Former President Jimmy Carter, speaking for himself and some other religious leaders, made headlines issuing a statement that religion is used to oppress women. Carter says he severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention because its leaders “claim” that women must be subservient to their husbands, and may not serve as deacons or pastors.
Carter suggests that accepting these teachings pushes women into an inferior role to men. He also seems to draw a parallel between such teaching and the horrors of forced prostitution, genital mutilation, rape, and slavery.
The Washington Post/Newsweek blog “On Faith” asked my response. What I told them was that, with all due respect, I find Carter’s statement imprudent and presumptuous. His statement paints every religious tradition with the same brush.
It is true that some have abused Scripture in pursuing oppressive agendas, like arguments for slavery, apartheid, and the denial of rights to women and minorities. But these abuses cannot be supported by an appeal to God’s word, especially when Scripture is interpreted according to the grand tradition of the Church.
Scripture teaches that men and women play complementary roles. For example, the wife is to submit to her husband exactly as the Church submits to Christ. The husband is to give his life for his wife, as Jesus gave His life for the Church-hardly discrimination or oppression. So, please, let’s not confuse Christian teachings with the offensive practices of other faiths-such as radical Islam’s deplorable treatment of women.
In addition, Carter’s denunciation of the plain teachings of Scripture as “male interpretation of religious texts,” transgresses the teachings of the Fathers, the Reformers, and reliable modern interpreters. God’s Word doesn’t have to conform to the declaration of man or the shifting philosophical sands.
Telling people what the Scripture ought to say is pure hubris. I have more confidence in 2,000 years of careful reflection on the ancient texts and the apostolic tradition than I do with the latest fad or somebody’s “aha” moment.
Most astonishing, Carter charges that biblical teaching about male headship is “in clear violation” of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Does he really imagine that God’s teachings must comply with the United Nations?
Finally, Carter says he is now a member of “an independent group of global leaders” working to address “major causes of human suffering.” Well, I would like to remind the former President that the Church that has always led the fight to relieve human suffering. Early Christians rescued abandoned babies, tended the dying during the plagues, led the fight against slavery.
And we’re doing the same kind of battles today. Surely the former President hasn’t forgotten that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister.
When we see the press accepting such charges as distortions of our faith, we had better start doing a better job defending the church against such false claims.
So maybe unwittingly the former President has provided a teaching moment-an opportunity to set the record straight on which faith tradition has always defended human dignity and the rights of the most vulnerable among us.