SBC: The Culture is Not the Problem

SBC: The Culture is Not the Problem June 15, 2018

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) just held their annual meeting, and many see it as a Rubicon of sorts or watershed moment.  As has been written about extensively, the “MeToo” moment has come to the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

The reason many think it a watershed moment is because a younger person was elected president, Paige Patterson was fired, resolutions supporting women were passed, and many moderate voices have risen in support of all these events.

While I’m generally supportive and view these recent events positively, I’m not as optimistic as some, at least in the short term.  The reason I’m not is because I think the moderate voices are trying to juggle two balls that will not stay in the air together much longer.

One of the balls is theological and one is cultural or structural.  What these moderate voices are trying to say is that we want to keep our complementarian theology and interpretation of Scripture, but we want to jettison the sexist, “cultural,” negative, and demeaning treatment of women, which have been too often tolerated, over-looked, and not addressed by our structures/institutions/churches.

This juggling act is represented here by Al Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

“Well, we do hold to a complementarian theology, but rightly understood, it’s not demeaning. It points to God’s gift and glory and creation of making male and female both equally in his image but with distinct roles. But one thing that any reading of the Scripture makes clear is that the abuse of anyone is always wrong.”

He goes on:

“…what we now know is that many women were mistreated and did not feel that it was safe to make clear their mistreatment and to seek help. That’s a big problem. And there are some structural issues we have to address just to make certain that in every one of our churches and in every one of our institutions there are mechanisms where anyone who might be abusing is identified and dealt with.”

Notice he thinks the problem is not the theology but the “structures” and what needs to change, or where this needs to be addressed, is in our “institutions” and “mechanisms.”

There may be some truth here, but I think it fundamentally misses the true problem.  The problem is not primarily structural or cultural; the problem is theological.  I think Dr. Mohler has it backwards.  Structures and culture are the result of theological and philosophical sensibilities and understandings, over time.  Culture, structure, is theology writ large.

Yes, I am aware that cultural and societal structures have great influence and are very powerful.  They often lead us to assume something is true, without thought or reflection.  Culture becomes the ocean we swim in, without us ever noticing we are wet.  I get the mutually reinforcing relationship between theology and culture.

Still, I believe the power and influence of culture/structure is always underwritten with theological/philosophical understandings.  The turning of an air craft carrier begins, not by the water doing something, but by the moves made at the helm—moves guided by certain beliefs as to where the carrier should go.  If we are adrift, the water isn’t the problem.

My point is the SBC is making the same mistake with women they made with African Americans and slavery.  There were many Southern (and Northern) Christians who thought the Bible was fine with having slaves as long as they were treated properly.  It was a theological problem, which they mistook for a treatment or “cultural” problem.

There was even a resolution (number 4) passed during the convention noting the theological justification for racism and slavery and how it was an erroneous interpretation of Scripture.  While Christians in the past were willing to say that Black and non-white people were made in God’s image, and equal before God, they were not willing to say they were equal before white people, the law, or worthy of the same privileges and opportunities–and their arguments were theological.

You see, Black people were “equal” and image bearers, but had different “roles” to fulfill.  And one of those possible roles was to serve white people as slaves.  As long as slaves were not abused and treated well, God was perfectly fine with the arrangement and such was “clearly” what the Bible taught.

How is the SBC and other complementarians not making the very same argument when it comes to women?  Whether skin color or gender, the argument, as far as I can see, is the same.  We recognize their dignity, equality before God, but they will be treated differently—some roles, some offices, some jobs, some opportunities will not be open to them.

Just like with many Christians in the past, while they were ashamed of the way Black people and other minorities were treated, they truly believed the Bible taught a separation and fundamental difference between the races.  Their hearts were uncomfortable with the treatment, the culture, the structures, but their theology was a salve of sorts, allowing the status-quo to remain.

I see the same happening now with SBC moderates and evangelicals as a whole.  They are ashamed and uncomfortable with the way women have been, and currently are, treated, but their theology will only allow them to talk about “structures” and culture.  Such is exactly why it is really a theological problem and not just a structural one.

I think the SBC is only about two generations away from passing resolutions, like number 4, but these will be specific to women and the erroneous theology and interpretations used to keep them from every opportunity afforded men in churches and ministry.  I think that day is coming.

Unfortunately, in the meantime, gifted women, women with callings, will be told by men their gifting and calling are not recognized for pulpits, pastorates, priesthoods, seminary presidencies, certain teaching positions, offices, and other opportunities.  What a shame.


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I agree these problems are never just structural. There is a very strong reciprocal relationship between culture and theology, so it can be very hard to tell which is the chicken and which is the egg.

    American evangelical theology is highly oriented toward individuals, unlike evangelical theology in Eastern cultures. Is that because American culture is so individualistic, or is American culture individualistic because of the cultural influence evangelical theology has had? It’s hard for me to tell.

    Did Southern Presbyterians support slavery because of their theology, or did the economic benefits and culture of slavery shape their hermeneutics? I think it’s probably some of both, and it’s not always clear (to me) which was the main catalyst. Maybe theology and culture are like an amoeba, and when one gets a pseudopod out there, the rest eventually flows into it.

    I remember growing up Free Will Baptist, in some churches, smoking cigarettes was decried from the pulpit as worldliness and sin. In North Carolina FWB churches, people smoked cigarettes on the church steps. I can’t help but think the respective economic power of the tobacco industry had something to do with that. At the same time, your example of contemporary evangelical views of “women’s roles” is a great one. I think that’s primarily theological, and even though the culture at large doesn’t really support it, it’s an example of maintaining “biblical truth” in the face of cultural norms.

    So, anyway, just noting that there’s a very strong interconnectedness.

  • 1- Slavery is clearly OK in the Bible, as it was pervasive in old and new testaments. The same goes for oppression of women, it goes without saying.

    2- Theology is supposedly “true”, right? It is a science of discernment of God’s will. If believers and their theologians are just going to trim their sails with the (fallen) times, what is the point?