Lighting a fire can have cleansing effects, or it can grow out of control. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Rob Howard

When black women talked about race and gender in the church

(RNS) Three black women leveled with two black men about the challenges they experience in conservative Christian spaces that marginalize women — and a white man’s response was to try to destroy them.

The enlightening discussion, titled "Gender Apartheid" from the “Truth’s Table” podcast, centered on the damage of “extrabiblical confinement of gender roles” in the church. The hosts were St. Louis worship director and activist Michelle Higgins; Christina Edmondson, a dean at Calvin College; and Ekemini Uwan, a Westminster Theological Seminary alumna.

Amid “amens” from listeners who agree that more opportunities need to be made for women to use their gifts in the church, was one very noisy critic, Todd Pruitt, lead pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Harrisonburg, Va. Pruitt is also a blogger at Mortification of Spin, hosted by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Launched in February, “Truth’s Table” has gotten its biggest lift thanks to Pruitt's bizarre attack on the women and his mischaracterization of their “Gender Apartheid” conversation with Tyler Burns and Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network. Burns and Tisby assumed a listening posture in the episode but were also frank about their questions, blind spots and disagreements. Most of the podcast participants belong to conservative Presbyterian denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church in America, an 80 percent white Reformed body that ordains only men.

In his effort “to keep these unbiblical ideas from spreading any further in the PCA and corrupting our Lord's church,” Pruitt cranked out a shallow 368-word one-sided “discussion.” In it, he railed against the "shocking" episode — in which black women revealed ways in which they feel sidelined in ministry by their Christian brothers’ restricting believers to supposed "feminine" or "masculine" work or spaces. Pruitt rallied the troops to immediately report the women and their male guests to the respective presbyteries for allegedly “dismiss(ing) the biblical pattern of male leadership within the church as nothing more than a manmade rule” and “mock(ing) those who uphold that biblical pattern.” The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals reportedly also emailed followers with the same instructions. I don't know the size of the ACE's mailing list, but the 23-year-old organization has more than 24,000 online followers.

There is such a thing as a good fire — when, for example, firefighters do safe, controlled burns for the benefit of an ecosystem. Then, there are wildfires, sometimes caused by arson, that rage without reason, destroying humans and homes.

Pruitt’s unsupported attack on his PCA brothers and sisters' “Gender Apartheid” discussion was an act of arson. Without first directly engaging the “women and men with leadership responsibilities” about their intentions with the episode, as Jesus instructs believers to do (Matthew 18:15-20), Pruitt publicly disparaged them and called for their destruction. He threw a lit match and walked away. All under the pretense of wanting to protect the Lord's church.

Pruitt dismissed the black women's concerns as “typical boilerplate liberation theology” (the hosts had talked about “Christian liberty,” “liberty” and “freedom”). He noted their “crude language” (penis) and “nod of legitimacy to transgenderism” (a salve of acknowledgment of transgender persons) but apparently was unable to find any legitimacy in their experiences as Christian women. I wonder if he would have dismissed the content of “Gender Apartheid” as “typical boilerplate liberation theology” if the participants were white.

Now, Pruitt is the victim, of course. In an effort to avoid mounting negative attention, he deleted his ridiculous commentary (titled "Old Error for a New Generation") from his blog, although the ACE republished the post to its main page to apparently keep "this important conversation" alive. Pruitt explained in a new half-baked post why he decided to retreat from the inferno he started — “wicked” and “filthy” charges of racism being leveled against him. I suspect his April Fool's Day post was in fact inspired by this thorough corrective from another PCA pastor.

Pruitt has yet to at least publicly confess that he flaunted the Bible's instructions to first go to his brothers and sisters with his concerns instead of starting a fire. I won't hold my breath that he will ask himself why or even offer an apology.

(Nicola A. Menzie is a journalist based in New York City and founder of Faithfully Magazine, a news and lifestyle publication centering on Christian communities of color)