I had only one more Sunday before I left the South. I had learned by now that I needed to be careful about chasing stereotypes, but there was one stereotype I felt I just had to find. I wanted to go to a very large, very conservative church. I looked up the Southern Baptist Convention online, and found all the member churches between Charleston and Asheville. First Baptist in Simpsonville said on their website that they had multiple locations and an average Sunday attendance of 2,000 people. This was the place.
I didn’t think I would need to arrive very early since the site said they had parking specifically for visitors, and I ended up getting the very last spot in the twenty car visitor’s lot. There were men directing traffic and people walking towards the church from all directions. Inside I saw a table with about two dozen empty collection plates set out in preparation for the service. There were ushers at every aisle, and I was welcomed and handed a program. The space was large with multiple aisle-ways and balcony seating. It reminded me of a major urban theater, and had the sound and lighting setup to match. On stage a man who looked like the typical western depiction of Jesus tuned his guitar. The band did a sound check. A sizable put plain wooden cross stood off to the side, underneath one of the two projection screens. The screens were rolling through slides advertising the various events going on in and around the church. There was a “Getting to Know You Dinner” for new members, a marriage retreat in the fall, and my personal favorite: Flag Football and Cheerleading for elementary age children. I grew up in the Anglican high-church style, with robes and chanting and structured prayer. To me, Simpsonville feels unconventional, modern, and non-traditional.
The service began with a couple of songs. They were of that Christian Rock variety that is a little hard to get into but you know you’d probably like it once you heard it a few times. On an a cappella refrain repeating the lyrics “Hosanna in the highest,” the drummer held his stick in the air and pointed to the sky. I think it must be more meaningful to be in the band than to be in the crowd.
After an introduction and a prayer or two, it was time for the baptisms. Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we had baptisms maybe twice a year. First Baptist was having three at the 11:15AM service alone. The lights came up on a cut out portion of the wall some twenty feet above the stage. The lowest point in the cut out was a piece of glass that allowed the congregation to see the top half of a tank of water. Family members watched from behind the tank as both the baptizer and the child stood in what seemed to be about four feet of water. Both were dressed in white robes. It was clear from the way the presider spoke that he didn’t know the child very well, and the crowd watched as the little boy or girl was tipped backward into the water to the refrain of “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The child walked off to the side of the tank and disappeared behind the wall stage right, as did their family. The next child and family entered from stage left and the process was repeated. All the baptized were probably 7-12 years old, and all were introduced as having made the decision to let Jesus into their lives. The whole thing was objectively cool. While I don’t want to belittle the experiences of these children, if I were nine years old, I’d want to get baptized, too.
The sermon displayed a number of important indicators of modernity and hipness. The program had a sort of worksheet where parishioners could fill out answers as they were revealed during the sermon. The pastor had an iPad that could be projected onto the screen so he could write out certain words as he explained the Greek translations. There were presentation slides with high-quality stock photos. At one point he told a story about getting a free emergency gas can at the local mini-mart, and threw it on the stage behind him as a visual demonstration of how much we don’t need a backup plan if we have Jesus. That part would have been cooler if I felt it was remotely related to the rest of the sermon, but there were a lot of parts of the sermon that seemed a bit out of place.
For example, somewhere near the middle he stopped to play a video advertising the fall marriage workshop. He told us all how excited he was about this year’s workshop leaders, the authors of “Men are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti.” The pastor explained how important it was to work on your marriage, because “Satan likes to attack nowhere better than in a marriage.” I’m not sure what this had to do with II Peter 1:5-11, but I don’t think that mattered. At one point in the sermon the pastor was cracking a joke about how silly it is to expect others to work on your soul for you. “If you wanted to learn Spanish, you wouldn’t send your wife to class.”
The church announcements were done via pre-recorded video, with a man talking directly to the camera about the various upcoming events. After the first few announcements the man said, “Last week I made a comment comparing women to bacon, and that bothered some people.” There were laughs from the congregation. “But there’s nothing wrong with being bacon. Bacon is the candy of meat. It makes everything better.” The congregation laughed, he smiled, and we all moved on to the next announcement.
Notice he didn’t actually apologize for calling women bacon.
Marriage is clearly very important in this community, but not as important as gender roles. The boys play football and the girls cheer on the boys as they play football. A wife is someone who can be sent places. Every year there is the marriage retreat. Women are unapologetically bacon. And I almost feel like I’m doing a disservice to you as the reader to point out these incidents so specifically, because they were comparatively subtle. Another person, especially someone who hasn’t spent their life being acutely aware of gender roles, might not have noticed anything out of the ordinary. And that’s the thing to remember. When you’re there, it doesn’t seem that strange. No one is saying that women are chattel or the domestic abuse is okay. They just believe that husbands and wives have different roles, and part of the man’s responsibility is being head of the household. It seems very reasonable doesn’t it? The church isn’t sexist, it’s just honest. Right?
Watching the quiet gender culture of First Baptist gave me the best understanding I have ever had of why people believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage is a threat to so-called traditional marriage.
Because it is.
The world according to First Baptist, as I saw it, is fairly straight forward. People grow up in the church. At a certain age they find a husband or wife. The husbands lead the family, making important decisions and providing financially. The women take care of the home and the children, and provide emotional support for their husbands. They do everything they can to make the marriage work, no matter what. They have children that they in turn take to church so that those children may learn to follow the same path.
And there is nothing wrong with that scenario. Everyone should be free to choose that path if that’s what they feel called to do. But the scenario alone isn’t Traditional Marriage. Traditional Marriage is the idea that this highly structured, gender-based relationship is the only option. It is tradition, and it cannot be broken.
But if two women are married, they can’t only be in charge of the home and the children and the emotional needs of the marriage. At least one of them will have to make money, if not both. If two men are married and they adopt children, at least one will need to raise the kids, if not both. And if these men and women are able to do these things successfully, it means that the first scenario is not the only way to have a successful marriage, it is simply an option. And if it’s only an option, it means that not everyone has to follow it. Which means some of the women of First Baptist might not want to stay at home with the children, in fact they might not want to have children at all. It means that some of the men would rather take care of the house, or may even be inclined to show their emotions. It means the little girls might want to play football and the boys may want to cheer. And if all that is true, it means that the subtle claim that husbands and wives have “equal but different” roles is a lie.
The funny thing about the Bible is that what you find in it will always be whatever you were looking for. If you open up your Bible hoping that it will tell you that you should always listen to your husband, it will. If you go looking for instructions on how to control your wife, they’re there. And if you want someone to convince you that your marriage is not a mistake, and that you just need to work harder and it will all get better, well, I’ve got a book you can read.
But if one day you happen to meet a pair of women whose love for each other seems to put your happiness to shame, you might start to question. If you see their happy, smiling children, you might start to worry. And if you’re not careful you might feel inclined to throw the whole thing out and blame the gays for why no one wants to come to the Get to Know You Dinner at church. But I hope it doesn’t happen that way. I hope instead that you pick the book back up and find the part where it says that in Christ there is no male or female. I hope you realize that you aren’t truly living the Gospel if you allow your talents to be restricted to an arbitrary role. And you’ll see that just because something is our tradition doesn’t make it holy.
And maybe, if we’re very lucky, we really will destroy the traditional marriage.