A few years ago, a prominent Midwest pastor was featured in a brief biopic about his coming to grips with racially charged childhood experiences in South Carolina during the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is a moving story of law and gospel: confession of complicity with the racist perspectives—the “cesspool of sin”–ironies that immersed his childhood, culminating in a passion for racial reconciliation, both through preaching and personal example. The fruit of this passion includes decades of ministry in a diverse urban setting and the adoption of an African-American daughter in mid-age.
Speaking of his daughter, the pastor recalls writing in a letter, “The fact that she’s black is important. God made blackness. And yet, that she is created in the image of God is, not to overstate it, a million times more important.” He continues, “When I look at her I’m going to see a human being created in the very image of God and then secondly, down the line, I’m going to see a particular kind of skin or hair. That’s huge. The Bible brings the image of God to bear on this issue and it’s massively important.”
Wow. That is good stuff—profound and powerful. I can vividly recall the tears streaming down my face the first time I saw this video. It is a vivid portrayal of racial reconciliation in the life of a widely-respected and highly influential Christian leader.
Here’s the problem: This same pastor is a very prominent complementarian.
Irony #1: The mini-documentary is truly a beautiful, incarnational, redemptive work of art. Last year on Martin Luther King Day, I turned to it as a resource to help give my then 10 year-old daughter some perspective on what Dr. King’s life and the Civil Rights movement are all about. It had a profound effect on her. She was clearly moved and applauded the honesty, intensity and insight of the featured pastor. A pit formed in my stomach: “Do I tell her? Do I tell her this same pastor believes with equal passion that she should not be a leader over men in church? Should not preach unless only to children and women? Should not stand on equal footing with her eventual husband if she wants to have a truly Christian marriage?”
How would my daughter possibly make sense of that? Once again tears welled up in my eyes as I contemplated the far reaching impact this leader has had as a high profile complementarian, while at the same time articulating the race-transcending nature of God’s grace to redeem his self-described racist past.
Irony #2: Replace race with gender—“black” with “female”—in the quotation above: “The fact that she’s female is important. God made femininity. And yet, that she is created in the image of God is, not to overstate it, a million times more important. When I look at her I’m going to see a human being created in the very image of God and then secondly, down the line, I’m going to see a particular gender. That’s huge. The Bible brings the image of God to bear on this issue and it’s massively important.”
He spoke these words regarding race. Yet, replace race with gender and it expresses a profound equalitarian argument with which he couldn’t disagree more. The same intellectual and spiritual might simultaneously applied to demolishing distinctions founded on race and reinforcing distinctions founded on gender.
How can this be?!?