Jimmy Carter leaves the SBC

July 22, 2009

culture / theology

I want to bring specific attention here to the recent letter that Jimmy Carter wrote, concerning his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention after six decades, due to its doctrines concerning women. You can read the full letter at a number of different places, and it has been getting a good deal of attention online the last few days.

Mr. Carter has, in this letter, a fairly good grasp of the biblical and interpretative issues surrounding women in ministry and authority, and the bad exegesis and understanding of history and culture that has led groups like the SBC to take their positions. He actually misses some information that would demonstrate to an even greater extent the flawed nature of the arguments of groups like the SBC. But regardless: I greatly applaud him for his decision, and for his research into the issue of how the church can biblically treat women in ministry.

Although not having training in religion or theology, I understand that the carefully selected verses found in the holy scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar Biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

Jimmy Carter

It is fantastic to see someone with his level of influence come alongside women like this. I don’t expect him to have seminary-level or similar knowledge of this issue and its history (which would show even more evidence that women can and should be equal in leadership to men), but I love that he has taken steps to educate himself far beyond the normal churchgoer in America. It gives great credence to the fact that there is no need for “average Christians” to be biblically illiterate.

I do want to draw attention to one issue that I’ve seen with many commenters, which was actually my own gut reaction when I heard about this: why did it take sixty years for him to do this?

It is really a very complex issue, as things like this usually are. First of all, I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a person coming from his cultural framework to give up on something that has been a part of his life for so long. Humans do not do this easily.

Secondly, it is worth noting that the SBC has not always been as dominated by conservative fundamentalists as it is now. You can read about the conservative takeover of the SBC to get an idea of the extent to which the denomination has changed in the last forty years, getting rid of nearly all moderate or liberal scholars, leaders, and doctrinal exposure. Much of this transition occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, but even in the last ten years the denomination has further entrenched itself, especially on issues of women in ministry, charismatic experience, and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

My own view is that these entrenchments will only serve to hasten the denomination’s decline into irrelevance. It is difficult for me to sympathize with it, but it is easier if I try to put myself in the shoes of someone like Mr. Carter, who was a dedicated part of the denomination before any of this began1, and has seen all of it from the inside. I’m sure he has grieved for this, and we who appreciate his current decision should also appreciate his grief, and mourn with him.

  1. I’m well aware of the negative effects that Mr. Carter’s combination of faith and politics had on the rise of the Religious Right, whether or not he saw that coming, and I deplore those effects as much as the next anti-empire guy, but I’m not dealing with that issue at the moment. []