10.28.13

Slopes Really Are Slippery, Folks

Slopes Really Are Slippery, Folks

The Detroit Free Press recently published an article with the provocative title, “Detroit Baptist Leader Resigns After Announcing She Married a Woman.” Yep. You read that correctly. The female pastor has married another female.

If you’ve been watching the cultural developments with same-sex marriage, you’ve no doubt guessed that a headline like this was coming. The culture’s confusion regarding gender, sexuality, and sex seems to know no limits. In fact, this isn’t even the most bizarre headline in recent weeks.

It seems to me we’ve been on this downward slope for a long time. And the farther down the slope we slide the more we hear from some leaders in the Black church that we’re “making progress,” or “advancing civil rights,” or “ending prejudice and bigotry,” or “facing the Black church’s sexism and homophobia.” We’ve seen African-American pastors gather to politically champion the legalization of same-sex marriage and new Black church campaigns have been launched for “gay transgender justice.” And all the while we’re told that slippery slopes don’t exist, or that the point we’ve now reached is not on a slope at all.

Falls can be terribly subtle.

Slip Slidin’ Away 

But how did a local Black church get to the point where it (a) calls a female pastor, (b) sees that pastor marry another woman, and (c) no one knows it until after the fact? Falls that deep don’t happen overnight. They can be terribly subtle. We can find ourselves sliding down a very slippery slope of unfaithfulness in four easy steps.

First, allow biblical literacy to drop among leaders and congregants. Biblical illiteracy isn’t peculiar to the African-American Church. It’s a pandemic problem crossing all ethnicities. And it leads to significant theological and moral problems. I’d be willing to bet the Detroit church hasn’t had a steady diet of faithful exposition for years. In the Detroit Free Press article mentioned above, the female pastor now married to another woman says, “People have the right to interpret scripture whatever way they please.” Actually, no, we don’t. Protestantism does make each person a pope. But no pope is infallible. If biblical literacy drops to the point of believing everyone can interpret the Bible as they wish, we’ll soon find that no one even looks to the Bible on even minor issues. We’ll be sliding down the iciest slopes wearing two-inch stilettos. Instead, we need to rightly divide the word of truth. We need to recover a proper understanding of the Bible and its teaching—especially among the leaders of the church and among all those who would live godly lives in Christ Jesus. Without understanding our Bibles we will be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine and the cunning scheming of men.

Second, adopt lower and lower views of church governance. With the rise of the evangelical and neo-evangelical movements there came a corresponding decline in church polity. As the ecumenical spirit took root in evangelical efforts, biblical approaches to church government and discipline were supplanted. Ignoring polity had to take place in order to foster wider “unity” across denominations. But without polity a church cannot manage people. People soon forgot that denominational lines matter. They forgot those lines preserve important biblical positions, including positions on how the church should operate when it comes to things like qualifying elders/pastors or handling church discipline. Any time people abandon their histories and creeds we’re bound to be off our feet and on our butts sledding farther down the slope of compromise. Losing appreciation for the practical importance of polity means a local church will be unprepared to face cultural challenges.

Third, refuse to face your church’s inconsistency and hypocrisy. We have to admit the ugly truth if we’re going to engage this conversation with any moral credibility: Too many African-American churches were guilty of hypocrisy in their treatment of women and of suspected or known homosexuals. For example, some church leaders were happy for people with homosexual tendencies to direct choirs and lead worship on Sunday morning but ignored or shunned them the rest of the week. Also, women could staff committees and keep the church running, but they sometimes weren’t allowed the legitimate development and use of their gifts. The church would have collapsed without these women, but they were marginalized in significant ways and sometimes preyed upon by ungodly leaders. So the church participated in a deplorable hypocrisy and failed to offer either gospel hope for change or gospel freedom for service to homosexuals and women. That duplicitous practice compromises the church’s position on human relationships and human sexuality. The church needs to confess and repent of its hypocrisy where it’s happened.

Fourth, quietly abandon gender roles. No Black denomination ordained a woman to either of the biblical offices of deacon or elder until the African Methodist Zion (AMEZ) Church reversed the traditional stance in 1894 and 1900. At present, no major Black Baptist denomination officially endorses women’s ordination, choosing instead to leave the question of ordination to autonomous local congregations[1]. The largest Black Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), maintains a firm policy against the ordination of women clergy[2]. However, this does not mean Baptist and COGIC congregations are without women pastors. For example, after the death of their male pastor, some COGIC congregations may call the former pastor’s wife to continue the work of the ministry. And though national Baptist bodies have no policy on the full ordination of women, many local congregations have ordained Black women to pastoral ministry. This practice of “loose coupling” allows denominations to adopt a public position of opposition while local congregations circumvent the policy.[3]

For a long time now, increasing numbers of local churches have found ways to ignore or circumvent the plain teaching of scripture when it comes to gender roles in the church. Too few leaders have seen the connection between quietly moving away from the Bible’s teaching on gender roles in the church and sliding to the bottom of a very steep slope on the very conception of gender itself.

“Instead, we need to rightly divide the word of truth.”

Conclusion

Situations like those faced by the Baptist congregation in Detroit can be quite painful. Slippery slopes are sometimes laced with razor blades. Avoiding this kind of slide will require churches to take a hard look at the Bible and then a hard look at themselves to see where they fit or fail biblical instruction. We should be thankful that pastor in Detroit stepped down to preserve the unity of the church. That was an act of integrity too rarely seen in the local church. It would have been better had the church had the knowledge and integrity to follow the Scriptures in the first place, but doing the right thing after a mistake takes courage and grace, too. We should praise God for that and take note lest we find our churches slipping down a similar slope.


[1] The major Black Baptist denominations include: the National Baptist Convention founded in 1895, the National Baptist Convention of America founding in 1915, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention founded in 1961.

[2] Lincoln and Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, pp. 285-287.

[3] Wiggins, Righteous Content, p. 184.                                   

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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