The congregation of the First Baptist Church of Jefferson City Tennessee has broken away from the Tennessee Baptist Convention because they have appointed a woman as pastor [Religion News Service [15/11/17].

While those of us who rejoice in the ministry of women may want to decry the misogyny and patriarchal attitudes that lie behind the split, it should also not be surprising. Purity cults are always doing that sort thing.

I used to be a Baptist before the beauty and spirituality of Durham Cathedral enticed me into the Anglican fold. My experience of Baptists, in the United States at least, left me with two abiding experiences: the memory of a warm community with a deep reverence for Scripture, and a deep and abiding suspicion of those who didn’t think like us. While we were a part of a larger body of Baptists across the nation, our association was always conditional on that association remaining as pure as we were. Breaking up is not hard to do.

The history of the Christian church is littered with the carcasses of purity cults, and it begins in the New Testament itself. Table fellowship between different expressions of the Christian faith was threatened almost immediately in the fledgling church over the admission of gentiles into the fold. Some wished to welcome them with open arms because they could see that God’s Spirit was at work and alive in them (independently of the church’s official mission, it seems: there is an important lesson for the church today in that), and others wanted to make sure that they believed and acted in the same way they were. An uneasy truce was negotiated in Jerusalem for a while, but it didn’t last long. St Peter and St Paul went their own ways, preaching their distinctive versions of the Gospel, each convinced of the purity and righteousness of their own view to the point where St Paul uses some very violent language about Peter and his tribe and their version of the faith.

PurityCultPurity cults – expression of religious faith which, in fact, worship their understanding of the faith rather than the God who inspires it – abound today. But because the basis for their existence are lines drawn very tightly around themselves (and therefore have a fleeting semblance of certainty about everything as if they knew the mind of God), they don’t last very long: it’s so easy to cross the line, to need to be disciplined, to be thrown out, with deep regrets, for apostasy. They tend, like the Baptists in Tennessee, to break away from each other in fits of righteous indignation over the apostasy of the other. No wonder there are not only First Baptists in Jefferson City, but nine other Baptist churches as well.

Purity cults are not, however, always or even usually benign towards those who are apostate. The history of the Christian church is not only littered with the carcasses of purity cults, it is piled high with the corpses of the apostate. It’s remarkable how righteous indignation over the apostasy of the ‘other’ turns to violence, first of language, as St Paul shows so crudely and vividly, and then of a physical sort. Whether it’s the Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva, or the religious wars of post-Reformation Europe, violence towards the apostate other seems to follow as night follows day as the purity cults draw the lines tighter and build their walls higher. Even Martin Luther King, Jr suffered and was killed because he dared to push at the lines in fighting for the rights of Black men and women, in looking for the broad uplands of social justice rather than the narrow valleys bigotry and self-righteousness. King had a vision of the God who demands justice and mercy and love and lifted the eyes of those who heard him above their lines of certainty to glimpse the promised land of God’s kingdom.

Even in my adopted spiritual home of the Church of England, let alone within the wider Anglican Communion, purity cults abound. We may not now be able to do physical violence to one another, but the violence of language is unabated, even if it is masked by talk of ‘mission’. In her resignation statement from the Archbishop’s Council, Lorna Ashworth states: “In light of this revisionist agenda and the heretical teaching that comes with it, I am no longer willing to sit around the table, pretending that we, as a governing body of the Church of England, are having legitimate conversations about mission.” ‘Revisionism’ and ‘heresy’ – words that open doors to darkness.

In their report on the split of Baptists in Tennessee, RNS reporter Holly Meyer writes,

‘Southern Baptists highly value the autonomy of the local church to make its own decisions, but they also believe the Bible dictates who can preach from the pulpit. Earlier this fall, the convention’s credentials committee declared that First Baptist is “not a cooperating church” because its senior pastor is female.’

An interpretation of Scripture that is highly contentious is elevated to exclude. The lines are drawn tighter, the walls built higher, and the door to darkness is opened.