A faulty Sunday school lesson

FirstBaptistWatertownOh the confusing tales that we journalists weave, except when we attempt to deceive by making them too simple.

Did you hear that Thomson Financial has begun using computer-generated stories? Yes, some of what journalists used to do is now being done by computers. I can’t say that’s surprising, because of the cut and paste, let’s get that data out there nature of some journalism.

This type of technology is a long way off from replacing religion reporters — except, perhaps, when you ignore the details of a slightly complicated story and write a formulaic article with a shocking headline that confirms stereotypes and misreports the facts.

When I first stumbled across an Associated Press article about the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher because her Baptist church had adopted a “literal interpretation” of the Bible’s teaching on women in the church, I knew something was amiss. Here is a report from Dan Harris of ABC News, who is not a regular religion reporter, that is only slightly more detailed than the AP’s:

Aug. 21, 2006 — After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.

Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.

But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post. The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible’s First Epistle to Timothy, which states: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Actually if Harris had bothered to dig any further, he would have discovered a more complex story that is messy and involves church politics, factions, and what appears (at least to outsiders) as petty squabbling. I also have a suspicion that this article did not surprise his editors because it confirmed all their worst stereotypes. This article would set off alarm bells in the head of any editor with even the slightest understanding of the theology behind conservative church policies.

I won’t make any claims of knowing the full story, but after reading this letter from the church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy LaBouf, it’s obvious that Lambert was not fired simply because she is a woman. A convenient fact that Harris and the AP left out of their articles is that, according to this letter from the church’s deacon board, which includes women, a large percentage of the Sunday school teachers at First Baptist Church, Watertown, N.Y., are women. They are not being fired.

Judging from LaBouf’s letter, it appears the church fired Lambert for making a fuss earlier this year — that ended up in the local media — about changes being made by a new pastor:

We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander and stick with “spiritual issues” that govern a church, which the courts have historically stayed out of. With threats of lawsuits in the past we wanted to try hard to not go down that road again. I am sure you can understand why we would desire to exercise caution.

Yes, Pastor LaBouf, we all understand. However, your church’s sneaky actions did not make it easy for reporters and this seems to have backfired. But that is no excuse for reporters failing to dig out some of the nitty gritty facts and report them.

But why should we expect that level of detail from news reporters? It’s clear that reporters, including the author of this Reuters story, read the letter but chose to omit its details. What other facts have been left out?

It’s really not that complicated a story, unless you ignore facts to downgrade it to a level that could be written by a computer. Just remember, reporters, facts keep journalists in business.

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  • Morgan W

    There are two things which would be easy to examine and which I do not see addressed, either by Rev LaBouf or by your own article: 1) are there indeed no female Sunday school teachers left in the “new and expanded” Sunday school program of First Baptist? Not to put too fine a point on it, but in the many churches of which I have had experience in the many places I have lived, all of them, without exception, relied on the volunteer efforts of the church’s women as Sunday school teachers. Finding a man willing and able (because of schedules taking him out of town for business trips across weekends, scoutmastering duties and so forth) to teach Sunday school has been akin to finding a diamond lying on a beach. So, the total absence of women as Sunday school teachers in First Baptist even as it experiences a growth spurt would be… statistically significant. I don’t think the other reasons for letting Mary Lambert go would really address the “women should be silent in church” issue, now would they.

    2) Why, oh why, if one is going to address someone whom one has determined to have a “bad attitude,” would one actually tell that person that one of the reasons for letting them go is because they are a woman, or because of any other personal characteristic over which they have precisely no control, and that the reason is “scriptural?” I am sure that Rev. LaBouf rarely tells his congregation that “slavery is sciptural,” although it is certainly and repeatedly regarded as normal in scripture. I am almost certain that Rev. LaBouf has never recommended stoning, even for the more refractory members of his flock. As Rev. LaBouf knows, there are many things which we do not push which can be found in scripture (and a distressing number of them in the letters of St. Paul), and even more if one digs into the OT. If one is by necessity to pick and choose within the rich body of scipture, perhaps one could choose to recognize that Paul was very unhappy about his relationships with women in general, and that perhaps his letter does not actually bear the same weight as a Commandment or the words of Jesus. Perhaps, in fact, he could turn to Luke (e.g., Lk2:36-38) for advice instead.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The other obvious question: Are there other women at the church who teach men?

    Note that the church has women deacons. That is interesting in and of itself, seeing as how it clashes with the storyline in the news report.

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  • Jeff

    Morgan – I think that the issue is women teaching men. Not women teaching Sunday School. There is a difference.

    tmatt: Being on a church board (i.e. on a deaconate) isn’t the same as teaching men theological issues.

    It appears from the Pastor’s lengthy letter that upon his arrival, the church began to grow quickly and that “some who were unhappy with new members joining the church” started getting frustrated with the church direction and took their anger outside the church body, which is a disaster in itself.

  • Jeff

    I guess I’m also puzzled by your (dpullium) phrase: “your church’s sneaky actions”. Is this facetious?

    What would you have them do here? They are a growing, changing church and a small group within their church decides to take their issues public into a forum (the press) that doesn’t understand much about Christianity.

    Further events proceed and one of the individuals is denied their “job”, “right”, whatever, to teach Sunday School and in an effort to avoid a potential lawsuit they do the right thing and keep quiet about reasons for dismissal…the same thing that most all businesses in the US do when employees are terminated….keep quiet and avoid slandering the person.

  • dpulliam

    Jeff,

    I don’t want to get into an argument over whether or not the church’s actions were right or wrong. So you’re right that my use of the word “sneaky” was a bit snarky. But it accurately represents the truth. The church is attempting to pull a fast one by firing the employee for reasons that are less than the entire truth.

    This of course makes the job for the reporter tricky, but not impossible. Go dig and find out the real reasons and good luck!

  • http://rev22.org ochristian

    Here’s my spin on this mess:

    1.) By the pastor’s own admission the letter of dismissal was disingenuous. They used scripture as a legal and political smoke screen. This woman had been allowed to serve in ministry for over 54 years and other women in their parish still do so. It was dishonest on many levels. Perhaps she should have been fired, but they should have been open and upfront about the reasons especially if they were legitimate. (I don’t know what the Baptist church has in place but this should be handled internally by something like the Methodist SPRC.)

    2.) I don’t know how horrible this woman may or may not be but to terminate someone in the form of a letter is not very Christian. She couldn’t have been that bad to have been tolerated for that long. (In all my years of having to deal with personnel issues, and long before my conversion, I would NEVER have done that. The days of the dreaded ‘pink slip’ have been over for years.)

    3.) They not only made a poor choice from a spiritual perspective but also from a legal one. You never terminate someone without cause, using as an excuse something which is not applied equally throughout the establishment.

    4.) They are doing a better job of misrepresenting the Church than many others who are doing so deliberately.

    There is never a good spiritual reason to lie. I guess in time of warfare you don’t want to give away your secrets to the enemy. But in this circumstance, when all the smoke has cleared, I think this church will have suffered more damage from this episode than any gossip this one lady may have engaged in. It really helps The Enemy when you hand him the ammunition.

  • http://nomoremister.blogspot.com Steve M.

    The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible’s First Epistle to Timothy, which states: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

    …But the church’s pastor stands by his decision.

    “I believe that God has a very special role for men and women within the church setting and many people look at it as exclusionary, but I don’t view at it that way,” Tim LaBouf, First Baptist’s pastor, said.

    And it’s the press’s fault for focusing on this?

    If this wasn’t the reason she was let go, it was at least one of the stated reasons. Does that not show sexism on LaBouf’s part?

    It’s ugly even if this was an excuse — it’s as if he’s saying, “We have an internal squabble, but I don’t want to say I’m letting her go for that reason, so I’ll just say I’m letting her go because the Bible wants women to be subordinate. Yeah, that’s much better.”

  • Jeff

    OK.. a bit snarky. But pulling a fast one? If my own business fired someone and the press came to ask for all the nasty reasons for the dismissal – there is no way we’d publish the reasons – no way at all as we’d get sued in a blink. And I would never characterize this as “pulling a fast one”.

  • http://rev22.org ochristian

    If a typically responsible business organization were to fire someone for similar reasons they most likley would;

    a. Counsel her first on where they were concerned about her performance. This would be witnessed by two members of management and documented. The consequences of failing to comply with the resuls of this meeting would be clearly spelled out and the employee would be allowed to make a written statement in response.

    b. Failure to comply would result in the previously stated consequences, one of which could be termination of employment. Usually this is done in person, with another member of management (preferrably) as a witness.

    c. Matters of gender, age, race, sexual orientation or religous persuasion would not be mentioned at all. (Unless there are pre-existing legal exceptions,i.e. entertainers, camp counselors etc.)

    At the very least these steps would help protect any business from legal or civil repurcussions. They would also present an attitude of respect to the employee that this church failed to demonstrate.

    Bottom line: poor judgement, bad example of faith in action.

  • http://rev22.org BuddyO

    If a typically responsible business organization were to fire someone for similar reasons they most likley would;

    Do we know he didn’t do these things? I didn’t read anything in the article to make me think he didn’t.

    Is it a bad example of faith in action? Certianly from a secular worldview. Is it possible that there are others who view Timothy the same as Pastor LaBouf (eg the entire quaker persuasion) and were encouraged by his actions? Or, do we righteously stand firm that our interpretation is “right” and his is “wrong” and that anyone who agrees is misguided.

    How about a third alternative, we decide that our orthodoxy should be a bit more generous and that those look at Timothy in that context should not be condemned. How about we say that we see that passage differently but the cross we see the same?

  • http://rev22.org ochristian

    Do we know he didn’t do these things? I didn’t read anything in the article to make me think he didn’t.

    Read it again. They sent her a letter firing her because she is a woman. It is hard to counsel someone asking them to change their gender at the risk being fired. They also kept other people on staff who are guilty of the same offense. This is not about Timothy. It’s about honesty.

    How about we accept possible divergence on Timothy but insist on agreement with Exodus 20:16 (actually I think they are also treading heavily on Exodus 20:7)

  • http://www.xanga.com/carlos_benjamin Carlos Benjamin

    If they wanted a Biblical reason for her dismissal there’s plenty to choose from. How about sowing discord among the brethren, something the Lord hates according to Proverbs, or taking your case to unbelievers rather than before the saints or simply choosing to allow yourself to suffer loss?

  • Jeff

    ochristian, I think you are incorrect that the reason they fired her was first and foremost due to her being female. I’ve read the letters over multiple times and what I see is simply what i’ve seen in a lot of other churches; a new pastor initiating growth and the former mainstays of the congregation upset – simply because of change.

    Here’s a relevent portion of the letter from the pastor:

    The majority of our membership was genuinely excited about the growth and new hope for the future of the church, however, as you recall there were some who were unhappy with new members joining the church, changes that were being made and my performance in general as pastor. As a result a small group decided to forgo the mechanisms that we have in place for dealing with conflicts or disagreements within the church and elected to hire a local attorney and aired their grievances in a letter to the Watertown Daily Times.

    Note that the small group of individuals took their “beef” outside the church – into a public venue to attempt to regain power within the church.

    Here’s another from the pastor indicating the reasons for the dismissal:

    the reasons for this most recent decision was, “multifaceted and the scriptural rules concerning women teaching men in a church setting was only a small aspect of that decision. Christian courtesy motivates us to refrain from making any public accusations against her.”

    Note that he’s trying to say that it ISN’T her sex that’s the issue. This is in response to the public article that Ms. Lambert took public. SHE was the one here touting the sexism charge, not the church.

    Finally, read this article in the Watertown Daily Times. It sheds a bit more perspective on it all:

    WDT Link

  • http://rev22.org ochristian

    Jeff, I understand that sex was not the issue. My beef with the leadership of this church is that rather than acknowledging the true reason for her dismissal (which sounds legitimate to me)someone decided to take what appeared at the time to be a quick and bulletproof solution (by making it a spiritual issue that the authorities would not be allowed to address). It looks as now they will have a difficult time convincing anyone that this was a legitimate termination and I would bet the EEOC will be lookng into it.

    Even if it had worked I still don’t think it was honest. Now this church has given the press ample opportunity to paint Christians as being hypocrites, yet again.

  • http://rev22.org BuddyO

    Jeff, thanks for the WDT link. As I suspected this issue is far deeper than originally portrayed. Honestely I feel a bit embarrased to even be discussing this in a public forum since I know very little about the church, it’s members or it’s pastor; quite frankly, it’s none of my (our) business.

    The fact is the media will always portray the Christian faith in a bad light. Scripture even eludes to the fact that this will happen. We just need to be faithful and steadfast and assured that the Holy Spirit will continue to work despite us. No matter what side you take you lose. Evangelical fundamentalists are scorned and progressive Emergents are ridiculed. If we start working too hard to please the world, we lose sight of what our true goal should be. We as Christians need to get to a place of humility where we leave these battles and condemnations behind and get to the business of being servants to the world… living the Kingdom today.

  • http://rev22.org ochristian

    I disagree with you, here, Buddy. (Of course!)

    If this is none of our business, then what is? There may as well be no forums such as this. It’s not as if we are attacking this pastor or his church personally (they are only human, after all) but rather that we are in a position where we may all learn from this.

    Of course the secular media will often attack Christianity. But not all of our actions are ‘Christian’ in nature. To say that this church is under ‘attack’ from the media because it is effectively serving the kingdom is not an assumption that I am prepared to make.

    This is not an issue of faith nor is it an issue of solidarity. This is about dealing honestly with people. It’s about intentionality. Is it acceptable for Christians to compromise our standards and adopt worldy means when it is expediant?

    This lady may have been a dangerous thorn in the side of this congregation (surely her actions are not laudable) but the ends do not justify the means.

  • http://rev22.org BuddyO

    Ah, but they are effectively serving the kingdom (assuming the info in the WDT link is factual). There is a whole segment of folks that seem to be flocking to this church. While it might not serve you or I, Rev LaBouf’s methods (overall, not refering to how he handled this specific situation) and theology have a legitimate place in a truly “generous orthodoxy”.

    This was a private issue that should have been handled in a private manner. This woman chose to make it public because things weren’t going her way. Sounds to me like the pastor chose to stick his own neck out and take the egg in his face (which you are so eagerly supplying) rather than drag out a bunch of dirty laundry about this woman in public. Was his handling of it bad? Sure, but if you look at it closely, this woman deliberately put him in a lose-lose situation. Seems like he took the self-sacrificial route.

  • Scott

    We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander

    In other words, imply wrongdoing on her part w/o backing up the charges, then pat yourself on the back for your restraint. We can’t judge for ourselves if the charges are bogus and she can’t defend herself from them.

    Thank you, evangelicals.

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  • Christopher M Davis

    The only problem I can see with your article here is that no mention of “What are the men in the church doing if so many of the women members are willing and ready to take the sunday school teaching positions? Why are not more of the men teaching?
    My only guess is that it is somehow related or maybe even proportional to the number of discarded marriages the church suffers. I have been involved in religious organizations where the frquency of divorce was less than 5 percent (as a matter of fact, only one known divorce in the 4 years when I was involved with a parachurch organization while I was in college. The women I new mostly taught other women in small weekly bible studies. When these women chose a church to attend, most wereinvolved with a baptist church or some other protestant church that had strong Male Leadership.
    I have to take notice of situations where the male leadership is strong, there are no known homosexual members in the church, and the women seem very genuinely happy and content to be around faithful and full of faith “religious” men ( men who actually live, and dwell on , and share their faith with other people). Their is a song I have on an old album (about 20 years old ) and the lyrics say “It is real, real , Jesus love is Real…) I think you can get the idea.
    The second greatest commandment in the Christian “religion” is to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – put another way “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (easier said than done I will guarantee you, speaking from personal experience).
    So, simply put if in the church more men will lead and more women will follow their man and support him as they work together in the “working for the betterment of all living human beings” regardless of our physical and intellectual set of beliefs (our differences that is) a whole lot more good will be accomplished and a whole lot less negative will happen because you are busy doing something good (and consequently won’t have time to be doing anything negative).
    A final bit of religious thought “Turn your foot away from evil” (this will keep you on a path that avoids commiting evil and evil doers as well).