Opinion by David Von Drehle
Years ago, I lived in New York City and attended Grace Church, a historic Episcopal parish on Broadway at 10th Street. The beauty of the Gothic-style building was matched by the glorious choir. Yet the most memorable aspect of the experience was the frequent preaching of the Rev. Fleming Rutledge, who is regarded as one of the most intelligent pulpit presences in Christendom.
It did not do to contemplate the lovely stained glass while Rutledge was speaking. You had to pay close attention to every word. An analysis of Scripture in the fourth minute of the sermon could hold the key that unlocked everything 20 intricate minutes later. Here was a great mind harnessed to a deep faith to create a CrossFit for the soul.
I mention that wonderful experience as a way of introducing the latest controversy inside the Southern Baptist Convention. Internal letters and secret recordings leaked in recent days suggest that the nation’s largest (though dwindling) Protestant denomination has not come to grips with the problem of sexually predatory pastors.
That failing cannot be separated, it seems to me, from the theological sexism at the top of the SBC. When the convention holds its annual meeting this week, a key bit of business will be the reaffirmation of a doctrine euphemistically called complementarianism. It holds that even so great a preacher as Fleming Rutledge is an abomination on account of the fact that Fleming Rutledge is a woman.
Mike Stone, former chairman of the SBC executive committee and a leading candidate for the denomination presidency, is a firm proponent of complementarianism, which says men and women have separate roles, and men are the ones in charge. Among the nearly 800,000 words in the Bible, one sentence seems to contain Stone’s thinking on this matter. It’s from a letter the Apostle Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
(The Georgia minister operates an elaborate website boasting of his gifts as “preacher-shepherd-leader” — which suggests he may be less fixated on James 4:6: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”)
Hold this in mind as we look at the leaks: No woman has anything to teach a man; the lowliest person with a Y chromosome is superior to every double X. That 2,000-year-old claptrap was rattling around in Stone’s brain when the former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, gave Rachael Denhollander a forum in which to criticize the way the executive committee handled an employee’s sexual assault complaint.
Denhollander is a highly effective teacher. The former gymnast-turned-lawyer was the first person to speak out about the sexual abuse scandal at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. Larry Nassar, the longtime team physician for both, abused more than 160 young women under the guise of medical treatment. At Nassar’s trial, an army of witnesses galvanized by Denhollander’s example testified about the abuse, leading the judge to call her “the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom.”
Denhollander said at a conference arranged by Moore’s influential ethics commission that the SBC’s executive committee, under Stone’s leadership, had twisted facts and altered statements to make it appear that the complaining employee had consented to an affair. According to Moore, who has resigned from the commission and taken a pastorate at a non-SBC church, women complaining of sexual abuse were compared to “Potiphar’s wife,” a character in the Book of Genesis who lodges a false accusation against the biblical hero Joseph.
Moore’s leaked letters charge that Stone’s reaction to Denhollander was about what you’d expect from a complementarian. He was outraged that she was allowed to speak honestly, and he pushed for an investigation into Moore’s commission.
Stone countered with a rather fact-free dismissal of everything Moore charged. “This attack is a deflection from the fact that Russell’s leadership of the ERLC has been an ongoing source of division and distraction for Southern Baptists,” he averred.
That’s a veiled reference to Moore’s outspoken criticism of the evangelicals’ embrace of Donald Trump. But it is a distraction. Respect for women and their right to be free of sexual harassment and assault should not be filtered through politics. It is a matter of basic morals, that foundational principle expressed in Matthew 7:12 and known as the Golden Rule.
More than two years after the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News produced a devastating look at sexual abuse in the SBC, the denomination has not taken the steps necessary to address the problem. Can that really surprise anyone? Men who believe that no woman’s voice should be heard in the pulpit, and that no woman should be trusted with authority, can hardly be expected to listen when women speak the truth about men in positions of power. Thus, bad theology begets bad policy, and bad policy begets moral decay.