Disclaimer: I Am A “Bad Southern Baptist”
I have technically been a Southern Baptist my whole life, though, that statement needs some clarity. When I say I have been a Southern Baptist my whole life, I mean the only churches I have ever had membership with are Southern Baptist churches. I received two degrees from a Southern Baptist seminary. I have served on staff in four Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years. Over the years, I could have left. But I haven’t. I have stuck it out. During the high and low times – I have intentionally maintained personal allegiance to Southern Baptists as a denomination.
Many of my fellow Southern Baptist pastor friends think I don’t make a very good Southern Baptist. For some, I am too Calvinistic. For others, my views on alcohol (before it was trendy) are frustrating. Still for others, my lack of involvement in overall Southern Baptist Convention life makes me something of a outsider. And they are probably right: I am probably not a very good Southern Baptist.
But, with all of that, I do love the cooperating fellowship known as Southern Baptist churches. It makes up one of the largest Christian groups in America. It affirms several doctrines I hold dear (inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, etc.). It is one of the best at responding to public catastrophe (hurricane relief, tornado response, etc.). It is one of the larger mission sending organizations in America…there is a great deal to love. There is a great deal to make even a “bad Southern Baptist” like me want to stick around and be a part of what is happening. I may not do much in the way of larger “denominational life,” but I sure do love having generally like-minded churches I can call on for prayer or to pray for. Men and women that serve alongside for the work of the Kingdom.
The SBC Has A Problem
The SBC has a problem. It has had a problem for a very long time. I am not talking about perspectives on Paige Patterson, or opinions about Beth Moore, or the #MeToo movement, or the debates about race, social justice, etc. All of these, if we would stop the noise long enough, are symptoms and side-effects of the real problem. There have been foundational issues that have gone on essentially from the inception of the SBC that have brought us to the place we are today.
The problem for the SBC has been a long standing history of eisegesis. Eisegesis is the process of interpreting a text (namely, of Scripture) with one’s own presuppositions, biases, and agendas in mind, rather that what the text actually says. It is often referred to as “reading into the text.” When we come to Scripture, everyone of one of us exercises some type of eisegesis on one level or another. It is unavoidable. None of us are capable of keeping ourselves out of the text. One of the benefits of being part of an encouraging, accountable Christian community is that other God-fearing, Christ-honoring people can help us avoid as much eisegesis as possible.
But what happens when generation after generation practices a cultural, preferential “reading into the text?” What happens when it becomes the preferred method of interpretation of an entire denomination? What happens when it becomes the grid taught in seminaries to future leaders of that same denomination? The results can be (and have been) dramatic. This is precisely what has occurred with the SBC. It is why we are having the struggles we are having now. We are reaping what we have sown.
Two Specific Examples
I am going to include to specific examples. I am giving advance warning, these will appear to be “controversial” to some. They are not – the presence of controversy around these issues is actually an evidence to the problem of eisegesis.
First, let’s talk about the role of women in the larger life of the church. It is a nice, hot-button topic in the SBC right now. Tricky passages about being quiet at church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 & 1 Timothy 2:9-15), keeping house (1 Timothy 5:14 & Titus 2:5), and all the “submission” passages seem to have created a hyper-restrictive environment for women. I am not going to get into the debates about the meaning of these texts here. I am not going to discuss what submission does or does not mean. What I am going to do is paint a picture.
In the SBC, from its beginning until very recently, there has been an over-arching view that women should have minimal (if any) “leadership” role in the local church. The predominant role for women culturally is to be “home-makers:” staying at their own house, usually not working a paid job, and raising children. Anything that deviates from the norm of this, was for years, viewed (at best) as moderate-to-liberal, and (at worst) as a borderline heresy. Women shouldn’t head committees, women shouldn’t be deacons, women shouldn’t work, unless it was absolutely necessary (single moms, husband laid off, etc.). These restrictions on women extended out past the walls of the church and home as well. Many in the SBC long ago (and more than you would think still today) don’t think women should hold influential political offices, teach classes in the seminary that have men in them, or hold “authority based” positions in major corporations.
So, we have some texts that give instructions to some women (usually younger ones) about “being at home.” We also have instructions about women not exercising the authority to teach the Bible (in what appears to be the role of a pastor/elder). Excluded from the conversation, however, are the stories of Lydia – the seller of purple. The story of Phoebe, one of the few named “deacons” in the New Testament (Romans 16:1 – conveniently translated “servant” in most English versions, giving the nominal Greek reader in the pew a false sense that the word would be “doulos” instead of “diakonos”). The business world is not the church. The “deacon” ministry is not the “elder” ministry. What about single women (like Lydia seemed to be)? What about the Proverbs 31 woman? She seemed rather industrious and business savvy. What about Philip’s four daughters that are called “prophetesses?” I am giving no answer here, I know. I am remaining mute on purpose. The fact that merely asking these questions is jarring to some shows the weight and severity of eisegesis as a denomination.
If Southern Baptists are going to claim – as we have always done – that we are “people of the book,” then we must let the book inform our way of living and our worldview. If we read into the text our own perspective, our own culture, our own worldview, we become unnecessarily restrictive. The gospel was not intended to restrict – it was intended to give as much freedom as could be had within the bounds of God’s will. Are you going to add restrictions on women that don’t exist, simply because it “safeguards” us from the possibility of doing something wrong? Doing one “wrong” thing to prevent another “wrong” thing is not wisdom, it is oppression.
Second, let’s consider the issue of alcohol. I know this is a hot-topic on both sides. People that are pro-alcohol seem to lack just as much grace as those that are anti-alcohol. I have written on this before (See Chapter 7 of this book). I know that the Scripture warns that alcohol is dangerous. I also know that it calls it a blessing. What are we going to do? Are we going to add restrictions in places where the Scripture does not? Are we going to take the easy road of legalism over the hard, challenging road of grace, wisdom, and discernment.
Well, as a life-long SBC guy, I know what we have predominantly done with this issue. We have appealed to the emotions. “Think of the lives lost and the families hurt by alcohol.” “It is dangerous, so we should avoid it.” There has even been a “re-interpretation” of Scripture to adhere to the concept. I have sat in classes where professors have taught that anytime the Bible affirms wine in a positive way, it is speaking of a “non-alcoholic” beverage. Eisegesis.
Southern Baptists have been doing this with a lot of issues for a long time. Slavery (in the earliest days), race, women, dancing, card-playing, “secular music,” industry boycotts, dating & courtship…the list could run on. But that is the issue: Southern Baptists have a long-standing history of reading our worldview into the text of Scripture.
Why Does Eisegesis Matter? Legalism!
The reason I think this issue is the real problem for the SBC is that eisegesis invariably leads to legalism. When I read my worldview, ethic, or perspective into the Scripture – especially as a public teacher of the Scripture – it almost always leads to legalism. The Word of God puts up some fences for us. There is a safe place for the sheep to graze. But, when we add fences that aren’t there, we make the gospel oppressive rather than freeing. If we make our wisdom greater than the wisdom of God, we are exchanging the infinite power of God for the limited power of man. When we allow eisegesis to become legalism, when we allow misinterpretation to become the abiding worldview, we are rushing headlong into idolatry. As in the days of the judges, everyone is doing what is right in the sight of their own eyes – even if those things have the appearance of being right and good. The Pharisees would have made great neighbors. They were socially and culturally upright – but they were not righteous. Jesus called them blind guides leading the blind into hell. He viewed them as oppressive and enemies of the Kingdom of God. Why? Because they read their own worldview into the Scripture and required others to meet their standard rather than God’s.
Legalism is dangerous, especially when espoused by public leaders. Three key things come from legalism, all of which are devastating to the faith. First, legalism can create a false sense of self-righteousness. The Pharisees genuinely thought they were morally and spiritually superior to the people around them. They had a standard, which they conflated with God’s standard, and they kept to it rather well. It created an “us versus them” mindset. When we consider some of the “untouchable leadership” issues that have been swirling around the SBC, it has the look and feel of this kind of outgrowth of legalism.
Second, legalism can promote a spirit of despair. Consider the above example of the Pharisees. There “self-righteousness” created an “us versus them” world. They were the “us:” the ones that were righteous. But what happened to the “them:” the ones that couldn’t measure up? They were left in a perpetual state of doubt, uncertain as to their worth, value, and significance in the Kingdom. “I am just a struggling sinner; I won’t ever be very useful in the Kingdom. I am not even sure that God loves me all that much. How could He?” I don’t know how many times I have sat on the counselor’s side of the desk and listened to a version of this echoed from a broken-hearted person, bogged down by both sin (that needed repenting) and legalism (that never should have been so oppressive).
Finally, legalism can do violence to the true standard that God has established. Let’s consider the “fence-building” metaphor again. In John 10, Jesus uses the metaphor of a sheep-pen to describe life in the Kingdom. His sheep hear His voice and come in. They are free to graze and enjoy their new life. The area is large, open, green, and well-watered. Outside are the dangers from which the sheep are being protected. Now, imagine for a moment someone were to build a much smaller fence inside of the sheep-pen. And then another, and another…you get the picture.
This is what it is like when we apply legalism to God’s open and free standard. God has built the fence He desires. He, being the all wise and benevolent Father He is, has supplied the proper standard. If we build another fence, and force others into, we are only asking for trouble. What typically happens is this: once people realize they have been improperly restricted, they throw off the man-made restriction. But what happens next? It was their teaching leaders, their parents, their friends, their denomination that told them the “false restriction” was the “true standard.” Now, trust is broken. “Have I been taught the Bible incorrectly all this time? Can I trust anything my leaders have said?” Suddenly, and quite aggressively, people begin pushing against the real fence, the one God Himself has set up. Because trust has been broken, people are uncertain as to where the real fence (God’s true standard) is. They begin to doubt if there is a fence at all. They climb over it, break through it, and go running into the woods with the wolves and all the dangers associated with being outside of God’s protective standard.
And how do we usually respond? I know I have done this before (may God have mercy on me). Usually, we blame the thing we were being legalistic about. “Look, another poor soul lost to alcohol. Look another poor soul abandoning the faith because they loved the world.” Seldom, if ever, do we do an honest self-evaluation and say, “Did we squeeze the sheep too much on top of one another with an unrealistic, unsustainable standard that doesn’t exist?” No, we chalk it up to how bad “the world is.” Sadder still, when legalism has a deep enough root and hold, we often think people have abandoned the faith when all they actually have done is begun grazing in the wider portions of God’s field that we have closed them off from.
This is the real problem of the SBC. We have habitually exercised eisegesis, reading our own morality, cultural, politics, and social standards into the text of Scripture. This moved us to legalism, leading to varying levels of self-righteousness, despair, or violent revolt against the oppression – often ending with a violent revolt against God’s true standard. The practice of discernment and the exercise of wisdom are seldom harsh, burdensome, or unnecessarily restrictive. These practices can be messy and full of risks, but that is the nature of grace. Sloppy, grimy freedom is far superior to well-organized slavery. If we want to spark real change in the SBC, then we should start at the root. We can talk racism, sexism, abuse of power, etc. all we want. These are all symptoms of the greater problem. It is time to stop making decisions, policies, and public positions based on what is “easy and safe.” It is time for teaching leaders in the SBC to stop reading our own standards into the Bible. It is time to let the plain things be plain, the mysterious things be mysterious, and the difficult things be discussed with a heightened level of grace and charity.
This blog is the expressed opinion of the author and does not reflect the official position of Sylvania Church.