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On Mother’s Day, let’s listen to our moms’ cries for justice

Candace and Chris Wohl with their daughter. The couple struggled with infertility issues for years. Photo courtesy of Ashley Whitlow Photography

The following is a guest post from Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

When I was growing up in North Carolina, my parents took me to Sunday School, where Southern Baptist women made sure I learned a few lessons well: Jesus loved me, the Bible was God’s holy Word, and I should always listen to my mother.

The Bible commanded us to “Honor thy father and mother: that thy days may be long upon the land.” We memorized and recited it often. Since our mothers bore the weight of both child-rearing and religious education, listening to them was the daily task of obeying God’s Word.

As Americans pause to honor mothers and grandmothers this Mother’s Day,  Southern Baptist women like the ones who raised me are speaking out. Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was reluctant in recent weeks to recant past statements that objectified teenage girls and excused domestic abuse. In response, nearly 3,000 women who teach Sunday School and Bible studies in their Southern Baptist churches joined their voices to say that “Jesus is nothing like this.”

He has now offered something of an apology to women who might have been hurt by his words. They were, in his estimation, a mere mistake: “Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been.”

Many Southern Baptist mother’s have responded that an apology is not enough. They are looking for something more biblical than “Sorry.” Having taught the scriptures to many of us, they want repentance.

Anyone who has listened the #MeToo movement’s crescendo from Hollywood to news rooms, boardrooms, and Capitol Hill can hear its echo in these church women’s insistence that a man who has taught in their denomination for decades be held accountable for words that justify harassment and abuse. Southern Baptists are not alone in this demand. Other lesser known church leaders have experienced similar reckonings with past words and actions.

But Paige Patterson fired a graduate student worker who dared to tweet criticism and brushed off admonitions from fellow clergy for weeks. Under mounting pressure, he now hopes to salvage his standing within the SBC with an apology to “every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or lacked clarity.”

While I’ve always been grateful for the lessons I learned in Sunday School, I’m no longer a Southern Baptist because of Paige Patterson.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of “Reconstructing the Gospel” – Image courtesy of InterVarsity Press

Two decades ago, shortly after I was called to preach in my home church, Patterson led a conservative takeover of the SBC, claiming that our seminaries had been infiltrated by liberals who were corrupting a generation of future leaders. Patterson became president of the SBC when Bill Clinton, a fellow Baptist from Arkansas who did not align with Patterson’s politics, was facing an investigation into his own inappropriate sexual relationships and abuses of power. Seizing upon Clinton’s “public sin,” Patterson insisted that Clinton’s home church excommunicate him “so that all may learn to fear.”

Meanwhile, in the name of family values, Patterson clarified that fear was to inspire a particular order in our homes—“male headship” paired with “gracious submission” by loving wives, whom he expected to appreciate the leadership of their husbands.

READ: “How American Christians can break free from ‘slaveholder religion'”

Of course, other Bible scholars disagreed with Patterson’s theology of gender. They observed that Ephesians, which is used as a prooftext for household hierarchy, actually subverts the typical order of ancient households. They argued that this passage asserts that the more powerful member in each relationship—the husband, the parent, the master—has a moral obligation to submit to the less powerful—the wife, the child, the servant. As St. Paul says to the Galatians, “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free. You are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Patterson dismissed his critics as “liberals” and instead read St. Paul’s ancient riff on household codes as a biblical justification of them.

Then, as now, Patterson was performing a tradition he had inherited. A century and a half before, Southern Baptists had turned to the very same passage in Ephesians—“slaves, obey your masters”—to justify their separation from fellow Baptists who refused to sanction slaveholding missionaries. Those who opposed slavery were questioning God’s established order, the slaveholder’s religion argued. Its preachers blessed their troops and buried hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead in this faith. Even when the Civil War had ended, they persisted in their belief that white male hegemony was ordained by God. They celebrated the end of Reconstruction as a redemption of that order.

Over a century later, the false moral narrative of slaveholder religion persists in America’s pulpits and in our public square. We cannot honor our mothers in this #MeToo moment without listening to the cries of generations of women who have suffered sexual violence and domestic abuse because of an unrighteous order that we imagined to be from God. Thousands of them are demanding accountability for Paige Patterson. But their demand should challenge all people of faith who have inherited the imagination of slaveholder religion to return to the basic lessons of our faith and ask how we might live differently if we were to listen to our mothers.

For the past two years, I’ve met mothers of deep faith across the country who are similar to those who have confronted Patterson. Christian women in America do not want a cheap apology; they want a revolutionary re-ordering of our shared life. This requires challenging the false prophets who stubbornly defend the status quo. Inspired by a God who blesses the poor and chooses the rejected to bring about transformation, these mothers know they are called to challenge the unjust order of unjust political and economic systems.

This Mother’s Day, I’m committing to remember what I learned in Sunday School. I’m honoring the mothers I’ve known by listening to their cries for justice and joining their fight for a new and more just order in our homes and in our public life.

(Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of multiple books including “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion”)

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

10 Comments

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  • It’ll do us all good to pause and think ONLY on these words from brother Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove:

    “Ephesians … subverts the typical order of ancient households.”

    BUT NOT FURTHER, on his qualifier that goes with that fleeting statement.

    Because if read into this epistle, as he insisted, “St. Paul’s ancient riff on household codes as a biblical justification of them”, then “Ephesians … subverts the typical order of ancient households” NO LONGER, doesn’t it? So what’s the point of saying something like that out of unbelief in the first place?

    BOTTOMLINE, see, brother Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove – DEEP DOWN – really doesn’t believe that “Ephesians … subverts the typical order of ancient households.”

    WELL, I DO. Just as I believe Ephesians DOES subvert ancient slavery and racism as well. Though not ancient anti-LGTBQ movement, which never was a sticky issue in the 1st apostolic churches, thank God & Jesus.

  • As Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes,

    “A century and a half before, Southern Baptists had turned to the very same passage in Ephesians—’slaves, obey your masters’—to justify their separation from fellow Baptists who refused to sanction slaveholding missionaries.

    And as Rachel Held Evans also notes,

    “In every case, ‘wives submit to your husbands’ appears in the same context as ‘slaves obey your masters.’ And yet I’m constantly told we need to consider context & culture with the latter but not the former…”

    https://twitter.com/rachelheldevans/status/994222153217298432

    Give some Christians the wrong side of history’s moral arc to choose in struggles for human rights, and they’ll choose it every time, moving from the defense of slavery to the defense of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation to attacks on the rights of women and LGBTQ human beings.

    Quoting the bible all the while, never learning any lessons at all from the experience of having quoted the bible to support what is insupportable in the past, as they stood proudly and defiantly on the opposite side of history’s moral arc, identifying Christianity with what is ugliest and meanest in human culture — over and over and over again….

  • In the nineteenth century in the South, Baptists welcomed slaves and free blacks as members, although as in the North blacks were usually segregated in seating. Individual congregations, including prominent black congregations, held opposing views on slavery.

    What led to the split was disagreement over ministers being slaveholders.

    The Triennial Convention and the Home Mission Society of Baptists had adopted a kind of neutrality concerning slavery, neither condoning nor condemning it. During the “Georgia Test Case” of 1844, the Georgia State Convention proposed that the slaveholder Elder James E. Reeve be appointed as a missionary. The Foreign Mission Board refused to approve his appointment.

    The Home Mission Society’s board noted that missionaries were not allowed to take servants with them, which meant he could not take slaves, and tthey would not make a decision that appeared to endorse slavery.

    The southern Baptists – effectively excluded from the missions – met at the First Baptist Church of Augusta in May, 1845, and formed a new convention, naming it the Southern Baptist Convention.

    While there is some relationship between racial issues, women’s rights issues, and the current consideration of “LGBTQ” issues, suggesting that this or that is on “the wrong side of history’s moral arc” represents the sort of Triumphalism that presents a particular position as “inevitable” arising out of a Marxist -tainted theory of history and class conflict.

    As history demonstrates those predictions of inevitability are rarely borne out, the most common outcome being a compromise which recognizes the underlying self-evident reality that all are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, which are recognized without placing one party’s boot on the neck of the other party.

    Since the church is made up of people, Christianity is always identified with both sides of any minor or major difference of opinion in the political realm.

  • Who is the mother in a homosexual “marriage” between 2 men? Which man is honored on mother’s day?

  • Thanks for the history lesson, Mr. “Arnzen.”

    I grew up Southern Baptist.

    In Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

    I know very well the history of the church to which my family has belonged for generations.

    No amount of whitewashing will disguise the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention was formed to place Southern Baptists on the side of slavery.

    Well, perhaps I should say that no amount of whitewashing will disguise these historical truths for anyone who cares about the truth.

  • “Mr.” Lindsey, lots of people grew up in lots of churches.

    That does not make them expert in the history of those churches.

    If you found an error in my short recap, please do point it out – beyond simply noting you have a contrary opinion.

    No amount of triumphalism about the historic inevitability of positions you favor makes them inevitable.

    No number of attempts to connect the “LGBTQ”movement to the civil rights movement of the 60s or the feminist movement of the 70s decreases the distance between those movements and your own.

  • “Mr.” “Arnzen”:

    I’m afraid you are not well-informed about the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and what led to its splitting the Baptist churches in the U.S. over the issue of slavery.

    You write, “What led to the split was disagreement over ministers being slaveholders.”

    But here’s what Southern Baptists themselves state in their 1995 “Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention” (http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/899):

    “WHEREAS, Our relationship to African-Americans has been hindered from the beginning by the role that slavery played in the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention; and

    WHEREAS, Many of our Southern Baptist forbears defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery; and

    WHEREAS, In later years Southern Baptists failed, in many cases, to support, and in some cases opposed, legitimate initiatives to secure the civil rights of African-Americans; and

    WHEREAS, Racism has led to discrimination, oppression, injustice, and violence, both in the Civil War and throughout the history of our nation; and

    WHEREAS, Racism has divided the body of Christ and Southern Baptists in particular, and separated us from our African-American brothers and sisters; and

    WHEREAS, Many of our congregations have intentionally and/or unintentionally excluded African-Americans from worship, membership, and leadership; and

    WHEREAS, Racism profoundly distorts our understanding of Christian morality, leading some Southern Baptists to believe that racial prejudice and discrimination are compatible with the Gospel; and

    WHEREAS, Jesus performed the ministry of reconciliation to restore sinners to a right relationship with the Heavenly Father, and to establish right relations among all human beings, especially within the family of faith.

    Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers to the Sesquicentennial meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, assembled in Atlanta, Georgia, June 20-22, 1995, unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin; and

    Be it further RESOLVED, That we affirm the Bibles teaching that every human life is sacred, and is of equal and immeasurable worth, made in Gods image, regardless of race or ethnicity (Genesis 1:27), and that, with respect to salvation through Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for (we) are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28); and

    Be it further RESOLVED, That we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past….”

    Why did the Southern Baptist Convention confess its need to repent of the sin of having supported slavery and having split the churches due to that sin? Well, perahps because of statements of leading Baptist divines like Dr. Richard Furman in his “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists, Relative to the Colored Population in the United States in a Communication to the Governor of South-Carolina” (1822) (http://history.furman.edu/~benson/docs/rcd-fmn1.htm).

    Richard Furman states:

    The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.

    Or perhaps we should look at the words of Rev. Ebenezer W. Warren, pastor of First Baptist Church, Macon, Georgia, in his sermon”The Scriptural Vindication of Slavery” (1861):

    Slavery forms a vital element of the Divine Revelation to man. Its institution, regulation, and perpetuity, constitute a part of many of the books of the Bible…

    Both Christianity and Slavery are from Heaven; both are blessings to humanity; both are to be perpetuated to the end of time; and therefore both have been protected and defended by God’s omnipotent arm from the assaults, oppositions and persecutions through which they have passed.

    Or we may want to look at the words of Rev. Thornton Stringfellow in”Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments” (1860) (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28148/28148-h/28148-h.htm):

    Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command. … Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham’s descendant’s among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.

    It’s ludicrous — it’s historical nonsense — to claim that Southern Baptists did not split the Baptist church in the U.S. over the issue of slavery. Not even Southern Baptists themselves (of whom you are, it appears, not one) make such a claim.

  • Thank you for multiple quotations demonstrating the divide that existed among Baptists in the South over slavery, a divide I mentioned in my short summary.

    Of course it is not “historical nonsense” to note that it was not a Southern Baptist endorsement of slavery that led to the split, but the refusal of Southern Baptists to condemn slavery, which in turn hampered their role in convening with Northern Baptists.

    And, yes, the SBC did apologize for that refusal.

    A similar situation existed among the Presbyterians, with most southerners aligned with the Old School Presbyterian Church, whose General Assembly was reluctant to rule on moral and political questions not explicitly addressed in the Bible.

    It would be historical nonsense, however, to claim inevitability of a particular resolution of a political conflict, as history demonstrates those predictions of inevitability are rarely borne out, the most common outcome being a compromise which recognizes the underlying self-evident reality that all are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, which are recognized without placing one party’s boot on the neck of the other party.

    Since the church is made up of people, Christianity is always identified with both sides of any minor or major difference of opinion in the political realm.

    Btw, I was under the impression you were at least nominally Catholic, not Baptist.

  • My poor dad…………he is dying, mean while my mom is suing him for not having one night off during the week to not have to prepare meals for the family. Hit him while he is down.
    Such a shame my mom was forced to stay home and take care of us children from grade 1 through 12.

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