“Skip a meal, if you must, but buy this book!” That was the professorial exhortation eager students would take to heart when I was in seminary. In those days before personal computers and the various BibleWorks-type programs, the most precious of such must-buy books were the reference books.
Many days we would go to the reference section of the bookstore and thumb longingly through various volumes, clutching the little money we were earning as student assistant ministers in various churches, storing it up for that great sacred event—in my young mind approaching something like the stirring of the waters of the pool at Bethesda (John 5:7)—that rare, unpredictable, wonderful phenomenon: the bookstore clearance sale day.
On end-of-the-semester sale days, as soon as the door opened, everybody would scurry to the shelves or to the long table set out in the center of the little seminary bookstore, jostling each other as we hunted for the books we thought would be most helpful in what we imagined would be our future ministries. This being New Jersey, some of the competition could get pretty stiff. One assistant professor, I recall, tried to wheedle a copy of German Lutheran pastor and psychologist Kurt Koch’s Christian Counseling and Occultism out of a student who got to it first. As I remember, his plea was that he would have a wider use for it than the student would, but the look on the student’s face and the death grip he had on the book suggested it was time for this hapless young prof to ask the publisher for a desk copy.
The fact is, when, for the better part of a semester, one has been eyeing the lone copy of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church in its old lovely light green wrapper, and in an instant someone else makes it to the shelf a hair’s breadth earlier and buys it out from under one, even the most saintly can turn surly.
For me, as a New Testament major in the Greek and Hebrew language tracks, the crowning moment came when A. T. Robertson’s classic A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research—all one thousand, four hundred and fifty four pages (stuffed with insights), which had been marked at a hefty $25, was suddenly slashed to $19.55—an unheard-of 20 percent discount! Two copies had been on the shelf. One was left. I dove on it like a tackle at the Super Bowl. I doubt if the president of the seminary could have talked me out of it had he been there. To me, it was like finding the key to the Scripture itself. Sure, I knew I would not be able to understand most of it at that point in my fledgling studies, but I also knew I would keep learning, and bit by bit I would understand the Bible through this marvelous resource. Forty years later, my wife and I are still relying on A. T. Robertson for the tough constructions (and readers can find references to Robertson’s insights peppered throughout our writings).
Years later, my wife felt God’s calling to complete her education in New Testament, as a result of an opportunity to teach Bible for several years for New York Theological Seminary. In our “spare time,” we had also spun off a college-level ministry to pastors of storefront churches, which we were running for the Salvation Army in the then-existing Newark Central Corps building and for the Church of God in Christ in storefront churches in Newark and Jersey City and on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant. (The spinoff program was being accredited by Dr. Bob Cook and The King’s College, which at that time was still out in Briarcliff Manor, New York, but even then had a heart for urban ministry.)
As Aída prayed about where God wanted her to go and we visited prospective schools, she sensed God leading her to choose Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Heaven’s choice made perfect sense to her. After all, every time we opened our by now well-worn copy of Dr. Robertson’s magnum opus, we read: “by a. t. robertson, m.a., d.d., ll.d., litt.d., Professor of Interpretation of the New Testament in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Louisville, Ky.” This was the school that carried on the legacy of A. T. Robertson. Appropriately, it also had the largest New Testament faculty, at the time, in the United States.
When we visited it, sure enough, we met wonderful, godly professors whose subsequent encouragement of her work through the four blessed years we spent there remain with us as models of how we ourselves should treat our seminarians: with kindness and rigor, but also with godly fellowship and friendly camaraderie.
Was it a problem for a woman to attend? Not in 1978. After all, A. T. Robertson himself, whose books we had been gathering into our library and reading assiduously, had raised the issue of the leadership of women in a way open to consideration. When commenting on Peter applying the prophecy in Joel 2:28ff to Pentecost in volume 3 of his Word Pictures in the New Testament, Prof. Robertson had written:
Paul in 1 Cor. 11.5 gives directions about praying and prophesying by the women (apparently in public worship) with the head uncovered and sharply requires the head covering, though not forbidding the praying and prophesying. With this must be compared his demand for silence by the women in 1 Cor. 14:34–40 and 1 Tim. 2:8–15 which it is not easy to reconcile. One wonders if there was not something known to Paul about special conditions in Corinth and Ephesus that he has not told.1
Always with an eye on the pastor as well as on the scholar, Dr. Robertson then applied this question to the reality of ministry in modern times:
Today in our Sunday schools the women do most of the actual teaching. The whole problem is difficult and calls for restraint and reverence. One thing is certain and that is that Luke appreciated the services of women for Christ as is shown often in his writings (Luke 8:1–3, for instance) before this incident.2
After our exhausting ministry in Newark and environs, we thrived in Louisville. We became the masters in residence at Seminary Village, the huge complex for married students. Our son, Steve, was born two months after we arrived and had his formative years in the warm hug of a vast young Christian community with children running everywhere. Aída composed her first book as her dissertation, Paul’s Literary Style, which was subsequently published by the Evangelical Theological Society in its monograph series and endorsed by three former ETS presidents on its back cover: Wilber Wallis, Simon Kistemaker, and Alan Johnson, and remains in print today, twenty-eight years later. We made lasting friendships with fellow students in all programs. And, in everything, she was treated with courtesy and encouragement by everyone. We bless the memory of our time at Southern.
Today, the Southern Baptist Convention still seeks to honor women, noting, “numerous passages speak clearly and forcibly to the inherent worth and value of women,” and acknowledging, “women in the New Testament engaged in significant ministry, performing valuable service in sometimes difficult situations. This is readily seen in the Acts of the Apostles.” This officially copywritten statement by the Convention states, “Furthermore, women are an integral and invaluable part of the Body of Christ, serving in a broad variety of important roles as volunteers and vocational ministers,” and adds in bold letters: “We don’t know how to say this more strongly: women and men are of equal value!”
What is missing, however, in this statement issued this year “by staff of the Executive Committee of the SBC,” are the insights and subtler readings of A. T. Robertson, along with the full encouragement to develop all of women’s gifts that we experienced at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We cannot help but lament the passing of what made our experience at Southern so life affirming, so “can-do”: its calling for 100 percent of the church to realize its full gifts to serve God in official capacities, not just affording that opportunity to what is now often 45 percent or even 40 percent or less in some churches, us men. Instead, sadly, we are now told this spirit of service has been “revised” away by “the revision to the Baptist Faith and Message which reads, ‘While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”3
The way this decision plays out in education is that women are now precluded from the very courses and seminars—the advanced learning—that nourished my wife as a scholar. How many dissertations like hers that could have enriched and advanced the whole church of Jesus Christ will never be written? How many women will have the full extent of their God-given gifts atrophy within them because of this change of policy? How many present-
day Lottie Moons, for example, are now being restricted in their preparation for pursuing ministry in the complex world we live in today?
The Southern Baptist Convention is, of course, not without a multitude of prophetic voices, objecting through blogging and speaking and by keeping the recent history of the church as a fully discipling vehicle of God’s grace before the present leadership. For example, one critic who a decade ago worshiped “in the same Southern Baptist church” as some of the present leaders of Southern Seminary, “when the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was passed,” writes: “Allow me to ask the inevitable question: Is the Southern Baptist Convention better off today than it was in 2000? Absolutely not!” and adds, “I believe the complementarian position, which has been highly promoted by SBC leaders over the last decade, has contributed greatly to the decline in membership and baptisms in the denomination.”4 Those who engineered the revision are clearly well-meaning Christian people who feel they are honoring the true intent of the Bible. But what if they are wrong? How much damage to the full potential of the formerly mighty Southern Baptist Convention is being done? Would it not have been wiser to continue to follow the careful steps of A. T. Robertson and in true congregational style let churches continue to decide, rather than retreat to a more hierarchical ecclesiastical style where the larger body decides for individual churches? That seems much less congregational and Baptistic, since it is ruling in matters that are not directly Trinitarian or soteriological, departing, as it is, from a practice of congregational freedom in matters that are not dogmatic that has stood the SBC in such good stead for so many years until a mere dozen years ago.
For ourselves, in our hearts, my wife and I have great love and gratitude for the gift of training that first A. T. Robertson and then the saints at Southern Seminary gave her. Both our lives and ministry have been enriched immeasurably by the lasting impact of that wonderful gathering of godly brothers and sisters, and we will always remain grateful for the privilege to learn and share in the blessing of fellowship that we received at Southern in the SBC’s golden years.
Along these lines, this present issue of Priscilla Papers deals with reassessing trends in biblical interpretation that may have cost all of us a similar price by truncating the full effectiveness of the church of Jesus Christ on earth. To correct these, Philip Payne opens with a splendid concise study revealing the Bible’s position on the equal standing of men and women in God’s service. Next, J. G. Brown takes a fresh look at 1 Timothy 2:11–14. Kevin Giles follows with a perceptive reassessment of historic doctrines of the Trinity, including a fascinating analysis of the actual intention of the patristic doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Arbutus Lichti Sider then shows us how all of these limited readings impact our lives by reviewing the plight of Gayle Haggard, as expressed in her recent book Why I Stayed, and Megan DeFranza assesses an attempt to understand biblical sexuality. Beulah Wood evaluates recent books on Prisca and Aquila and Phoebe. Our poem provides a new image for Prisca and Aquila as beauty in service (in the spirit of Isa 52:7), matched with an old image, as our cover once again presents a photograph from an unknown photographer of the 1930s (?), found among my parents’ keepsakes.
All in all, we hope this issue encourages all of us to keep reassessing how culturally bound our readings of Scripture may actually be and whether they are in actuality quenching the movement of the Holy Spirit or empowering the full body of Christ.
- Archibald Thomas Robertson, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 3 of Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1930), 363.
- Robertson, The Acts of the Apostles, 363.
- Quotations are all drawn from Staff of the Executive Committee of the SBC, “Southern Baptists and Women Pastors,” http://www.baptist2baptist.net/b2article.asp?ID=58, Southern Baptist Convention Web site, accessed Feb. 7, 2012.
- Wanda (Deb) Martin, “Complementarianism and the SBC,” The Wartburg Watch, http://thewartburgwatch.com/2012/01/09/complementarianism-and-the-sbc/, posted Jan. 9, 2012, accessed Feb. 2, 2012.