(This is #8 in a series).
After everywhere we’ve been in this book, Chapter 7 starts with some surprising facts: Women preached in evangelical churches for a century prior to WWII. Barr cites Timothy Larson’s “Evangelicalism” Strong History of Women in Ministry” (2017), in which he characterizes “women’s involvement in public ministry ‘a historic distinctive of evangelism’” (175). From Methodists to Calvinists to—yes—Southern Baptists, women have been allowed to preach. The SBC even ordained a woman, Addie Davis, in 1964 and sponsored a conference on women’s role in ministry in 1974 (175). Barr spends pages laying out the history.
So what changed?
Barr lays it at the feet of two events. The fundamental-modernist controversy in the early 20th century churches “split evangelicals into liberal and conservative camps, laying the groundwork for the modern culture wars. Liberals wanted a more ecumenical approach to missions and the freedom to modernize traditional beliefs; conservatives wanted to protect traditional beliefs against encroaching cultural pressures” (188). The “central drama” was over biblical inerrancy, with the fundamentalists firmly in the camp that believed “not only that the Bible was without error, but that it had to be without error to be true at all” (188). Barr says “the…emphasis on inerrancy went hand in hand with a wide-ranging attempt to build up the authority of male preachers at the expense of women” (189). A side benefit of inerrancy was “an atmosphere of fear. Any question raised about biblical accuracy must be completely answered or completely rejected to prevent the fragile fabric of faith from unraveling” (190).
The second event was the rise of the Arian heresy in evangelical churches. This heresy, discarded by the church in 325 CE at the Council of Nicaea, stated that within the Trinity, the Son and Holy Spirit are subject to the Father, making the power structure between the three uneven. The council rejected this idea and confirmed that the Trinity is one God in three persons, light from light, true God from true God. To suggest that the Son submits to the Father is to deny the heart of Christianity.
Barr shares the opinion of Kevin Giles that the resurgence of Arianism in the American evangelical church is a failure of education: “’In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conservative evangelicals were among those with a very weak and sometimes erroneous grasp of the historically developed doctrine of the Trinity’” (195). Without a strong grounding in theology that would have helped them understand that we should be more like God, these preachers “fought to make God look more like us” (195). If the Son submits to the Father, then too the congregation to the preacher, the wife to the husband, the child to the parent, the slave to the master, the poor to the rich, and so on.
Barr presents this information objectively, but it is impossible to read it that way.
And honestly, I don’t know where to begin.
Catholics do not read the bible literally, because there are textual errors in the Bible. For example, the earth is not flat; the sun does not revolve around the earth; dinosaurs were real and the earth is older than 7000 years. The folks who wrote the Bible did the best they could with the information they had. However, we do believe that the truth of the message of salvation is inerrant. For example, when Jesus said “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53), this was not open to interpretation. For 2000 years, we have proven that it is possible to hold these two ideas—that the Bible has errors in it AND the Bible is the Word of God—without our faith wavering or God being diminished.
Also, the idea that the Word is frail is ridiculous. The Word is God. God is not frail. That’s the kind of thing Satan would have us believe.
However, these two events in the evangelical church underscore the point from two weeks ago—the Word is vulnerable. It can be manipulated by those with human and sinful intentions. The truth will out because God can’t be contained, but in the meantime, the Word can be used by those who would make themselves into gods. Barr doesn’t go this far, but I will–to suggest that the Bible in its entirety is inerrant and must be accepted literally is to ask people to accept that the world is flat, the sun orbits the earth, dinosaurs never lived, science is fake—
Do you see? It is a direct line from these two events to where we are today. Evangelicals have been trained to not believe what their eyes see, their ears hear, and their minds know.
None of this—not biblical womanhood, or biblical inerrancy or the emphasis on Greek and Roman hierarchical structures—is about God’s kingdom on earth. It has nothing to do with Gospel.
Last week, I taught my 4th and 5th graders to judge a tree by its fruit. We talked about the fruit that shrivels on the branch and the kind that falls to the ground. We talked about how a healthy tree produces healthy, life-giving fruit and we talked about what that fruit—the fruit of the Spirit—looks like in people: Kindness. Love. Goodness. Gratefulness. Patience. Joy. Peace. Self-control. Gentleness.
It’s time to apply these same ideas to our churches.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Christians that oppression is godly. That God ordained some people, simply because of their sex or skin color (or both), as belonging under the power of other people (173).