I’m really not against the family—honest. Just ask my wonderful wife of 18 years and my three (great) kids.
I’m really not against the Bible—really. I spent 13 years working toward a doctorate so that I could teach the Bible as a Southern Baptist seminary professor. What I am against is the disgusting and deceptive way that some use the Bible to oppress and manipulate faithful, honest church folks.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s recent “statement on the family,” which faculty members at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were asked to sign, presents a case in point. One of its more controversial parts says that husbands should provide for, protect and lead the family. The wife should submit graciously to her husband’s “servant leadership,” manage the household and nurture the kids.
Yes, it actually says wives should run the house and take care of the kids.
What it boils down to is another shot fired in the culture war ensnaring our society. The “powers that be” among Southern Baptists would like nothing better than to drag our society—kicking and screaming if necessary—back to the 1950s. In fact, one critic called the SBC statement the “June Cleaver” approach to motherhood.
But what looks good on the surface may simply serve as a mask for a darker reality. I doubt that the ‘50s were as pure, wholesome or “Christian” as religious right-wingers claim.
Do you really think that all our social and moral problems began with the ‘60s? I have a hard time believing that sexual abuse, pornography, child abuse and domestic violence—not to mention the more obvious problems, like racism, greed and dishonesty— grew to such epidemic levels only recently.
In the process of this highly political campaign, Southern Baptist leaders didn’t think twice about doing what they do so often: twisting the Bible to make their point. (Why let Holy Writ get in the way of a good sermon?)
To understand the Bible’s teaching about the family, you have to look at the historical background. A text without a context is a pretext, as is sometimes said.
In the first-century world, the man of the family had absolute authority. His wife, children and slaves had no choice but to obey him.
Baptist Faith & Message Article XVIII. The Family
God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood, or adoption.
Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
Children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord. Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth. Children are to honor and obey their parents.
The apostle Paul took that family model and turned it upside down. He taught early Christians that one of the marks of God’s presence in their lives was submitting to one another by showing humility respect and a willingness to give in. Although the word for “submit” was used in military settings for a “chain of command,” that is definitely not the way Paul used it!
Paul then applied the principle of mutual submission to families. He not only told wives, children and slaves to practice that kind of humble respect, but he also expected men to do the same. What a radical departure from the “family values” of the day—husbands were to be considerate toward their wives, parents were to treat their children with dignity, and masters were to view slaves as fellow human beings!
So it seems that when the SBC statement places a fairly lopsided weight on wives submitting to their husbands, it works against what the Bible has in mind.
What really clinched it for me, though, was the way the Southern Baptist spin doctors tried to support the family statement. They knew that the term submission has all kinds of negative undertones for most people these days. So they justified their use of it by stating that women have “separate function” but are equal in worth.
So yeah, “separate” but “equal.” That combination was not lost on many of us.
That got me thinking about T. B. Maston, one of my forerunners at Southwestern. Maston was a professor of ethics and a true civil rights pioneer. He was calling for racial integration—even for white SBC churches in the South—in the 1930s! His portrait hangs outside my former office, and I’ve often found myself asking him what he would do with the mess we’ve had in the SBC during the last few years.
I tried to imagine what Maston would have done if Southern Baptists had come up with a statement on race relations calling for segregration as the “biblical” approach. (Yes, many SBC churches were preaching in those days that segregation of the races was “God’s plan” for human society.) Well, there is no way under the sun that Maston would have signed something like that.
At that moment, I knew what I had to do. In one sense, however, I really shouldn’t compare myself with Maston. He faced death threats for his views. I’ve just had to give up my life’s dream. But then, I’m not alone in that, am I?
Of course, my friends know that the real reason why I didn’t sign is because my wife wouldn’t let me.
This article originally appeared as a letter to the Editor of the Star-Telegram (March 19, 1999) and is reprinted with the author’s permission.