We all love to be heard. James counsels, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower still to grow angry.” (1:19) Could our love be best measured by how well we listen? In addressing a Corinthian controversy, that is now largely a non-issue, Paul counsels, “Now concerning XY&Z, we all have ‘knowledge’. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1) Perhaps love is proven not in “what, I have to say” but in how well we listen to other voices, especially the voiceless.
Thirty years ago, I was a college sophomore at the University of Kentucky, coordinating our Tuesday night worship at the Baptist Student Union. With a denominational grant, we invited some cutting edge speakers from all over the country. Just before Molly Marshall, Phd, Professor of Theology at The Southern Baptist Seminary, came to campus, our Executive Committee held its monthly meeting. As I excitedly ticked off our big crowds and upcoming lineup, a guy interrupted me with a forceful declarative question: “Now, she is not leading our Tuesday night gathering, is she?” I chuckled. A great female leader, Twilia, was our BSU Director and Dr. Marshall’s speaking to us and the UK Gender Studies Department was all over our posters and in the campus newspaper. Surely, he was joking. To the contrary, he fired off 1 Timothy 2:11-12 from a KJV cannon: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence!” (Today, sadly the SBTS webpage tab “Women at Southern” leads with “Seminary Wives Institute.”)
What to do? Is it enough to agree to disagree? Do we silently let such theology slide by unchallenged? Is it okay to use scripture to categorically invalidate another person’s sacred worth, voice, call, or full inclusion in the life of the church? When the UMC calls LGBTQ persons “incompatible with Christian teaching” and denies full participation in the life of the church, it does harm. We all need safe space to be heard and to hear from God, but some theological expressions damage and deny others’ sacred worth. In a rural parish 25 years ago, I regularly invited wonderful female clergy colleagues to fill my pulpit when I was away. One old farmer chuckled, “We know what you are up to preacher!” Today, we must still speak up in defense of female clergy, LGTBQ persons, justice, and immigrants. Every Sunday people drive for over an hour in order to find a safe, listening, welcoming space here at Belmont where they might be heard and hear from God. Love listens.
Well, I think I got a C-minus on my sophomore case study: “The Motion to Dis-invite Dr. Marshall Green”. I returned fire, threatening to resign and call the campus newspaper. As a not-yet-recovering-fundamentalist, I had not yet escaped my literalism enough to mount a progressive scriptural defense. So I was bold but rash. However, I am proud that I did not even for a second consider disinviting our Dr. Marshall. She spoke to our largest Tuesday night crowd, with many guests from the larger university community. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.