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Technical Foul for Biblical Interpretation
March Madness is starting off with a conflict of biblical proportions this year. On Sunday (March 5), Texas Tech University announced it had suspended the head coach of its men’s basketball team after he quoted Bible verses in “an inappropriate, unacceptable, and racially insensitive” way last week.
The benching of Coach Mark Adams seems unlikely to impact your bracket later this month as the team with a 16-15 record needs a miracle to even qualify for the Big Dance. But many people quickly took to social media to dunk on Adams or cry foul about the school. So it seems important to stop the clock and review the play — especially since it will give us insights into some other religious controversies happening right now.
The incident in question occurred last week during a coaching session between Adams and a member of the team. The statement from Texas Tech explained, “Adams was encouraging the student-athlete to be more receptive to coaching and referenced Bible verses about workers, teachers, parents, and slaves serving their masters.” Although the statement doesn’t mention which verses, it seems like a pretty close match to Ephesians 6:1-9. The school added that Adams “addressed this with the team and apologized.”
The coach, however, quickly shot back with a different version of the story. In an interview with Stadium, he defended his comments about how there is “always a master and a servant.” He insisted he did nothing wrong since he “was quoting the scripture” and “it was a private conversation” about “being coachable.”
“I said that in the Bible that Jesus talks about how we all have bosses, and we all are servants,” Adams added. “I was quoting the Bible about that.”
Unlike the university’s statement, I’m not sure which passage Adams is claiming he quoted. And as he portrayed himself as a martyr being punished for just quoting the Bible, Adams also insisted he didn’t apologize but instead tried to explain to the team what he meant.
In addition to the Bible dispute and the team’s poor record this year, Adams is also under fire for allegedly spitting on a player. Fortunately, he didn’t claim he was trying to be like Jesus and heal a blind man (it was a player, not a referee). Rather, Adams claimed he had a bad cough and had accidentally slobbered on a player.
While Adams said he was just quoting the Bible, the statements by him and the university make it clear he interpreted the text during his coaching session and his later meeting with the whole team. He wasn’t placed on leave for quoting the Bible but for his hermeneutical interpretation. After all, the Bible says nothing about basketball or its coaches (though at least the sport doesn’t use a detestable abomination like a pigskin). Bringing any verse out of its cultural context and applying it today (not to mention first translating the language of the text) inherently involves interpretation.
With his insensitive application of texts about slavery, Adams could also help show us the problem with a more common playbook. Many churches and denominations seek to avoid the slavery controversy Adams jumped into by segregating texts like the passage in Ephesians. While reading some verses about slavery as culturally outdated, they insist the nearby verses about women being subservient to men remain universal commands. This illegal screen, however, does violence to the text and people today.
This issue of A Public Witness will coach you up about a recent controversy regarding women in ministry at Saddleback Church, and then consider how moments like that are connected to the same way of reading the Bible that got the whistle blown at Adams.
Out of Bounds
The second issue of A Public Witness back in May of 2021 considered the emerging controversy about Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch in California, ordaining three women into ministry. At the time, the church’s founding pastor, bestselling author Rick Warren, had led the church’s action, which quickly elicited criticism from leaders of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
When the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting last year in Warren’s backyard of Anaheim, California, they considered an effort to kick the church out. The retiring Warren took to the microphone to deliver an impassioned defense of his church and to urge the SBC to continue to partner with them. Perhaps fearing the sway of the local crowd or wishing to wait and contend with a less famous pastor, the SBC postponed its decision.
Shortly before the SBC meeting last year, Saddleback had announced that Andy Wood would replace Warren as the lead pastor. Additionally, the church noted that Andy’s wife Stacie would serve as a teaching pastor like she had at their previous congregation, Echo Church in San Jose, California. As Andy took over the pulpit last fall, he told the Associated Press he thought the church’s future included women ministers.
“The church should be a place where both men and women can exercise those spiritual gifts,” he said. “My wife has the spiritual gift of teaching and she is really good. People often tell me she’s better than me when it comes to preaching, and I’m really glad to hear that.”
Andy added, “I’m not looking to engage in denominational battles.” But he quickly found himself in one.
The week before Mark Adams’s controversial Bible-quoting coaching session, the SBC’s Executive Committee voted on Feb. 21 to deem Saddleback as “not in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.” The Credentials Committee that made the recommendation cited Stacie’s role as a teaching pastor as the key reason since the SBC’s confessional statement of faith states “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” The Executive Committee also voted to kick out four other churches for having female ministers, including one church that says it was never even part of the SBC and another whose female pastor has been there for 30 years.
A denomination founded to support slavery — and that still honors enslavers on the campus of its flagship seminary — is kicking out churches for allegedly not following the Bible on the role of women. But those two positions aren’t so dissimilar.
The magnum opus of conservative evangelical thought on women’s roles is the Danvers Statement created by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987. As historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explained in her book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, the Danvers Statement “attested that God had established male headship as part of the order of creation and closed the door to women in church leadership.” She added that “in asserting female submission as the will of God, it foregrounded a biblical defense of patriarchy and gender difference that would come to serve as the bedrock of militaristic Christian masculinity.”
This document and those behind its creation have pushed the dogma of women unfit for ministry throughout evangelical circles. As sociologist Lisa Weaver Swartz noted in her book Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelicals Do Gender and Practice Power, the CBMW and their Danvers Statement help show that “evangelical efforts to reinforce conservative gender norms have intensified throughout the past half century.”
Numerous churches have officially adopted the Statement, and some educational institutions today even require professors to affirm it along with other faith statements — including Augustine School in Jackson, Tennessee; Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri; and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. The adoption of the statement at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, was one of the issues that led to school seeing its accreditation placed on a two-year probation.
A look at the theology of the Danvers Statements shows the problem with selective biblical interpretation. To justify a view of gender relations that treats women as unequal and subservient to men in families, churches, and elsewhere, the Danvers Statement cites Ephesians 5:21-33, which is followed by verses used by enslavers to justify slavery. And the Statement cites Colossians 3:18-19, which is followed by verses used by enslavers to justify slavery. And the Statement cites Titus 2:3-5, which is followed by verses used by enslavers to justify slavery. And the Statement cites 1 Peter 3:1-7, which is preceded by verses used by enslavers to justify slavery.
Here’s the key issue: to read those passages as the Danvers Statement interprets them necessitates reading the nearby verses to justify slavery. To look at those passages and affirm the theology of the Danvers Statements but speak against slavery is hermeneutically inconsistent and morally hypocritical. We can’t gerrymander the text by reading one verse literally with no consideration of societal context and then explaining away the other verse based on societal context — especially when the biblical writers explicitly connect the two sections with language like “in the same way.”
To sign the Danvers Statement is to do more than affirm a specific ideology about men and women in marriages and pulpits. It is to read the Bible like an enslaver.
Ironically, many enslavers seemed to know the Bible didn’t neatly support slavery, which they proved by literally chopping up the Bible to give enslaved persons only parts that didn’t include verses that might teach that slavery is morally wrong. In one such example, about 90% of the Old Testament was removed along with about 50% of the New Testament. The enslavers had to do quite a bit of violence to the Bible to justify their violent and evil institution of slavery.
Similarly, to defend patriarchal rules, one must cut out quite a few passages about women leaders and prophets (like Miriam, Deborah, Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene, Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, etc.) and passages about the equality of all people made in the image of God. An effort to chop up our interpretation to condemn slavery but promote patriarchy abuses the texts. That’s why Baptist author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove urged us to work on “finding freedom from slaveholder religion” that was passed down to us.
As Coach Adams and the Southern Baptist Convention demonstrated in recent weeks, there is much work to be done on this front.
Changing the Starting Lineup
On Sunday, the same day that Mark Adams was suspended by Texas Tech, my church welcomed to the pulpit our new lead pastor. For the first time in our 186-year history, that person is a woman.
Our church had already moved in significant ways toward this moment. The congregation years ago started electing women as deacons, ordaining women into ministry, and hiring female ministers (and actually calling them “minister” instead of “director” like some churches with female leaders do). But this is still a significant moment, as evidenced by the people from other congregations who called our church office recently to quote Bible verses to our secretary as “proof” we shouldn’t have a female pastor.
Soon, our new minister’s photo will appear in the hallway outside the sanctuary where we hang portraits of pastors from the church’s history. Walking that hallway tells quite a story. Because the pastor who hangs out on the far opposite side enslaved three people as he founded the church. And he wasn’t alone in that heresy. Four of the first seven pastors enslaved people. As did eight of the 11 White charter members and the man who donated the land where the church now sits (which helps at least partly explain why he had the resources to be so generous to the congregation).
The man on the far-right side of the hallway apparently read the Bible in such a way as to justify treating other people made in the image of God as if they were property. Three of the men who followed him in the pulpit even served in the Confederate Army to fight for that theology. So as the country ripped apart, it’s no surprise the congregation joined the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination literally founded to support slavery.
Decades later, the descendants (genetic and spiritual) of Southern Baptists who read the Bible in such a way as to defend slavery now argue our church isn’t following the Bible because of the person whose portrait we will put on the far-left side of that hallway. Their way of reading the Bible hasn’t changed much. They just tacked a note onto their theology: “P.S. keep reading the Bible the same way, but now no more enslaving Black people.” But that’s not good enough. We need a different hermeneutic.
I’m thankful that as I walk down the hallway, I see a church that grew. I’m thankful that as I walk down that hallway, I see a God who is extravagantly patient and forgiving with us. And while some might try to use the Bible again to treat some of God’s people as less than others, I know which side of the hallway I want to hear preach today.
As a public witness,
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