“If religion is messy, we are a nation of slobs.” So writes Liz Bucar in the introduction to her book, Stealing My Religion. This thought gives me pause as I reflect on the current state of disarray in which we find ourselves here in the United States. American Christianity is a hot mess of confusion and murkiness marked by vitriolic and dogmatic assertions of regressive and harmful values -a mess not without biblical precedent resembling the tower of Babel more than it does the primal church of Pentecost.
The biblical story of the tower of Babel reminds us that there is no end to humanity’s quest “to make a name for themselves,” and it isn’t hard to find modern-day examples of this phenomenon. From the tower in New York City with “TRUMP” predominantly displayed in large gold letters to the actions of the constituents of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting recently in New Orleans, we see men continuing to build physical and philosophical towers seeking to distinguish themselves as the architects of political and religious power structures. But as with the biblical story, these efforts always end in disaster. Consider the tower of Babel, a project eventually abandoned because God confused the languages of the laborers, resulting in division and a resurgence of tribal allegiances that precluded any meaningful cooperation. The Southern Baptist Convention, along with American Christianity generally, seems to be suffering the same fate.
The SBC recently took action at their convention to expel entire churches because they called women on their staff “Pastor.” These ex-communications included the expulsion of the influential Saddleback Church in California. This prevailing attitude among Southern Baptists also precipitated the exit of influential Bible teacher Beth Moore among others who could no longer stomach the exclusionary culture of the SBC. This organization prides itself on autonomy and cooperation yet can no longer effectively communicate with its members deciding instead to retreat to tribalistic notions of misogyny and patriarchal hierarchies to the exclusion of many and to the detriment of its stated mission. Somewhere Bill Gothard is, no doubt, applauding these actions.
Gothard, whose teachings are examined in the Amazon Prime documentary Shiny Happy People, was wildly popular in the 1970s through the 1990s and continues to influence many in the Christian culture today. Gothard’s teachings proliferated through The Institute in Basic Life Principles encouraging Bible memorization, large families, homeschooling, aversion to debt, male superiority and female obedience, and conservative dress. Gothard’s teaching about the distinctive roles of men and women continues to exert great influence over the behavior of American evangelicals as witnessed with the recent actions of Southern Baptists.
But the influence doesn’t stop there, it extends to the resurgence of the ideas that came to a head with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in 2016. Leading the barrage of defamatory charges against Hillary Clinton was this ever-present misogyny. American Evangelicals, to the tune of eighty percent, supported Trump because they saw him as a means to retain their power and privilege amid changing demographics. They simply could not stomach a woman, especially a feminist champion such as Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office. Of course, these same Christian conservatives are more than happy to embrace women candidates who will advance the patriarchal values and hierarchies made popular in Bill Gothard’s Umbrella of Protection. The widely proliferated illustration features stacked umbrellas with God’s being atop, followed by increasingly smaller ones of husband, wife, and children. This reframed organizational chart perpetuates harmful notions of superiority and inferiority resulting in the continued marginalization and abuse of women and children at the hands of immature and insecure men. This is the same kind of thinking that elevates misogynists like Donald Trump to the White House and vilifies men like Barack Obama and women like Hillary Clinton. Certainly, it is one thing to have substantive differences with leaders over policy positions as I did with Obama and Clinton at times, but it is an entirely different proposition to turn those disagreements over policy into disparagements of their character and competencies while simultaneously embracing a narcissistic misogynistic liar like Trump. It stretches the bounds of credulity beyond confusion. Confusion like that exhibited at Babel resulting in the inability to accomplish anything of lasting value.
The biblical answer to the confusion of Babel was the unity of Pentecost. Acts chapter two tells the story of a diverse group of 120 people gathered in an upper room, devoting themselves to prayer and awaiting the baptism of the Holy Spirit that would initiate the birth of the Christian church. Acts 1:14 gives some details as to those who gathered:
“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus…”
First-century culture was incredibly shaped by patriarchal notions rendering women as property in relationships, and excluding them from all ceremonial, religious, and political influence, so the inclusion of these women in this meeting is notable. Using biblical passages written in a culture steeped in the abusive treatment of women no matter how progressive they might have been by comparison, to serve as a guide for the continued marginalization of the influence of women in leadership in the twenty-first century should be anathema. Especially for any community that would purport to follow Jesus.
The actions of the Southern Baptists to continue to ban women from proclaiming anything from the Bible while acting in a pastoral leadership position isn’t embracing the gospel, it is effectively stifling it. This position refuses to acknowledge the progressive nature of the message of the gospel while tenaciously clinging to the more harmful and contested passages of the Bible. Actions steeped in notions of patriarchy exalt the Bible over the gospel. Jesus, by contrast, refused to do so. Jesus always elevated the gospel over the Bible, famously in his Sermon on the Mount, he repeated the powerful refrain:
“You have heard it said, but I say unto you.”
In these passages, Jesus was emphasizing the Gospel of the Kingdom that rendered obsolete the inferior notions of the law. A concept lost on Southern Baptists and many others in American Evangelicalism that reject the gospel in favor of a white nationalistic biblical fundamentalism that continues to justify the words and actions of political candidates like Donald Trump and policies that perpetuate harm on women.
The position of the Southern Baptist Convention and the endorsement of white nationalistic ideologies that seek to propel a candidate like Trump to the presidency once again undermine the point of the gospel and the beauty of Pentecost as expressed in the fulfilled prophecy of Joel 2:28 as referenced in the Apostle Peter’s inaugural message in Acts 2:17-18:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
When the Bible is weaponized to the exclusion of women while empowering white men to exclusively preach and lead, the liberty of the gospel isn’t being proclaimed. When notions of white nationalism championed by Trump and his ilk result in real harms perpetuated against women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities, the liberty of the gospel is fettered. False gospels exclude people while the glorious gospel of Christ liberates everyone.
Instead of following false gospels that use the Bible to exclude Mary, I choose to embrace the true gospel which includes her.
We need less Babel and more Pentecost in American Christianity.