Outward Love, Inward Humility | CBE International

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Outward Love, Inward Humility

An Interview With Women’s Advocate and SBC Pastor Wade Burleson

CBE: You have faced harsh criticism for advocating for women in your denomination. What drives you to keep working for change?
 
WB: I am a relative newcomer to the gender debate within the evangelical church. Though I have been a lifelong Southern Baptist, it was not until the last couple of years that I discovered that the leadership of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is composed of a number of Southern Baptists. I was also unaware of the work of Christians for Biblical Equality until about two years ago. Both these organizations are filled with evangelical, Bible-believing Christians, and I have profited from the writings of men and women in both camps. Honestly, I see the scriptural arguments on both sides, and am uninterested in separating from fellowship with any believers who find themselves to be egalitarian or complementarian through their individual study of Scripture. What drives me to work toward change is my personal knowledge of five Baptist women who have either been removed, terminated, or marginalized (in terms of their professional careers in Christian ministry) by men who hold to what I consider an extremely patriarchal viewpoint. 

CBE: What has this gender debate taught you about God? 

WB: I have always felt that God was full of grace, mercy, and love. In working through an understanding of the New Covenant and what it means for all God’s covenant people to experience the full measure of his grace, I have grown to appreciate even more that the pleasure of God is upon all his children because he chooses it to be, and not because any of us deserve it more than another. The full import of this truth makes equal the ground under the feet of men and women, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek, etc.

CBE: What has the debate taught you about justice, human nature, and power? 

WB: Unfortunately, I have seen glimpses of fulfillment of the phrase ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ When men fill positions of power in Christian ministry, there is a tendency, by human nature, to seek to protect their positions from the encroachment of females. The most irritating aspect for me is the attempt by some to justify their subjugation of women by attempting to say the Bible prohibits women from positions of authority, when in reality, there are no such biblical prohibitions at all.  I’m not talking about the office of pastor, (even though I understand the arguments on both sides of that issue), but rather, other positions that are frequently held by women such as Hebrew professors at seminaries, missionaries on the field, and administrators at Christian agencies. 

CBE: Do you think the church will come to a consensus on giving women equal positions of service beside men? 

WB: I believe just discussing the issue is helpful and healthy. The one benefit of speaking out on this issue is to combat the silly accusation that any Christian who holds to egalitarianism is automatically a ‘liberal.’ It has been good for my denomination to see that conservative Christians can articulate their egalitarian views based upon a high view of Scripture. My sole goal personally has been to help us to see there ought not be any division of fellowship because of disagreement on this issue. I also predict that in thirty years the vast majority of Christians will be practical egalitarians if not theological egalitarians. In other words, I do believe the church will come to a consensus on women having equal positions of service beside men, and that consensus will eventually be an egalitarian one. I also believe when future Christian generations look back at ours, they will wonder why we even fussed over the issue.

CBE: Do you think the church needs to come to a consensus on the gender issue?

WB: If we were healthy and humble and demonstrated love for one other in spite of our differences, then the church would not need to come to a consensus on this issue. We could cooperate with each other while disagreeing. A church might call a female pastor, while another church like mine might believe that decision to be unwise, or even unbiblical. However, if the complementarian congregation could exhibit a little humility, admit they could be wrong in their interpretation, simply hold to what they see Scripture to teach, and not condemn another congregation who sees it differently, then there would be no need to come to a consensus. Personally, I think we all need to work a little bit on our outward love and inward humility. 

CBE: What do you say to those who feel you are just stirring up unnecessary conflict?

WB: I am responding to the injustice I see around me. Had I never met the female Hebrew professor, had I never known the female vice-president of one of our denominational agencies, had I never spoken with several female missionaries, and had I never met the female church staff members who were marginalized, denigrated, and in some cases removed because of their gender, I would not be saying anything about this issue. It is not an ivory tower theological issue to me — it is a very practical issue with a human face.

CBE: As you have spoken out for many different women, what has moved you the most? 

WB: When the tenure track Hebrew professor at Southwestern Theological Seminary (a woman awarded a Bachelors degree by a baptist college, a Masters degree in Hebrew by a baptist seminary, and a Doctorate in Hebrew by Southwestern Theological Seminary) is hired by trustees at SWBTS to teach Hebrew, only to be terminated by a man who holds to an extremely patriarchal theology, and then finds herself having to sell her blood to meet family expenses — that changes you. 

When I realized that was happening, I said, “This is it — I cannot allow this to go on.”

CBE: You seem to have a great interest in history. What insights have you gained from history as you consider this current gender debate?

WB: It seems to me that those concerned about gender discrimination should read the playbook of the radical Christian abolitionists of the 1850s and 1860s. In my mind, the gender debate and slavery have much in common. Both blacks and women have been suppressed because of physiological differences with white men. Unlike homosexuality, which is a matter of sinful behavior, being a woman or being black is not a sin. Some might argue that what a woman does is a sin, but not being a woman. Of course, it was said in the 1850s and 1860s that being ‘black’ was not a sin — but for a black man to want to do what a white man did was. Thankfully, we now have a culture where it is becoming easier for blacks to do what whites do. One of these days our culture will feel the same about women. And, it has nothing to do with the ‘feminist’ movement. It has everything to do with the gospel.

CBE: In your recent post on the Battle of Shiloh, you wrote “I am reminded that great struggles, which ultimately bring about significant change, often present the deepest ironies.” How have you seen this in your work for women?

WB: The biggest irony to me is the fact that our Southern Baptist Confession of Faith only prohibits women from the ‘office of pastor,’ yet some Southern Baptists wish to prohibit women from every position within the church or any other office outside the church that has any kind of authority over men. Further, when women serve on Southern Baptist church staffs, complementarian congregations call them ‘directors’ rather than ‘ministers,’ though these gifted women are ministering and serving just like a man would in the same position, a man the congregation would bestow the title ‘minister’ upon were he in it. It reminds me of the old fable ‘The Emperor Has No Clothes.” I sometimes wonder if Southern Baptists really think women aren’t ministering if they simply don’t call them a minister. Who are we fooling? God?

CBE: Why do you think this is such an emotionally charged issue for Christians? Is there a way to discuss this, without such intense emotion? Or do you think that emotional connection is necessary?

WB: My last year serving as President of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (2004), I was presiding over a business session where a woman was elected as vice-president for the first time in the history of our state convention. During the vote for this position between the woman who eventually won and her male counterpart, male messengers turned their back on the platform when it came time to vote on the woman. 

I was asked to help plan a national conference that would debate the gender issue We were discussing the big names that we would invite on both sides. There are some wonderful egalitarian scholars that are conservative and evangelical, just as there are on the complementarian side. However, I proposed for us to really host an impartial conference, we would need to invite a female scholar to make presentations at the conference on behalf of the egalitarian side. I was told this would be impossible because the complementarian men would leave the auditorium. 

I have seen the emotion to which you refer. Why is it there? Because some honestly believe the Bible’s commands about women’s roles in the church are being violated. The only way this kind of emotion can be removed in the discussion of this issue is for both sides to acknowledge the possibility of error in their interpretations. Notice, I am not saying someone must say “I am in error.” That would be foolish. We practice our Christianity according to our beliefs. So an egalitarian will practice egalitarianism, and a complementarian will practice practice complementarianism (although I see more and more complementarians who are functionally egalitarians). 

To admit the possibility of error is to allow others to be free to practice their Christian faith the way they interpret Scripture, without condemning or judging them, and without forcing them to practice it the way you see it. I just do not believe this is an issue over which Christians should divide.

CBE: Do you have days where you feel like giving up? What words of encouragement do you have for the many individuals working for biblical equality in their churches and communities?

WB: To give up indicates that you are actually working at something. The only thing I desire is for love to increase among the people of Christ, and that is not what I would call “work” as much as I would “Christianity.” I will never give up on that. 

For those who are working towards equality I would simply encourage you to be humble. Read articles on both sides — particularly the side with which you may not agree. Stay informed of the issues, and write about them on your blog or contribute articles to magazines. Don’t be afraid to discuss the issues. Study Scripture and be ready to give an answer to the person who asks you for the reason for the hope within. And above all, be humble in your approach and love people who disagree.

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