WASHINGTON -- Evangelical Protestantism, thank God, is experiencing its own version of a #MeToo moment.
Paige Patterson -- head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and icon of conservative Baptist belief -- is being called out for a story he told in 2000. An abused woman had come to him for counseling. Patterson recommended prayer. Later, the woman returned with two black eyes. In Patterson’s telling: “She said, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said, ‘Yes ... I’m very happy’” because the woman’s husband had heard her prayers and come to church the next day.
This, presumably, is Patterson’s version of a happy ending: A wife gets battered but the church gets a new member. God works in misogynist ways.
A number of prominent Baptists have risen in criticism. Thom Rainer, president of the Christian publishing house LifeWay, tweeted, “There is no type or level of abuse of women that is acceptable.” Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, added: “Any physical abuse on any level is completely unacceptable in marriage. The church should immediately step in & provide a safe place for the abused.”
But it was the response of prominent Baptist teacher Beth Moore that laid bare the reality of being a woman in some evangelical circles. In “A Letter to My Brothers,” she recounts decades of being demeaned, dismissed, ignored and patronized by colleagues. “I came face to face,” she says, “with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only an excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.”
Evangelical women confront these attitudes with a prominent religious figure in their corner, even more prominent than Patterson. “The dignity with which Christ treated women in the Gospels,” Moore writes, “is fiercely beautiful.” And this forms the basis of her request to Christian men: “I’m asking that you would simply have no tolerance for misogyny and dismissiveness toward women in your spheres of influence.”
As a historical matter, Moore is correct. The authors of the Gospels would have had no incentive to highlight or exaggerate the role of women in the life of Christ, given their relatively low status in the ancient world. But they appear at nearly every decisive moment. Mary willingly accepts a strange calling. An elderly prophetess named Anna welcomes Jesus’ dedication at the Jerusalem temple. Mary and Martha are among his closest friends. Joanna and Susanna gave financial support to his ministry. Mary Magdalene became a loyal disciple. Women accompanied Jesus to the cross after the men had fled. In the biblical account, women were the first witnesses of the resurrection.
Fiercely beautiful. A challenge to the chauvinism of his time, and of our own.
The issue raised by Moore highlights the difference between nostalgia and faithfulness. Figures such as Patterson -- in his mid-70s -- are nostalgic for the social practice of an earlier time, when relations between the sexes were traditional, predictable and patriarchal. They identify social conservatism with biblical principle.
But as Moore and others point out, the founder of Christianity was radical in his elevation of women to equality in God’s kingdom. Even the apostle Paul -- who occasionally seemed retrograde -- said: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This principle is not socially conservative in any society yet shaped by human beings. Faithfulness to this cause is always radical, in a specific manner. Christianity poses the question: What if every man and woman -- every victim of abuse, every abandoned child, every lonely senior, every intellectually and physically disabled person, every single parent, every gay and transgender person, every prisoner, every homeless person and every billionaire -- everyone we love, and everyone we fear, were actually the image of God in our midst, equal in humanity, in dignity and in worth? How should we then live?
No one can be fully seized by this truth all of the time. Some of us have trouble any of the time. But this is the calling of faith. It is not a form of nostalgia. It is essentially disruptive; an eternal revolution in human affairs. And it requires people to be outraged at every violation of human dignity that crosses their path, including abuse and misogyny in any form.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.