The following is a guest post from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
When I was growing up in North Carolina, my parents took me to Sunday School, where Southern Baptist women made sure I learned a few lessons well: Jesus loved me, the Bible was God’s holy Word, and I should always listen to my mother.
The Bible commanded us to “Honor thy father and mother: that thy days may be long upon the land.” We memorized and recited it often. Since our mothers bore the weight of both child-rearing and religious education, listening to them was the daily task of obeying God’s Word.
As Americans pause to honor mothers and grandmothers this Mother’s Day, Southern Baptist women like the ones who raised me are speaking out. Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was reluctant in recent weeks to recant past statements that objectified teenage girls and excused domestic abuse. In response, nearly 3,000 women who teach Sunday School and Bible studies in their Southern Baptist churches joined their voices to say that “Jesus is nothing like this.”
He has now offered something of an apology to women who might have been hurt by his words. They were, in his estimation, a mere mistake: “Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been.”
Many Southern Baptist mother’s have responded that an apology is not enough. They are looking for something more biblical than “Sorry.” Having taught the scriptures to many of us, they want repentance.
Anyone who has listened the #MeToo movement’s crescendo from Hollywood to news rooms, boardrooms, and Capitol Hill can hear its echo in these church women’s insistence that a man who has taught in their denomination for decades be held accountable for words that justify harassment and abuse. Southern Baptists are not alone in this demand. Other lesser known church leaders have experienced similar reckonings with past words and actions.
But Paige Patterson fired a graduate student worker who dared to tweet criticism and brushed off admonitions from fellow clergy for weeks. Under mounting pressure, he now hopes to salvage his standing within the SBC with an apology to “every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or lacked clarity.”
While I’ve always been grateful for the lessons I learned in Sunday School, I’m no longer a Southern Baptist because of Paige Patterson.
Two decades ago, shortly after I was called to preach in my home church, Patterson led a conservative takeover of the SBC, claiming that our seminaries had been infiltrated by liberals who were corrupting a generation of future leaders. Patterson became president of the SBC when Bill Clinton, a fellow Baptist from Arkansas who did not align with Patterson’s politics, was facing an investigation into his own inappropriate sexual relationships and abuses of power. Seizing upon Clinton’s “public sin,” Patterson insisted that Clinton’s home church excommunicate him “so that all may learn to fear.”
Meanwhile, in the name of family values, Patterson clarified that fear was to inspire a particular order in our homes—“male headship” paired with “gracious submission” by loving wives, whom he expected to appreciate the leadership of their husbands.
Of course, other Bible scholars disagreed with Patterson’s theology of gender. They observed that Ephesians, which is used as a prooftext for household hierarchy, actually subverts the typical order of ancient households. They argued that this passage asserts that the more powerful member in each relationship—the husband, the parent, the master—has a moral obligation to submit to the less powerful—the wife, the child, the servant. As St. Paul says to the Galatians, “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. You are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Patterson dismissed his critics as “liberals” and instead read St. Paul’s ancient riff on household codes as a biblical justification of them.
Then, as now, Patterson was performing a tradition he had inherited. A century and a half before, Southern Baptists had turned to the very same passage in Ephesians—“slaves, obey your masters”—to justify their separation from fellow Baptists who refused to sanction slaveholding missionaries. Those who opposed slavery were questioning God’s established order, the slaveholder’s religion argued. Its preachers blessed their troops and buried hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead in this faith. Even when the Civil War had ended, they persisted in their belief that white male hegemony was ordained by God. They celebrated the end of Reconstruction as a redemption of that order.
Over a century later, the false moral narrative of slaveholder religion persists in America’s pulpits and in our public square. We cannot honor our mothers in this #MeToo moment without listening to the cries of generations of women who have suffered sexual violence and domestic abuse because of an unrighteous order that we imagined to be from God. Thousands of them are demanding accountability for Paige Patterson. But their demand should challenge all people of faith who have inherited the imagination of slaveholder religion to return to the basic lessons of our faith and ask how we might live differently if we were to listen to our mothers.
For the past two years, I’ve met mothers of deep faith across the country who are similar to those who have confronted Patterson. Christian women in America do not want a cheap apology; they want a revolutionary re-ordering of our shared life. This requires challenging the false prophets who stubbornly defend the status quo. Inspired by a God who blesses the poor and chooses the rejected to bring about transformation, these mothers know they are called to challenge the unjust order of unjust political and economic systems.
This Mother’s Day, I’m committing to remember what I learned in Sunday School. I’m honoring the mothers I’ve known by listening to their cries for justice and joining their fight for a new and more just order in our homes and in our public life.
(Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of multiple books including “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion”)