An Open Letter to Owen Strachan Upon Preaching to My Daughters

An Open Letter to Owen Strachan Upon Preaching to My Daughters May 9, 2018

Dear Owen,

This past weekend you filled the pulpit at my family’s church, and I thought you did a commendable job of delivering your message. You were as articulate in your presentation as you were well-versed in the perspective you chose to express. Your message was also timely as it indirectly spoke to a crisis currently threatening the integrity of the Southern Baptist Convention, of which my family’s church is a noteworthy part.

The question at hand is: What are the proper roles of men and women in the home, the church, and the world? And perhaps there is a second follow-up question inextricably intertwined with the first: What role does the Bible play in answering this question? How should we read it, and of what use is it for us today?

Even at your relatively young age, you have represented the old guard on this particular front in the culture wars that have impacted my own life and the life of my family. In this you have gone where your upbringing, your theological training, and your conscience have led you. But I believe you are making a grave mistake.

As an ex-Christian whose four daughters still belong to the same church in which I was raised, I have mixed feelings about your undying commitment to preserving ancient Levantine social norms even in the midst of a post-industrial, 21st century setting.

A Harmful, Outdated Perspective

On the one hand, I was deeply irritated to hear you tell my daughters, in effect, that they are incomplete until they find a man from whom they can derive their ultimate identities, and that therefore they should do that as quickly as possible, not waiting until their thirties. You were just echoing your particular reading of the Bible, of course, leaving you no choice but to accept and profess whatever people thought about marriage two millennia ago. Your intellectual hands are tied.

Except they’re not, really. I know this because I, too, formally studied the historical contexts that produced the Bible and I know good and well how much selectivity goes into any exposition of what “the biblical view of marriage” entails. I don’t have to school you on the polygamous origins of the marriage covenant in the Bible, nor do I have to remind you that at the time those origins were recounted, women were still considered men’s property, as were their slaves. You already know this, so that will save me some typing.

Beyond that, however, I know from personal experience that it’s possible to read something the Bible says and to disagree with it for one reason or another. And I don’t say that just because I myself am no longer a Christian. I’m betting you don’t tell your wife she cannot braid her hair and wear make-up, jewelry, or fancy dresses, nor pray without first covering her head. I also noticed you didn’t say a word about the fact that my family’s church employs women–outside the limited spheres of their homes–even placing one of them administratively above several other men. If called upon to evaluate that decision, would you tell them they are disobeying God?

Some kind of interpretive grid must be used every time you pick up and read that ancient collection of texts, and for whatever reason your theological tradition has decided it wants to draw a bold line in the sand on this particular issue. You seem to have chosen as your life’s calling to champion the complementarian view of the roles of men and women—not only in the home and in the church but ultimately everywhere—rendering your view functionally indistinguishable from patriarchy.

Complementarianism, it seems to me, is really just Patriarchy Lite, anyway.

To me, the differences between your view and patriarchy are cosmetic at best. I suppose I would agree with R.C. Sproul on this when he said:

Trouble is, there are not clear, easily discernible lines separating these views from each other. I honestly wouldn’t know how to define the difference between a patriarch and a complementarian, save that the patriarch is less likely to be afraid of an egalitarian.

So why am I making such a big deal out of locating your position theologically? And what does this have to do with my daughters and our family’s denomination?

As I write this, one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s most highly revered leaders, Paige Patterson, is under fire for once suggesting that a woman in an abusive marriage should go home and pray and remain submissive to her abuser. Appalling though I’m sure you find spousal abuse, it seems to me that his response is still logically consistent with your framework, since the man is the head of the woman, leaving her no recourse for undermining his authority. And lest you reply that the husband would still be subject to the authority of the pastor, Patterson was the pastor. She got her answer from him, and then she returned the following week with not one but two black eyes this time.

You would think more denominational leaders, past and present, would take a stand against this kind of response the way so many women have, but many of them have remained eerily silent. For example, I tried to find some kind of public condemnation of Patterson’s decision from the denomination’s current president, Steve Gaines, but his only response (now pinned to the top of his feed) was to advise people to spend less time on social media and more time reading the Bible.

I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, given that his predecessor at Bellevue, Adrian Rogers, was hand-picked for the same position of denominational leadership by Patterson himself nearly 40 years ago in the first of a series of moves calculated to wrest control of the denomination from those who failed to teach a literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis, the same view which apparently you hold, unless I am mistaken.

Nor should it surprise me that at the very seminary where you teach a woman was publicly chastised for trying to warn people that it opens the door for the subjugation of women when people like your father-in-law, Bruce Ware, and now you portray the relationship between men and women as mirroring that of the subordinate relationship between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. There is a strong correlation between abuse and hierarchical, authoritarian leadership structures in the home and in the church, so it seems as obvious to me as it did to her that this way of thinking would create an environment that is ripe for mistreatment.

I know you agree that spousal abuse is bad. You mentioned it briefly in your sermon, once, but then returned to preaching the very same hierarchical understanding of marriage which undergirds Patterson’s perspective, enabling him to respond to that woman the way he did. I don’t think you see that. If your view puts women into a subordinate function, what good does it do to keep saying they don’t have subordinate value? What does that even mean?

The fact that you have to keep saying that should show you that in practice it’s not working out the way you think it should. And it deeply angers me to know my girls are being told that this is the way they should view themselves in their own homes and in the world around them, as subordinates bound to obey their domestic masters.

The Silver Lining

But like I said at the beginning: I have mixed feelings. Because the other side of this coin is that in a way I feel that I should thank you.

See, I’ve worked very hard never to pressure my daughters into rejecting their faith, openly discussing only those theological issues around which I know the church itself is already divided. I’ve given their mother wide berth in regularly exposing them to the teachings that she and I heard growing up. The rest of their extended family has only reinforced this same influence.

It has always been my desire to produce not copies of myself but women who think for themselves, and ultimately who treat themselves and others with dignity and respect. Wherever I have failed to model those traits myself, I have done my best to enable them to learn from my failures as well as from my successes. Because in my worldview, having all the answers isn’t as valuable as striving to ask better and better questions.

Incidentally, I feel like that’s a place where you and I part ways. I’ve often said that certainty is the currency of fundamentalism, noting that a person in a position like yours increases his stature in direct proportion to the confidence with which he declares the things he believes. I realize you may chafe at my use of “the F word” here; but if you do, I would need you to explain what a fundamentalist believes that you do not. But I digress.

I feel I should thank you for exposing my girls to a more rigid, inflexible, and antiquated version of their faith because in this day and age I feel fairly confident it will only serve to push them further away from the whole thing. Just keeping it real, here.

I may have refrained from trying to indoctrinate them into my way of thinking about the most fundamental beliefs of the historic Christian church—what Lewis called mere Christianity—but that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the helpfulness of a former president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood telling my bright and inquisitive girls that the God he serves wants them to, well, just shut up and listen to the menfolk.

“The spirit of a woman, in sum, is to be gentle and quiet.” —You

I’ve often wondered what it’s like sitting in a pew and being told that your greatest contributions are silence and compliance. Does it grate against the nerves of the women in the audience the way it does mine? Does it as well for the other men? I cannot imagine it resonates in their souls the way you imagine it should. You’ve been taught to believe that God’s Word matches the wavelength of their innermost beings, but I wonder if you have any idea how much that’s really not the case?

Keep Doing What You’re Doing

You told my children on Sunday that the Genesis creation story should be read as literal history. You told them that humans were created by God directly and immediately, from scratch as it were, and not by the processes of natural selection to which every single scientific and historical discipline we have attests. You rooted your belief about the subservience of women in a literal reading of the creation narrative, thereby rejecting the most basic organizing principle of all life sciences.

“I don’t believe Genesis 2 is just a poem…I think it’s actual history. I think this is actually telling us how the world came to be and how the man and the woman came to be. These are our first ancestors.”

Thank you. Really, I mean it. Thank you.

Because to the extent that they listen to you, they will be that much more likely to leave this environment altogether when the time comes that they realize the natural world tells a completely different story than the one they heard growing up in church. Your theological extremism only improves the chances that when my girls are older, they will better understand why I left it all behind: because it just didn’t track with real life at all.

I figure you already know that’s a strong possibility, which is why you made sure to warn them about the perils of higher education:

Some of you are going off to college this coming year…and you know that this is not the vision of humanity that is being offered…We are being trained and indoctrinated in what is called a secularist mindset.

In other words God has not made the universe. There’s a big bang that happened; we’re just evolved dust…And I am here to tell you this morning: the scripture starts from the opposite starting point. The scripture gives us a vision of theistic reality…

Boy, are these kids in for a rude awakening. And the more directly you tether your message to an anti-intellectual rejection of almost everything that formal education has to teach them (yes, even of the Christian kind), the more you only help to increase the size of my own tribe: “the nones,” or in my case, “the dones.”

I should add here that I’m well aware just how many Christians disagree with you…on all of the above points, in fact. Many are those who reject Creationism (both Young and Old) as well as the tying of modern family structures to whatever they looked like at a particular place and time in history centuries ago. They know full well that it’s a bad idea to marry the message of their faith to the particular cultures that served as vehicles for delivering it.

But that’s not how you roll. You’ve hitched your wagon to a more backward-facing cultural tradition, and as far as you’re concerned all those other people have little to teach you. Which is curious, since at one point during Sunday’s message you admitted that “There’s no one in here who can say I have enough God…I have enough of the Spirit, I don’t need any more Jesus Christ, thank you.”

Those are fine words, and they express a noble sentiment. But I wonder…does it ever translate into realizing that you have much to learn from your “brothers and sisters in Christ” who don’t read the Bible with the same interpretive grid with which you read it? If you really mean it when you say there’s more to learn, shouldn’t that at some point lead you to realize that your current certainty about so many things may have been misplaced?

But by all means, keep teaching what you teach. Part of me thinks if my girls could get a heavier dose of your version of Christianity, it’ll only make them more likely to leave it all behind. Everything inside of them will scream “This is wrong,” and in time they’ll go looking for something else. Maybe they’ll find a more humane, more culturally relevant version of their faith to call their new home. That’s entirely up to them.

I suppose in this case it’s a good thing that I haven’t demanded they obey me and think exactly like me, right? I mean at some level you’ve got to appreciate the irony of my situation: My unwillingness to rule over them with a heavier paternal hand is the very reason they are still hearing sermons like the ones they heard Sunday morning. If I were any less committed to raising “freethinkers,” they may not have ever heard your message.

Incidentally, there is one other topic you brought up toward the end of your talk on Sunday, but I’m posting on the other blog I manage, Removing the Fig Leaf, so I can address that issue separately. Before I leave today’s discussion, however, I want to return to where I was headed at the beginning.

For Such a Time As This

The Southern Baptist Convention currently finds itself at a crucial cultural moment. You know it, and I know it. That’s why you spend all the time you do exhorting Christians “never to relax their grip” on the way that marriage and the family are defined. You and those who influenced you have decided that this is the hill you want to die on. That’s certainly your business.

But the SBC has chosen the wrong path on numerous occasions before. When confronted with the abolition movement, Southern Baptists created the convention as a way of maintaining control over their own way of life, thereby coloring (or rather whitening) their theological emphases for more than a century to follow. I would argue that decision heavily impacted the theology of evangelicalism as a whole. But that’s a conversation for another time as well.

When confronted with the creeping influence of “modernism” as our knowledge of the natural world grew beyond the confines of the ancient perspectives we inherited, Baptists dug their heels in again and looked backward, insisting the old ways were better, telling the rest of the world they would accept change over their dead bodies. Rather than fighting a war this time, they retreated into their own separate cultural bubble, re-emerging decades later only at the coaxing of conservative politicians with pockets much deeper than their own hoping to reclaim a chunk of the electorate (they were quite successful, by the way).

Next they fought desegregation tooth and nail. They opposed the Civil Rights Movement in the pulpits and the papers and in the streets. It almost seems this denomination is addicted to making the wrong cultural choice every. single. time. One would think a denomination who believes they hear the voice of God would make better choices, or would have a more sensitive moral compass. But history would argue otherwise. You yourself are a historian. Surely you see this.

And now you face yet another key turning point in the denomination’s history. Are you really going to try to dig in your heels, refusing to re-evaluate how husbands and wives relate to each other even as women are coming forward like a flood, screaming that things are not okay as they are? Is the SBC going to look the other way and bow in deference to the patriarchs of the denomination’s current form, guaranteeing that whatever places they have in the global cultures of tomorrow are less influential than they are today?

I know you sense how the legacy of your tradition hangs in the balance. It seems to me that, for you, the gospel isn’t just about Jesus, but it’s also about gender. And hey, that’s your call. I’m just suggesting to you that your study of history should have taught you to know better than that.

I’m open for an ongoing conversation about it, though, if you’re interested.

Read Also: “The Bible and the Art of Blameshifting” on Removing the Fig Leaf.

[Image Source: Thought Life]

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