A Lesson Learned in Humility

I learn lessons everyday.  Today was no exception.

A friend, mentor, and former colleague of mine, Dr. Mike Ruffin,  posted two articles on Facebook, one by Gerald Harris and one by John Pierce, concerning a situation in the life of Georgia Baptists.  If interested you can read the articles here and here.  The issue centers on the Bible’s teaching concerning women in the pastorate.  Certainly not a new issue, but one that still elicits passionate responses.  The main point of my post here is not to discuss the various strengths and weaknesses of each article as it relates to the validity of women pastors.  Instead, I want to share with you an interaction I had as a result of reading these articles and responding.

After reading the article by John Pierce, who I have no doubt loves the Lord and desires the name of Christ to be exalted, I was upset and disappointed.  Regardless of whether or not I agree with his particular viewpoint on the issue at hand (which I don’t), he simply posited a poor argument that was weak on constructive exegesis to defend his position and heavy on accusations toward Harris as being insensitive to women and walking in the same company as slave defenders.  These comments were made in light of the article by Harris which focused on how difficult it was for him to follow through with his convictions because it was going to hurt people he cared for (in fact, Harris’ article was not primarily a systematic, biblical defense of his own position).  I believe Pierce knows better than to make the parallel between the two issues of slavery and women pastors.  It is the kind of argument we might expect from someone with no seminary training who is attempting to create a more viscerally powerful reaction.  These two issues, both exegetically and practically, are worlds apart.  Furthermore, I believe it hurts the position of moderates when these kinds of arguments are made.  Not for the moderates themselves who already have strong convictions on the issue, but for those who might be wrestling with their own view of this important topic.  In other words, I believe that my friend Mike Ruffin’s “counter-point” would have read much, much differently.  Add to all this the irony that this argument which is primarily against Harris and his theology, regardless of the strength or validity of Harris’ position, is made by a moderate Baptist who dwells in the company of those who walked away from the SBC to the CBF largely due to a lack of acceptance.  Thus, to be consistent with his own take on what Baptist’s should be, Pierce’s article should have started out – “I appreciate Gerald Harris for his heart-felt convictions on Scripture, convictions that led him to make a very difficult painful decision.  One that he no doubt wishes he did not have to make.  However, I believe Harris could have saved himself and the church at Druid Hills the hardship of separation.  I say that because I believe Harris is mistaken in his interpretation of Scripture.  Here is why. . .” 
So, I emailed Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index.  I simply let him know that I appreciated the tone of his article and that it was clear to me that his heart was broken by following through on what was a painful decision.  My assumption is that he had come under intense fire from the publication.  I was right.

Harris emailed me back promptly.  He thanked me for the email.  He acknowledged that his article had incited quite a strong reaction which surprised him.  And then he said something in his email that made me sit back and reflect.  He said:

“I respect Johnny Pierce for his observations and wish him God’s best.”

That’s class.  That’s being a man.  That’s demonstrating true humility.  Not one word even suggesting a sarcastic or negative tone toward Pierce was made by Harris.  The man who accused him of walking in the same company as slave defenders is being respected and blessed by Harris in an arena where he no doubt would have felt safe to make some kind of slanderous remark.  Perhaps I would have received a similar response from Pierce had I emailed him.  Perhaps Pierce’s article is not reflective of his “respect” for Gerald Harris and his desire for him to receive “God’s best.” 

Yes, I learned a lesson today.  Another lesson in humility.  Not that Christians should just avoid debate and robust discussion.  On the contrary, Scripture itself testifies to the requirement of all Christians to stand firm on truth.  I have tried to graciously point out what I believe are problems with the approach of John Pierce’s article.  Point and counter-point is how we learn and grow.  But that in our standing, we are humble.  In our interpretations, we are gracious.  And in our opposition of others, we maintain the dignity of Christ. 

*Note – I should point out that evangelical conservatives have played their own role in the past (and present no doubt) of failing to graciously defend their position in favor of attacking the position of others.  I no doubt have been guilty of this many times.  This lesson of humility runs across the board, not reserved for just conservatives, moderates, or liberals.


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5 Replies to “A Lesson Learned in Humility”

    1. Thanks for reading Mike. I am happy for my post to be forwarded to Pierce and would welcome any comments he might have on how I have misread or misjudged his article.

  1. Philip-Thanks for letting our mutual friend share your comments with me. First, Gerald Harris is a fine Christian and an excellent minister. I use his handling of a church crisis as a model for pastors in public relations seminars. But his advocacy for fundamentalist (and I use that term specifically and carefully) causes comes up short editorially.
    Likewise, your conclusion that the issues of slavery and gender inequity “exegetically and practically, are worlds apart” is dead wrong. A reading of the actual cases in Willard Swarley’s “Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women” will show just how the same path is followed. Very conservative Baptists of the future (a distant future, I’m afraid) will apologize to women in the same way Southern Baptists apologized to African Americans well after the damage was done.
    BTW, it is important to note that at no point did I claim that Gerald supports the arguments for racial discrimination or slavery. Rather I note, rightly, that his case is built on the same very weak foundation.
    Also, while I don’t think it was intentional, the editorial (especially the part about Mimi’s “rights”) seems very condescending.
    My conclusions come from serious biblical study and theological reflection on this matter. My passion comes from having two daughters I desire to become everything God desires of them without MAN-made obstructions. And my intensity comes from watching conservative Christians being the caboose rather than the engine over every social issue of equality.

    1. John,

      Thanks for reading and for your helpful reply. Your passion and conviction on the issue is clear and I appreciate that. Interestingly, many of my friends and fellow ministers are moderate Baptists, which puts me in a great place as a more conservative Baptist to critically think through issues. Neither you nor I have time to write endless comments, so I will respond to a few things as best I can and allow you to respond if you so wish. Whether you do or not, I pray God’s blessings on your ministry and I am glad to have the platform to think through these things with you.

      1. I would be interested to know your definition of a fundamentalist. That word means something very different today than it did in the early 20th century (when it was coined as the counter of modernism). I find its use to be no longer effective because of the wide range of meaning embedded in it. It could simply refer to an evangelical conservative Christian. It could refer to a KJV only advocate. It could refer to a Christian who checks their brains at the door and bombs abortion clinics. Whenever the word is used in the context such as your article, my hunch is that most people read into the word my latter two examples rather than the first. In contemporary thought, it is almost always used as a pejorative. It might be surprising, but there is the possibility of intellectual, scholarly reflection on Scripture and its teaching that yields “conservative” results beyond the scope of the most widely understood fundamentalist label.

      2. Regardless of the “path” or “method” used by slavery defenders, the legitimate exegetical conclusions and “correct” argumentation between the two issues are worlds apart. The argument you seem to be making is this (drawing from your article). . . 1) Harris cited specific Bible verses to form his opinion (you accuse Harris of “ignoring” previous texts in 1 Timothy which isn’t fair because the intent of his article was not to make a detailed, systematic defense of his position. Having said that, I would have preferred Harris to omit his very brief textual defense and just write on the central theme of his article; the sometimes painful conclusions of following conviction and the break of Druid Hills from the GBC). 2) Harris is cautious about the potential for our biblical interpretations to be swayed by popular culture. So, since slave defenders also cited specific verses (while ignoring others), were decrying the influence of popular culture, and were addressing some form of a “role”, then Harris’ conclusions are as erroneous as theirs. By your logic, ANY “role” issue in the Christian life (marriage, homosexuals in the pastorate, deacons, elders, children to parents, etc.) that is examined in Scripture using the traditional historical-grammatical approach where Scripture is understood as propositional truth puts said interpreter in the company of slave defenders. The only way it seems to avoid reaching ignorant “slave defending conclusions” is to adhere to the Yale School of narrative theology and reject any form of propositions and foundations. Thus, your article could actually have been addressed to the majority of pastors, teachers, professors, and Christians in the SBC who would all be in the same company of slave defenders and reaching faulty conclusions on a host of topics, regardless of their position on women in the pastorate.

      3. Your paragraph on the sexism in varying roles was very interesting. The word “role” isn’t really the issue it seems. Even based on your small paragraph, the issue is clearly “power” and perceived “restriction.” Focusing on those words takes us back to Genesis 3:6. Besides, who is the real sexist when the complaint is: “you mean I get to teach JUST women?” And how do you explain away the varying roles of the Trinity? I wonder if the Holy Spirit feels restricted because His primary role is to glorify the Son? Why didn’t He get to be the one who sits at the right hand of the Father? Why are all the worship songs primarily about the Savior Jesus? That just isn’t fair.

      4. Finally brother, everything else aside, I just found the tone of your article to betray what I am sure is in your heart and the principles of your moderate understanding of being a Baptist. Harris comes across as an insensitive, ignorant, sexist. It is absolutely impossible to tell from your article that you feel Harris is a “fine Christian and excellent minister.”

      1. Philip- Brief responses:
        1. I prefer Fisher Humphreys’ definition (in my words) that it involves both belief (in certain “fundamentals”) and behavior (that sees those in disagreement as “not believing the Bible” or worse, and as a threat to be countered). BTW, SBC leaders keep changing the “essentials” to the point even insiders aren’t sure what is the required for essential uniform thought.
        2.Reading the actual cases (in Swartley’s book) gives overwhelming evidence of how these two issues result from the same approach to biblical interpretation. Also, Dr. Bill Hull summed it up well once by saying that if someone will explain to him why they don’t believe the Bible supports slavery then he can easily explain his position on women’s equality. It follows the very same path.
        3. You can’t put the power, therefore the control, into the hands of men only and then claim equality. There is no connection between the Trinitarian formula and justifying the denigration of females.
        4.I have explained my intensity on this issue and marvel that young Baptists (who are not nostalgic about the ’50s and ’60s social structures, like Gerald) would still buy into this position of gender inequality. And, at no point in my writing did I say anything negative about Gerald personally. I simply noted the way his editorial addressed a female minister and struggling inner-city church in a condescending way, and I explained how the position he and others hold is reached by following the same biblical abuse that supported racism in the past and sexism in the present.

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