“Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant. And our offspring does not look like our Father in Heaven.” – J.D. Greear, Southern Baptist Convention President, June 15, 2021
Outgoing president of the Southern Baptist Convention J. D. Greear included this quip in his final presidential address yesterday at the convention’s Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN. The gathering has invited national scrutiny from Southern Baptist stakeholders and curious observers interested in how this denomination will address the perceived threat of Critical Race Theory and the ongoing crisis of sexual abuse against women and alleged cover-ups in SBC churches and the highest level of denominational leadership.
Much of the SBC news cycle has now moved on to the surprise election of Alabama pastor Ed Litton as the incoming president, the result of what Ruth Graham of the New York Times called “a dramatic showdown” in this denomination that “often serves as a bellwether for white American evangelicalism.”
But the quote above, from one of the more mundane moments of the meeting is, in my judgment, a better benchmark for assessing the current state of the SBC: the utter banality of a man in power exhorting other men to think in a certain way using the trope of a shamed promiscuous woman.
— Jonathan Merritt (@JonathanMerritt) June 15, 2021
Greear made this observation to support a larger point that the SBC should be focused on evangelizing rather than getting involved in politics. The Nashville meeting apparently included debate on whether (male) pastors who committed sexual abuse could or could not be pastors and whether third-party inquiries into sexual abuse were warranted. Yet Greear’s argument was not one that revolved around or even required reflection on gender or sex. Why, then, bring up sex? Why use the metaphor of the church as a woman unfaithful to God?
The work of biblical scholar Renita J. Weems in her book Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets helps us contextualize and interrogate Greear’s rhetoric. The metaphor is thoroughly prophetic, sharing with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament’s prophets such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel the trope of God as cuckolded husband whose wife, God’s people, must be punished for infidelity. Weems writes, “Despite the tendency of modern audiences to see marriage as a poetic device to fantasize about romance, courtship, and intimacy, for the prophets marriage was a trope for contemplating God’s power and Israel’s punishment.” Hosea chapter 2, for example, portrays the husband violently stripping the wife naked to punish her. In Ezekiel chapter 16 the whoring woman is excoriated repeatedly as justification for her subsequent rape. “I will satisfy my fury on you,” God threatens.
And lest anyone attribute this troubling material only to the Hebrew Scripture, let me remind you that the Christian Scripture portrays God impregnating a woman without asking and then telling her it’s a good thing. In fact, all of these biblical scenarios—and Greear’s rhetoric—share a few assumptions that should trouble anyone concerned about sexual abuse.
First, notice that God, portrayed as male, has sexual access to women’s bodies for his own purposes whether grandly benevolent (Luke 2; John 3:16) or just plain vindictive (Revelation 2). The church, further, is cast as a woman who owes her bodily fidelity to this demanding male deity whose patrilineality must be protected from her waywardness. Her womb is his property. Her purity is his domain. Her body is his to discipline. The perceived threat is not to the woman’s ravished body but to the patriarchal order.
Greear’s particular formulation of the trope is tied to evangelical purity culture. Note that his turn of phrase is deeply uneven in its gendered assignation of blame and enculturation of fear. The language of “so-and-so gets pregnant” is a linguistic construction that can only have the impregnated woman, the assumed offender, as the subject. It obscures the involvement of any inseminating sexual partner. She is the one who is caught. She is the one who should be afraid.
The chances that Greear intended to scare women are next to none. Rather, the metaphor of church as promiscuous woman was likely meant as a good faith effort to shock listeners to consider the larger point about evangelism versus politics. It was done for rhetorical effect. Yet—and this is extremely important—the only people in the audience for whom this metaphor could be rhetorically effective without also engendering fear are men. Weems writes in an analogous way of the assumed audience of the Bible’s prophets:
“Only an audience that had never been raped or had never perceived rape or sexual abuse as a real threat could be expected to hear the kinds of ribald descriptions of abused women, sexual humiliation, assault, gang rape, violation, and torture that the prophets described and not recoil in fear.”
The same is true for the Southern Baptist preacher in 2021.
Greear’s rhetoric, incidental though it may have been, disciplines women to see themselves as belonging to men, to internalize male authority in destructive ways. The metaphor encourages men to align with the deity who has the power to control and punish. It is not, I submit, an effective way to confront sexual abuse in the church.
It is biblical, though. And herein lies an important point. In the same address, Greear affirmed his commitment to the Bible: “I am committed to letting the Scripture, and the Scripture alone, be our rule for faith and practice. Anything else is unnecessarily divisive.” In a recent review piece for RD, I wondered aloud whether “evangelical Christianity might be irredeemably patriarchal precisely because of its biblicism.” Patriarchy and the Bible, it seems, are natural bedfellows.
Despite the attention on newly elected SBC president Litton as a “moderate,” his leadership is unlikely to change the SBC’s linking of sexism and biblicism. In a statement given to the fundamentalist Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood leading up to the high profile election, Litton wrote:
“To us as Southern Baptists, our convictions about the Bible are tied to our understanding of gender and the roles of men and women in the church. So, in the conservative resurgence we addressed the doctrine of inerrancy, and because the Bible is God’s Word, it is perfect and authoritative. That means we should take the passages on gender to mean what they say, and His Word should always occupy our attention.”
But if we learn anything from Greear’s speech yesterday, let’s remember that it’s not the public proclamations of doctrine that help us the most in analyzing conservative white evangelicalism in the U.S. Rather, we must pay attention to their uninterrogated assumptions that the Bible is good for everyone.