The Real Reason For “Vagina-gate”

In a recent post evangelical author Rachel Held Evans heralded the return of “vagina” to her forthcoming book, “Because Christians who wish to remain engaged in the culture can’t afford to be scandalized by a little ol’ vagina.” It remains to be seen whether Lifeway Christian Resources will stock the book when its released on the October 30. —Eds.

By now you have likely heard the news that Lifeway Christian Resources (formerly known as the Baptist Sunday School Board) has refused to stock popular young evangelical blogger and writer Rachel Held Evans’ latest book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Although Evans was told by her publisher that the word “vagina” would likely keep her books out of Lifeway’s stores, it is another word that better explains the ban: “fundamentalism.” 

The leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention are, across the board, hidebound fundamentalists who try to pass themselves off as conservatives. Unlike genuine conservatives however, fundamentalists hold to specific dogmas and then seek to impose these beliefs on others; especially persons who are members of the same church or denomination.

In any debate, they claim to be on God’s side of the argument—authentic dialogue with fundamentalists is not possible. Fundamentalists do not want to discuss issues honestly; they are out to evangelize. You either come around to their way of thinking or they will gladly place you outside the boundaries of orthodoxy. Since their own theological positions are not subject to question the marginalization of others who are in disagreement is not only necessary but is a Christian duty.

Southern Baptist leaders have made it clear over the past twenty years or so that they will enthusiastically embrace sexism by using biblical proof texts, employing questionable hermeneutics, and treating a descriptive confessional statement as a prescriptive creed. When Southern Baptists adopted their new creed in 2000 it stipulated that women can not serve as a senior pastors and that wives must submit to their husbands at home and at church.

As Ruth Graham has noted, in the wake of the decision not to stock Evans’ book, Martin King, Lifeway’s director of communications, made no statement as to Lifeway’s values and vision but simply referred her to the Southern Baptist “statement of faith” that he said guided Lifeway’s policies. In other words, Lifeway, with creed in hand, will only publish material that toes the party line. And female writers are scrutinized more carefully than male writers.

A female writer will only be acceptable if she recites SBC rhetoric, fully supports SBC leaders, and knows her place at home and at church. As long as a woman is “Southern Baptist politically correct” she can find a place in the new SBC—although not a primary one. The agency that endorses SBC chaplains will not endorse an ordained woman as chaplain but will endorse a woman who is not ordained. Women are welcome to study at SBC seminaries as long as they do not have an eye on the pastorate. In some places female students are prohibited from enrolling in preaching classes.

Although many women major in Religious Studies at Baptist colleges and seminaries across the land few find leadership positions in SBC churches, there are only 150 female pastors serving in the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The problem with CBF churches is that many of them are hybrid churches made up of a mix of moderates and old style Southern Baptists. The old-time Baptists continue to oppose women in ministerial leadership positions and the moderates appease them in order to preserve church unity.

The real reason Lifeway refuses to stock A Year of Biblical Womanhood is because Lifeway is committed to upholding the fundamentalist beliefs and practices embraced by a constituency more program-oriented than theologically sophisticated. Fundamentalism is inherently andocentric and Rachel Evans’ egalitarianism threatens the insecurity of SBC male sexists who try to veil their misogyny by using the softer word “complementarian” to describe their “biblical” (infallible) position.

Evans is a gifted writer who expresses herself clearly and has amassed quite an impressive following—this must irritate the numerous mediocre SBC male pastors who regularly preach unremarkable sermons to primarily small congregations that are dwindling as each year passes. Evans has certainly peeved several popular and self-promoting male Baptist pastor theologians.

“A Mannish Feel”

Not surprisingly, pastor and theologian John Piper’s website featured a review of Evans’ book in which a female reviewer charges Evans with questioning the validity of the Bible and accuses her of “building a comfortable bridge for shaky evangelicals to find their way into theological liberalism.” For the reviewer a denial of inerrancy erodes the gospel. This is typical fundamentalism: accuse Evans of being a liberal who does not believe the Bible and whose outlook damages the gospel of Jesus, and implore all true believers to shun her and her work. 

Piper’s own theology is certainly flawed—who can forget his assertion last March that tornado activity was God dragging his “fierce fingers across rural America”? Outrageous! Yet, Piper has built a strong following. While he may not have booted Evans out of the evangelical kingdom directly with a “Farewell Rachel Evans” tweet (as he did with Rob Bell), the review on Piper’s site has the same effect. Piper uses a female reviewer to denounce Evans because he knows how it would play if he condemned Evans directly. It is an attempt to veil his chauvinism—just last February he stated that God’s intention for Christianity is to have a “mannish feel.”

Out of Boyce College at Southern Seminary in Lousiville, Kentucky, professor Denny Burk has tossed Evans out of the evangelical kingdom as well. Putting a SBC fundamentalist spin on David Bebbington’s evangelical identifiers (biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism) and using them as tests of faith, Burk castigates Evans because she is not a biblical inerrantist, nor an exclusivist, and because she affirms gay marriage and has served communion to practicing homosexuals. In other words, Rachel Evans will not allow someone like Burk to impose his own God-breathed theological agenda upon her.

(And although this deserves article-length treatment in and of itself, I think it’s important to note that these two prominent critics of Evans are Baptist, male, and Calvinist. Contemporary Baptist Calvinists, the so-called “New Calvinists”—parties to an intra-Baptist controversy that has been the subject of many a “building-bridges”-themed conference—are notoriously patriarchal and intolerant of real theological diversity. Read the Founder’s Journal and the writings of other noteworthy SBC Calvinists and the theological chauvinism and intolerance will hit you in the face immediately.)

Shame on Rachel Evans! What makes her think she can follow her conscience and refuse to submit to the recognized male authorities of Baptist evangelicalism and the theological consensus they have carefully crafted under the Lord’s leadership? Has she forgotten that she is a woman? Step back in line Rachel, be quiet, follow, embrace orthodoxy again and all this controversy you are creating will cease.

In the end, Lifeway will not stock Rachel Evans’ book not because of her choice of words but because she is not a fundamentalist. She is a young evangelical who will never be comfortable in the male-dominated SBC. That Lifeway will not carry Rachel Evans’ book should be something she wears as a badge of honor. She is far too talented to waste her time dealing with persons or churches or bookstores that will never appreciate her and her viewpoints. To other gifted Baptist women who want to pursue your dreams, I implore you not to waste your time with the sexist SBC.

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