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Journal’s sermon on Eph. 5 seeks ‘feminist liberationist’ revision

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–A sermon calling for a “feminist liberationist” revision of Ephesians 5 is among the contents of the most recent issue of the quarterly Baptist journal Review and Expositor.

The sermon’s author, doctoral student Eileen Campbell-Reed, also rejects the apostle Paul’s authorship of Ephesians and advocates female and non-personal references to God.

With the theme of “Sexuality and the Church” encompassing its various entries, the journal includes a lead article claiming divine revelation in the sensations of male and female sex organs. Such contents make clear what some on both the right and the left flanks of Baptist theology have been saying for quite some time — at stake in the debate over gender roles are larger questions of biblical authority and the nature of God.

The Review and Expositor is published by a consortium consisting predominantly of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) and Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) partner schools. The journal’s most recent edition was circulated this fall although it is dated Spring 2001.

In her sermon, Campbell-Reed, of Vanderbilt Divinity School, takes aim at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs and its affirmation of the apostle Paul’s instruction for husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands. Campbell-Reed’s sermon is titled, “Should Wives ‘Submit Graciously’? A Feminist Approach to Interpreting Ephesians 5:21-33,” to which she seeks “to offer a feminist response to “its misuse in recent history to make changes to the Baptist Faith and Message.”

Campbell-Reed makes clear that she is not just calling for a rejection of submission of wives to their husbands as advocated by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5 and quoted in the Baptist Faith and Message revisions of 1998 and 2000. Instead, she is advocating an entirely new way for Baptists both to read Scripture and to think about God.

First, Campbell-Reed points to critical biblical scholarship, which she argues makes a compelling case that the Book of Ephesians was not written by the apostle Paul at all. Citing evidence from various scholars, Campbell-Reed argues that the epistle was probably written by a companion of Paul sometime after the apostle’s death. She further argues that this unknown author probably wrote the epistle not to the church at Ephesus but as a general encyclical letter to several churches.

The authorship of the books of the Bible was a major point of controversy in the theological skirmishes in the SBC, which led to the formation of such breakaway groups as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. SBC conservatives contend that all of the words of Scripture are inspired by God and thus come with the authority of God himself. Therefore, conservatives regard passages such as Ephesians 1:1 as speaking truthfully when they attribute the authorship of the epistle to Paul. The 1987 report of the SBC Peace Committee, formed to examine the roots of the Baptist controversy, concluded that most Southern Baptists interpreted the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement’s affirmation of the Bible as “truth without mixture of error” to mean that “the named authors did indeed write the biblical books attributed to them by those books.”

Campbell-Reed, in her article, proposes that Christians reconsider the classical view of God. This means recognizing that speaking of God only in “metaphors of maleness” such as “father, king, almighty protector (militaristic image), etc.” is “to participate in an idolatry.”

“When I as a Christian feminist say I am committed to the equality of men and women as created in the image of God, I am also claiming that our entire Christian tradition needs to be rehabilitated to include women’s experience as a source for understanding the reality of God, and to include biblical images of God that are feminine (as well as child-like and non-personal, etc.),” Campbell-Reed writes. “Only when our vision of God is transformed will our vision of humanity also be made whole.”

In calling for feminine language for God, Campbell-Reed cites feminist theologian Brian Wren, who is quoted extensively elsewhere in the same issue of the journal. Wren’s hymn to “strong mother God” became a point of controversy among conservative Baptists, after the national Baptist Women in Ministry organization sang it at their meeting at the 2001 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Atlanta. The controversy was renewed this fall when the Georgia Baptist Convention’s executive director, Robert White, asked the Georgia Baptist Women in Ministry group not to use the convention venue to worship “Mother God” or “Goddess Sophia.”

While some moderates believe that “Father” and “Mother” are “metaphors” which can be interchanged, SBC conservatives, along with other evangelicals, hold that “Father” is nothing less than God’s self-revelation as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The 1994 Report of the SBC Presidential Theological Study Committee, in addressing this point of controversy, stated:

“We have no right to reject God’s own name for Himself, nor to employ impersonal or feminine names in order to placate modern sensitivities,” the report stated. “We honor the integrity of God’s name, and acknowledge His sole right to name Himself even as we affirm that no human words can exhaust the divine majesty. But God has accommodated Himself in human words.”

In the concluding section of her exposition, Campbell-Reed calls for the rejection of the suggestion that wives “graciously submit” because it is a remnant of patriarchal oppression. She instead sets forth a view of “mutual submission” whereby husbands and wives “submit” to one another.

Campbell-Reed acknowledges that she bases her reading of Ephesians on a feminist form of interpretation that seeks to find the “liberating impulse” in each text of Scripture. She claims that this form of interpretation is similar to “Jesus interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures in a new light, so feminists committed to the liberationist approach interpret scripture in a new light — the light of human freedom.”

Campbell-Reed notes that she learned her method of feminist interpretation of the Bible in her study in Southern Baptist institutions. “My commitment to a feminist approach also comes in part from my education in Baptist schools,” she writes, “and in larger part from my lived experience as a woman in American society, particularly as an ordained Baptist woman in the South.”

Review and Expositor is published by a consortium of theological schools, most notably its three “sponsor institutions,” McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. The journal lists as “patron institutions” Campbell University Divinity School, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Gardner-Webb University’s White School of Divinity, Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.

With the exception of Northern Seminary, these seminaries and divinity schools partner with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which was formed in opposition to the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention. Truett Seminary and Logsdon School of Theology also are institutions of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

    About the Author

  • Russell D. Moore