of both nothing short of explosive in revealing a morally corrupt and power-hungry culture across the church.

I’m a church historian and not much shocks me. Church corruption isn’t new. And, frankly, the Southern Baptists haven’t even begun to match the spectacular levels of moral malfeasance achieved by several medieval popes and a number of Christian princes and kings (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant — Christian corruption is a genuinely ecumenical enterprise).

What does, however, surprise me is that anyone is surprised by what is happening in the SBC. I’m not saying this in the standard cultured-despiser way, that weary “What do you expect? Religion always leads to bad ends” mantra. Rather, I say it as someone who has watched for decades as a certain segment of American Protestantism made a determined choice to embrace authoritarianism, asserting the need to return to divinely ordained hierarchy in church and society, and established themselves as privileged patriarchs of a holy commonwealth.

In his letters, Russell Moore waxes nostalgic about how the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t the same body that once baptized him. Perhaps not. But, no matter how tender the faith of Moore’s youth, powerful forces in the SBC long intended the subordination of women and people of color. For more than a generation, shortly before Moore’s baptism, core SBC leaders plotted and schemed and designed an institutional and political universe where white male leaders hold power in the name of an orderly, authoritarian God in which the rest of us live in submission and subservience to them.

They said what they wanted to do. And they did it. I give them credit for being honest.

* * * * * *

The New Testament book of Ephesians says:

Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind — yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. . .

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ — this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’

And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

I first heard those words when I was fifteen years old in a youth group meeting at Scottsdale Bible Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. Although I grew up in church — a Methodist church in Baltimore — these directives were new to me.

My childhood church emphasized Jesus’ own words. We memorized scripture: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself; Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; let the little children come to me; You are at the salt of the earth; Do not judge, or you too will be judged; Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. We also knew Bible stories, from both the Old Testament and the New. But the letters? The epistles of Paul? I can’t remember any sermon or any Sunday school class where we went deep in his writings. Yes, there were maps of his missionary journeys on classroom walls. My upbringing was far more Jesus than Paul.

But Scottsdale Bible Church was just the opposite. Paul told us about Jesus and instructions for how to follow Jesus. Paul clarified what Jesus meant. Paul was the towering figure, the narrator of faith. My Bible church friends memorized his books, quoted him in arguments, knew his positions on just about every issue. Bible studies almost always focused on one of his letters. I barely recall ever reading the gospels at that church, save the Gospel of John, especially chapter three.

Of all Paul’s writings, those verses from Ephesians 5 and 6 were the most important. They were quoted constantly, and held out as God’s divine plan for humankind. If you were pining for a boyfriend, someone would urge you to wait until you could find a husband who’d love you as Christ loved the church. If you were a girl and wondering about your future, you were told that if you submitted to men in authority, the way would be clear. If you felt your mother and father were unfair, you were urged to obey even the most arbitrary of parental rules. Since there were no slaves, we were told that these injunctions held for employment — workers were to serve their bosses as if their employers were Christ. And, if one were lucky enough to be a “master,” well, you were reminded to be kind as you exercised authority.

This was the order of the world. God designed it thus. Paul outlined it so clearly so we couldn’t miss the point.

Never mind all that messy, confusing stuff Jesus said about the first being last, giving up your privilege to follow him, or the poor being blessed.

After all, we’d just been through the 1960s. What America needed more than anything else was order and authority. Paul was the man of the hour.

* * * * * *

A few years later, I noticed that Paul contradicted himself. The Ephesians rules ran smack into these verses from Galatians:

Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, these is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:25-28)

Not only did I notice this tension in Paul, but it became obvious that some Christians emphasized Ephesians more than Galatians, while others reversed the order. In seminary, and throughout the 1980s, the Ephesians-types created a position they called complementarianism, meaning that while all human beings are equal in dignity, they have different (and complementary) roles in God’s plan.

The Galatians-types argued instead for egalitarianism, believing that Jesus had decisively broken down the boundaries of religion, class, and gender — and that the Kingdom of God he proclaimed was a commonwealth of human solidarity that permanently ended hierarchies of role, status, and privilege.

This may seem a matter of interpretative choice — you simply prioritize which Paul you want or like. By the late 1970s and 1980s, however, the tension between these two passages were the basis of some very big arguments in Christian circles. Many denominations moved toward ordaining women and began to address racism, basing changes on theologies drawn from Paul’s words in Galatians.

People forget now, but the Southern Baptist Convention was moving in similar directions as other major denominations when a small group of conservative men quite literally went to ecclesiastical war wielding Ephesians. Their desire to keep women in their place, to believe that some people were consigned to lesser status (read: race), to insist that children were the property of their parents, and that men were created for divine authority — all reactionary political positions to be sure — meshed very nicely with Paul’s household code in Ephesians. To remain faithful to God meant reasserting Paul’s order for home, church, and society. All egalitarian dissent crushed. The salvation of the world depended upon it.

And, if you understand the theological centrality of this Ephesians passage, you know it wasn’t just about the Southern Baptist Convention. These verses in Ephesians formed the theological basis for the whole political platform of the larger Religious Right. Complementarianism sounds like a nice word. But it is just another term for control.

* * * * * *

It was confusing to be a young, theologically precocious Christian in the 1980s. My childhood Jesus seemed a radically inclusive sort of fellow who welcomed women and invited all sorts of socially unacceptable people to dinner. But I was swayed by the orderliness of Ephesians, the clear certainty of its directives. Then I read Galatians! For about a decade, I vacillated between the two — submission or solidarity? Was there some way to hold the two? (I wrote about this in Freeing Jesus, chapter five.)

* * * * * *

My theological logjam broke when I learned that Paul probably didn’t write Ephesians. Or, to put it more precisely, most New Testament scholars do not think that Paul wrote Ephesians. Historians and text researchers divide the letters attributed to Paul into three sorts: authentic Paul, disputed or “pseudo” Paul, and non-Pauline.

Among the seven letters that Paul wrote — and among the oldest surviving Christian literature — is Galatians. Indeed, Galatians is the second-oldest book in the New Testament, most likely written before 54 CE, about 20 years after Jesus’s death.

Ephesians is in the “disputed” category. While a minority of scholars (including those approved of by Southern Baptist leadership) think it was written by Paul, the majority believe it was written about 90 CE, some 30 years after Paul died.

That means, of course, Galatians comes before Ephesians; its theology is closer to the original vision of the Christian community, historically nearer in time to Jesus himself. Indeed, these words — There is no longer Jew or Greek, these is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus — are believed to be even older than the book itself! Some scholars argue that Paul borrowed the phrase from a baptism rite that may date from the 40s.

Those who think that Paul actually wrote Ephesians date the book to 62 CE. For the sake of argument, even if Paul did write Ephesians it was later than Galatians, with the egalitarian statement coming first and the more ordered household rule coming second. Ephesians clearly accommodates to the hierarchical culture of the Roman Empire. The order it describes resembles the Roman paterfamilias and the household roles of ancient paganism far more than it resembles the freedom and full equality of women and slaves described in Galatians.

Knowing this history — the arguments over authorship, the dating of the documents, the slow accommodation of a radical religious movement to its surrounding culture — made me understand that egalitarianism isn’t just my choice. The most ancient wisdom of Christianity — wisdom recorded by Paul in Galatians — the real Paul, the Paul no one doubts — is that there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The first Jesus-followers insisted that all such distinctions were destroyed by baptism in Christ. We are all one. Exclusion and subordination had no place in the earliest Christian communities.

The words from Galatians, insists New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson, “must have been, finally, about imagining a world in which. . . female slaves could be leaders of free men, where foreigners and native born stood with equal power and equal rights . . . Baptism was about solidarity in the knowledge that everyone is a child of God.”

Jesus was an egalitarian radical. And, appropriately enough, so was Paul. The authentic one. Not the disputed Paul.

* * * * * *

Throughout the New Testament, baptism is about new life. To go down into the water symbolizes death to one’s former identity, coming out of the water one is raised to being a child of God. Historians now think that Paul’s words in Galatians — There is no longer Jew or Greek, these is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus — were said over newly baptized Christians, the statement of their new identity as they rose from the water.

In Russell Moore’s letter, he appeals to baptism as the deepest meaning of Christian life:

Even as I went down into the waters of death, Jesus had been there before, and Jesus would lift me back up, to newness of life. What I am counting on is not my baptism but his. I am counting on the fact that I am joined to One who, when he came out of those waters, heard the voice of God: “You are my beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased.”

A new identity, a new family, a new oneness. Perhaps Russell Moore has figured out that Ephesians isn’t the point of being Christian. For Ephesians shows us how sadly easy it is to compromise, to cut corners in order to gain acceptance in the world, to be not quite as idealistic and radical as those first believers. The point of the early Jesus movement was that God wanted us to live beyond divisions of race, class, and gender in the newness of love and true human solidarity. We are baptized in God for one another. And that’s not about order and hierarchy. The waters of baptism change our entire moral landscape, they flood the world as we knew it. They wash hierarchies away.

It is ironic — and painfully sad — that the Southern Baptists have forgotten the meaning of that baptism. This next week would be a good time to refresh their memory.

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It is therefore especially difficult for most of us to imagine the effect of Paul's words in a culture where position and status preserved order through basically uncrossable boundaries. Paul asserts that when people come into the fellowship of Christ Jesus, significance is no longer to be found in being Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The all-embracing nature of this affirmation, its counter-cultural significance, the fact that it equally disadvantages all by equally advantaging all — these stab at the very heart of a culture sustained by people's maintaining the right position and status. But in Christ Jesus, the One whose death and resurrection inaugurated the new creation, all things have become new; the new era has dawned.
— Gordon Fee

Equality, and I will be free. Equality, and I will be free.
— Maya Angelou

Having written some pages in favor of Jesus,
I receive a solemn communication crediting me
with the possession of a "theology" by which
I acquire the strange dignity of being wrong
forever or forever right. Have I gauged exactly
enough the weights of sins? Have I found
too much of the Hereafter in the Here? Or
the other way around? Have I found too much
pleasure, too much beauty and goodness, in this
our unreturning world? O Lord, please forgive
any smidgen of such distinctions I may
have still in my mind. I meant to leave them
all behind a long time ago. If I'm a theologian
I am one to the extent I have learned to duck
when the small, haughty doctrines fly overhead,
dropping their loads of whitewash at random
on the faces of those who look toward Heaven.
Look down, look down, and save your soul
by honester dirt, that receives with a lordly
indifference this off-fall of the air. Christmas
night and Easter morning are this soil's only laws.
The depth and volume of the waters of baptism,
the true taxonomy of sins, the field marks
of those most surely saved, God's own only true
interpretation of the Scripture: these would be
causes of eternal amusement, could we forget
how we have hated one another, how vilified
and hurt and killed one another, bloodying
the world, by means of such questions, wrongly
asked, never to be rightly answered, but asked and
wrongly answered, hour after hour, day after day,
year after year — such is my belief — in Hell.
— Wendell Berry

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