Detroit paper ducks Bible when female Baptist bishop quits

I haven’t been around that many Baptists of late, but one of the first things that struck me in The Detroit Free Press story about Bishop Allyson Nelson Abrams and her departure from the pastorate of Zion Progress Baptist Church was that “bishop” title.

The leaders of free-church congregations, Baptists included, are free to call their clergy whatever they wish. But how common is that “bishop” title? Maybe a bit of explanation? A sentence at least?

Then, of course, there is the reason for Abrams’ resignation:

Facing a backlash from conservatives in her congregation, a noted Christian leader in Detroit resigned Friday from her church after announcing earlier this month she had married a woman.

Bishop Allyson D. Nelson Abrams stepped down from Zion Progress Baptist Church, where she had served for five years as its first female pastor. Her announcement from the pulpit earlier this month that she had married a woman stunned many local Baptists.

Abrams’ resignation comes just days after the U.S. District Court in Michigan took up a challenge to the Michigan Marriage Act that bans same sex marriage.

Abrams, 43, used to be married to a man, but she told congregants Oct. 6 she was in love with Diana Williams, a bishop emeritus with the Imani Temple African-American Catholic Congregation in Washington, D.C., a church that broke off from the Catholic Church. The two married in March in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal.

Given the conservative views of many Baptists on the issue of homosexuality and female pastors, Abrams’ announcement caused an intense debate among local Christians. She said many supported her decision to come out while others opposed her gay marriage. Some urged her to stay with the church, but Abrams said she resigned because she didn’t want to further create division. Some in the congregation had found out about her same-sex marriage before she made her Oct. 6 announcement and were making it an issue that was dividing the church.

You don’t say?

A pastor — divorced, no less — goes off and remarries, apparently in secret, and to a person of the same gender. That would make it “an issue that was dividing” the congregation, wouldn’t it?

Of greater journalistic concern, to this reader at least, was the exegesis Abrams gave that was permitted to go unchallenged by any other point of view:

Abrams cited biblical verses to support the idea that same-sex relationships are allowable under Christian teachings, including Luke 7:1-10, which talks about the love a man has for his male servant.

Saying that love is a big part of Christianity, Abrams said: “We all know that we’ve been made in God’s image, and so no matter what you look like, no matter who you are, no matter what your orientation is,” we should be free to love whom we want.

“Love is something that’s supposed to be unconditional,” she added. “And as Christians, if anybody is supposed to be loving, we are.”

Abrams, who has a doctorate degree in theology, said her views about love and orientation changed a “little over a year ago.”

“I progressed in my theology and came to the point where I would love whichever came to me. I wasn’t just open to (a specific) gender, I was open to love in whatever way the Lord would bless me.”

The Free Press story contains the requisite pro and con voices with clergymen supporting or opposing Abrams’ move.

But that’s not my main point. Neither cleric discusses Abrams’ take on the biblical Centurion’s relationship with his servant, the subject of the verses from Luke to which the news article refers. Instead, Abrams is again allowed to expand on this point without challenge:

Abrams said her interpretation of scripture is compatible with same-sex relationships. She said that Greek words used in the Bible, “entimos doulos pais,” can be interpreted together to refer to a male lover.

She acknowledges there can be varying views on this issue.

“People have the right to interpret scripture whatever way they please,” she said. “I respect difference of opinions.”

But does Abrams respect Greek? According to the Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, compiled by the late evangelical scholar Spiros Zodhiates, éntimos is taken to mean “honor, esteem, price. Honored, estimable, dear” in Luke 7:2 and five other passages; agap?tós, which means beloved is not a synonym or defining term used by Zodhiates in connection with this verse.

It would have been better for readers to have found a scholar or two — of which there must be one somewhere near Detroit, or at least in Grand Rapids — who could help with this question. Find scholars on left and right.

This is too important a matter to leave up in the air, and that’s what the Free Press does by allowing Abrams to have, essentially, the last word, or even the only word, on the Word.

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About Mark Kellner

Mark Kellner has been interested in religion since his pre-teen years, and has written about religious news actively since 1983. His work regularly appears in Adventist World and Adventist Review magazines, where he is news editor, and in The Washington Times, where he has contributed since 1991, most recently writing about trends in religion. He and his wife reside in the Maryland suburbs, midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Whenever there is a story about Church attitudes toward topics such as Gay “marriage” or abortion or church personnel, the media’s articles mostly give pride of place to academic conclusions based on modern word or grammar analysis.
    But I never see the role of Tradition delved into— even when the story involves Catholic or Orthodox Christians. Yet Tradition holds far more weight in these churches than the ivory tower deductions of academic grammarians and dictionary sleuths.
    It would be interesting to read or hear what role tradition plays (if any) in the life of Protestant churches.

    • helen

      How would “tradition” change the comments about the Luke passage?

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Because if the understanding of a passage, an understanding which has come down to us from the times in which that passage was written or which were closer to that time than our own age, says that the Centurion’s servant was just that – a servant, then a modern interpretation which says “Actually, that means his boyfriend” has to do a lot of work to show that its meaning and understanding is more correct.

        Now, unless we are to take it that every mention in Classical literature of a servant is meant to be nudge-nudge, wink-wink, know what I mean? , then I for one would like a demonstration of how the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant is less about Jesus demonstrating His divinity by a miracle, and more about Men Who Love Boys And How That’s Okay, Too (the side advocating that this verse refers not to any old servant but to a special friend like to say that “pais” means a youth, a young male, a boy, and that since the Centurion was Roman, we all know what that means – why else would he bother about a slave or household servant being ill, unless it was his favourite bed-warmer?).

        • helen

          I meant to be asking the Deacon what in his “tradition” would say more than the text, which says that the sick man was the centurion’s servant, in my reading of it.

          [Besides that, we have a contributor here who would argue that the Bible doesn't mention homosexuality (where it does), so why should I think of it here, (where it doesn't).]

          The servant was a good cook, maybe?

      • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

        Helen–I’m just raising an issue of which I would like to see some enlightening stories in the media. Is there such a thing as Protestant Tradition in the same sense Catholics and Orthodox understand it????.
        For example, if a passage in the Bible were written about and understood a certain way for 2,000 or so years would that be a binding “Tradition” to “Biblical Christians”??

        • Steve

          There remains post-Vatican II a disconnect at a certain level between Catholic and Protestant lay members. My friend’s step-mother who is a CCD instructor in her Catholic parish asked whether my friend’s United Methodist Church “used the Bible.” She was asking out of a lack of knowledge of what Methodists were (as opposed to a snark towards Post-Modern interpretation).I would say there remains as much confusion towards Catholic belief on the Protestant side.

          The Deacon rightly suggests that better writing which explains nuances between branches of the church or other religions would help close such knowledge gaps. Are there journalists up to such work and editors willing to give them space?

  • Darren Blair

    1. Does anyone know which translation of the Bible Abrams was using? I ask as the KJV (King James Version) rendition of Luke 7:2 reads “And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.”

    “Dear” is still used to describe the relationship between close friends, and so if she was using a KJV I question how what may have been a remark concerning the level of friendship was taken to suggest romantic love. The writer should have pressed her on that point.

    2. “But how common is that “bishop” title?”

    To my knowledge, the only denomination that consistently uses “bishop” to refer to the ministers in charge of individual congregations is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (re: “The Mormons”); those other denominations that use the term use it as a title for people of significantly higher level.

    • Stephen Abbott

      It seems to be used quite often by pastors of African-American congregations. TD Jakes and Carlton Pearson, the minister who was defrocked by a Pentecostal church for denying hell, are two examples who use or have used the title.

      • FW Ken

        Black Baptists sometimes use “bishop”, and the Church of God in Christ (black Pentecostal denomination) has bishops who typically pastor a congregation while overseeing other conversations headed by “Elders”.

        But I’m intrigued by the phrase “she became a bishop last year”. Who made her one? Is there a special meaning to the title in this case?

  • Stephen Abbott

    And not a soul in the Baptist congregation had a problem with her marrying a “Bishop” in a break-away Catholic church? Not that it’s the MAIN problem, but, still.

  • Matt

    Spiros Zodhiates is a scholar the way that I am a journalist -not at all. His “doctorate” was from Luther Rice Seminary, a school that lacks regional accreditation and only offers a Doctor of Ministry degree. Quoting him as some kind of authority makes you sound awfully uninformed.

    • Mark A. Kellner

      According to Wikipedia: “Zodhiates was born of Greek parents on the island of Cyprus. After completing his Greek education, he attended the American University in Cairo, Egypt, received his Th.B. degree from the National Bible Institute (now Shelton College) in New York, and his M.A. from New York University. In 1978 he earned his Doctor of Theology degree from Luther Rice Seminary of Jacksonville, Florida.”

      Leaving the question of Luther Rice Seminary aside for the moment, someone who was born of Greek parentage on the (partly) Greek island of Cyprus who completed a “Greek education” and earned an M.A. from NYU presumably knows enough to handle Biblical Greek, regardless of what one might think of his Ph.D.

      Moreover, the question really is about the words and their interpretation. The interpretation cited in the Free Press article is certainly not a majority view at present, I believe.

      • Matt

        Sorry, no. He didn’t have a Ph.D. -he couldn’t; Luther Rice doesn’t offer one. And I doubt he had to demonstrate language ability for an MA -that isn’t a typical requirement. Besides, the Koine Greek of the New Testament is a dead language; being able to speak modern Greek says nothing about one’s ability to interpret the Greek of the NT, anymore than my ability to write this post in English suggests I would be an expert in Chaucer.

        More to the point: your decision to cite Zodhiates as some sort of authority illustrates the problem with asking journalists to wade into exegetical disputes: You are not an expert. You don;t even know what you don’t know. When you try to wade into a debate like this, you mostly expose your own ignorance.

        Journalists need to leave scholarship to the scholars.

  • wmrharris

    i would take it as a general rule that journalists take the
    self-description (and self-justifications) as that: products of the
    person. The term bishop is certainly understood within the black urban
    community (does a Detroit paper need to explain that? See this very
    productive discussion
    from the Louisville Seminary). As to
    her proof-texting, I’m not sure that it is up to Gannett to proofread
    exegesis, however heterodox it may seem. And while that scriptural cite
    may seem odd to some, it is not without a measure of warrant — this is
    an exegetical turn popularized on the same-sex side (see Jay Michaelson’s post in Huffington for an example).

    As to the journalism, what I found missing was the context of her own congregation. How big, how prominent is the church actually? It’s on the east side, does that matter? And where are the local voices? the members of her congregation? or of the Detroit ministerial community — Ypsilanti is a rather far distance away. A little more shoe leather here would have helped.


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