By Paul Greenberg, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Copyright 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Reprinted by permission.
August 1998 – More revealing than the Southern Baptists’ new statement of belief about the family is how widely misunderstood it has been. It’s not exactly news that we live in a biblically illiterate society, but one suspects there’s something going on here besides ignorance. Maybe it’s willful ignorance.
How else to explain the incomplete, and therefore distorted, news coverage of what was in fact a carefully qualified theological position? Time and again, its key phrases were glossed over or omitted entirely in the coverage of the Statement of Belief adopted by the Baptists last week in Salt Lake City.
Setting the pace was the front page story in The New York Times, a journal that can take a sudden interest in religious affairs when it believes it’s found something embarrassing to report. Its headline summed up the common misunderstanding of the Baptists’ position and may even be largely responsible for it: “Southern Baptists Declare Wife Should ‘Submit’ to Her Husband.”
Gentle (and Horrified) Reader might have got the same impression from the talk shows, the editorial cartoons or the witticisms of presidential spokesman Mike McCurry. The 250-word statement adopted at Salt Lake City has more reservations, modifiers, elaborations and conditions than a car rental policy. The full text of the statement was buried deep and it leaves a quite different impression.
Here is what the Baptists actually said:
“The husband and wife are of equal worth before God. Both bear God’s image but each in differing ways. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect and to lead his family. A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in ‘the image of God’ as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his ‘helper’ in managing their household and nurturing the next generation.”
There is nothing so simple here as a command that wives submit to husbands. Instead, the Baptists have adopted a biblical model of marriage (one of many) as a sacred covenantal relationship, but with lots of dependent clauses and plenty of room for interpretation. For example: Do you think Rebecca was being submissive to blind Isaac when she favored her younger over her older son, contrary to her husband’s ostensible wishes? Or was she justified because he had forfeited his “servant leadership?” Key phrase in the Baptists’ statement, or rather one of them, is the clause calling on the wife to submit to the servant leadership of her husband. Leave out that qualifier, and the whole covenant is distorted.
Readers who depended only on the Times’ account of the convention would not encounter that key, that essential, phrase in its story until almost the end.
A little earlier, the story in the Times does quote a couple of delegates to the convention from Arkansas – Rosie Conrad of Pine Bluff and Mary Hilburn of Little Rock – who seemed to have no trouble understanding their church’s statement. Ms. Conrad noted that if a husband “is the Christian leader he should be,” a wife would willingly follow his lead. That’s a determining condition. Ms. Hilburn tried to explain that the statement didn’t mean a husband could be a “dictator.” Unlike our media elite, these women were following the words of the text.
To misconstrue that text as a simple call for submission of wives to husbands would seem to require a willful ignorance – not just the usual innocence of covenantal theology in this neopagan society, but an active hostility to any religious ideas more complicated or sacrificial than the usual, sentimental platitudes.