I Support Christopher Rollston

If you’ve been following the news, Christopher Rollston (one of the world’s foremost epigraphers and paleographers) is facing losing his job because he wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post about the marginalization of women in the  culture and context of the Bible.

As countless academics have stepped forward and said, this piece was nothing revolutionary, or even controversial (it is widely accepted that during the era the Bible, there were different values in comparison to the modern day when it came to women and their place in society). It was also written for a popular publication in the appropriate tone for a popular publication, not for scholars or in a manner presented to the field.

However, regardless of this, Emmanuel Seminary is proceeding with disciplinary action against Rollston, who is tenured, as one of their “six figure” donors is apparently withholding their financial support because Rollston’s article offended them, and the Seminary is (apparently) hoping to use the exception for religious institutions to terminate employees in certain positions who do not adhere to the spirit of the institution’s confession of faith.

I find this troublesome on many levels.

First, I do agree that a religious institution, under the law, has the right for certain members of its ranks to keep to a particular confession. This is the same mechanism that allows Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. organizations to hire only Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. as leaders and religious staff without being sued for religious discrimination. This protection, quite reasonably, does not extend to other staff like janitors, workmen, contracted companies, etc. as it is not essential for the mission of such an organization.

However, the problem here was not that Chris went against a particular confession of faith, which he did not. He was simply stating the consensus on the sociological issue for his field in a manner suitable for laymen via a popular magazine. What this appears to be, with less and less doubt as more details come to the forefront, an inter-personal dispute between him and fellow colleagues, and unnamed donors, which is one of the very things that tenure (as an academic institution) is supposed to protect against.

This all said, I support Christopher Rollston.


(h/t to Joel Watts for the image.)

4 thoughts on “I Support Christopher Rollston

  1. Dear Steve:

    Perhaps Robert Cargill and James Tabor find nothing controversial in Dr. Rollston’s article, but I do. His article seems to go well beyond simply saying that different values regarding the role of women are assumed by different authors of Biblical books. His article essentially says, as I understand it, that the marginalization of women is a Biblical value, and that its instructions to the church on this subject should be rejected. In any institution that claims to be committed to the authority of the Bible, that is going to be controversial, regardless of liberals’ inability to see the problem.

    You mention that Dr. Rollston did not go against a particular confession of faith. This is true in the sense that churches in the Restoration Movement (at least, in the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ fellowship) adopt no man-made statement of faith as their official creed. But that rejection of man-made creeds is paralleled by the acceptance of the Bible as the church’s supreme written guide for faith and practice. In a sense, the New Testament is our confession of faith, and by appearing to advocate the rejection of what the New Testament teaches to the church, Dr. Rollston appears to go against the New Testament.

    At http://www.ecs.edu/HEA/general.aspx one finds the affirmation that Emmanuel Christian Seminary is committed to the authority of Scripture. Yet via his article, Dr. Rollston appears to undermine that authority: passages against the marginization of women are depicted as anomalous; the passages which Dr. Rollston presents as if they define the Scripture’s instructions to the church are the same ones that he invites readers to reject. The self-description of ECS as an institution committed to the authority of Scripture is not an ecclesiastical creed, but it is a policy and purpose. I do not know the details of professors’ contracts at ECS, or their exact responsibilities to refrain from acting in opposition to the school’s stated policies and purposes. But it seems unsurprising that unpleasant consequences may result when a professor goes against the stated policy and purpose of the school that employs him, the way Dr. Rollston appears to have done.

    Also, I am not confident at all that this situation is the offshoot of a dispute between Dr. Rollston and Dr. Blowers, or potential donors to ECS. (That looks completely like a rumor started by a blogger.) Rather, it looks to me like (a) this is not the first time that Dr. Rollston has been advised to be cautious about airing views that could alienate potential donors, and (b) ECS is having a difficult time financially, and its professors should sense that it would be unwise and harmful to the school to alienate potential donors, and (c) at least one potential donor has explained to ECS personnel that he is hesitant to donate to a school that employs a professor who openly states that people should reject the Bible’s instructions for the church. If these three suspicions are correct then Dr. Blowers’ apparent frustration with Dr. Rollston would be understandable on a purely professional level. While some folks are concerned about Dr. Rollston’s tenure, one might ask them what good that will be if the school cannot pay the salary of Dr. Rollston and his fellow professors. Will your support be enough for them to live on?

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  2. First allow me to ask you, are you a regular reader of Huffington Post? Is it a publication that you peruse on a daily basis? Allow me to be more blunt: Are you the intended audience of a Huffington Post article? No, neither am I. We’re not the kinda people this was aimed at. But more about that in a bit. 🙂

    By “confession” I was being more general than you seem to have interpreted. As a creedal Christian, myself, I tend to use the word “confession” in the sense of “the basic tenets and beliefs of a religious denomination or organization.” Where the CoC adopts no “man-made creeds,” every group that associates with CoC, at least in name, tends to share a certain, sometimes specific number of things in common that sets them apart from, say, Catholics, Presbyterians, Moravians… Buddhists. 🙂 With this understanding, we again find that Chris hasn’t “broken” any core CoC beliefs with this article than he would discussing slavery in the same sort of context (only that was the last century’s bigger difficulty, and far more removed from today’s issues regarding women).

    Now — and suffer me a *little* bit of righteous indignation here, as this may be the only time you’ll see it from me on this blog — some matters that need to be addressed come to mind:

    If Rollston “appears” to be undermining the authority of Scripture, it “appears” that you are mistaken.

    There are plenty of “nasty” things in Scripture that we’d rather not talk about. Genocide. Incest. Marginalization of women. Slavery. War. Human sacrifice… *Paying your taxes.* You name it. Does *talking* about these vis a vis modern society and our own culture’s values when they are at odds (and they have always been at odds, if Paul is to be believed) undermine the Bible?


    It only *seems* to undermine the Bible if your faith is weak to begin with because with that weakness such talk is immediately perceived as a *threat* rather than a point of genuine contemplation. It’s an integral part of growing in one’s faith that we come to terms with these “difficult” passages and it is a mark of one’s spiritual maturity to not be frightened or discouraged to talk about them in *any* context. (If we want to talk about a fundamental “Biblical value” there you have one.)

    Where does this donor stand relative to this? Where does Blowers stand? Where does the administration of Emmanuel stand?

    The very point of titling his article “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About” (excusing the pun) speaks volumes.

    Is this stuff in the Bible? Yes.

    Do we not like to talk about it? Yes.

    Is it what we would call a “Biblical value”?

    In the *literal* sense, yes.
    (It’s a set of cultural values. It’s in the Bible. Ergo..)
    In the *practical* sense, hell no.
    (Our Christian understanding is informed differently from other portions of the Bible.)

    This is an obvious wordplay.

    It’s not a value we, in modern society or as modern Christians, wish to propagate. We have plenty of examples to pull from, too, and that seems to be a big part about what Dr. Blowers was complaining about. He wanted to see “equal time” devoted in Chris’ article to the examples of women we find as exemplary of Christian values, but this was simply not the scope of the article. It wasn’t an apologetics piece.

    Furthermore, this “hell no” should be blatantly obvious when one reaches the end of the article to find the slideshow showcasing the so-called “Badass Women of the Bible” (i.e. the women who are outliers for the culture they grew up in).

    Whoever does not see this, is missing the entire point of Rollston’s article.

    Yes, this means you.

    And Dr. Blowers.

    And the Emmanuel administration.

    And the 6-figure donor who spooked themself.


  3. Dear Steve:

    Regardless of whether one is or isn’t a typical Huffington Post reader, it seems very probable to me that most readers perceived that Dr. Rollston encouraged his readers to reject a Biblical teaching, and to that extent, he undermined the authority of the Bible, and thus collided with part of the stated mission of Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

    You stated: “Every group that associates with CoC, at least in name, tends to share a certain, sometimes specific number of things in common that sets them apart from, say, Catholics, Presbyterians, Moravians… Buddhists,” and you are right, and one thing that sets the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches apart from some denominations (but certainly not all) is that they have a high regard for the authority of the Bible.

    If Dr. Rollston had listed the various statements in the Bible about women’s roles, and advised his readers to interpret each passage systematically, so as to arrive at the conclusion that the Bible’s instructions to the church ought to be obeyed, that would not undermine the authority of Scripture. But that does not appear to be what he did, Steve. This is not a case of a writer simply wrestling with dissonant texts, or pointing out that we are facing a difficult interpretive puzzle. This is a case of a seminary professor stating that the Bible instructs the church to marginalize women; that was, at least, the impression that I believe the typical reader of the Huffington Post article received.

    You asked: “Does *talking* about these vis a vis modern society and our own culture’s values when they are at odds (and they have always been at odds, if Paul is to be believed) undermine the Bible? No.” I agree. The problem is not that Dr. Rollston has discussed a particular subject; the problem is that part of his conclusion is that that “The Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value.” The lesson of the article, istm, is that except for a few anomalous passages, the Bible instructs the church to marginalize women, and such Biblical instructions should not be valued by anyone.

    What you said to the effect of it-must-be-a-weak-faith-indeed-that-is-threatened-by-discussion completely misses the point. Discussion is not the problem at all. It’s part of a professor’s job to discuss difficult texts. What is not part of a seminary professor’s job – at least, not at a seminary that has expressly stated that it is committed to the authority of the Bible – is to undermine the authority of the Bible by declaring that its instructions to the church are incorrect.

    Now, you yourself affirm that in the practical sense – the sense in which our understanding of the Bible’s instructions for this church is informed from other portions of the Bible – the marginalization of women is not a Biblical value. I submit that this is the opposite of the impression most readers probably received from Dr. Rollston’s article. And this does not change with the inclusion of the slideshow that accompanies the article.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

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