(RNS) — A small Baptist church in Texas received more than $21,000 in donations after a conservative group criticized the congregation’s website for supposedly using the wrong pronouns for God.
“This is close to paying for a month of our operating budget,” author Beth Allison Barr, whose husband is the church’s pastor, told her Twitter followers on Wednesday (Nov. 9) about an earlier donation total. “We are overwhelmed, humbled & in awe of you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
The donations were inspired by an unlikely source — a fundraising appeal from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which has been critical of a popular recent book from Barr.
Colin Smothers, the executive director of CBMW — started in the late 1980s to help churches defend themselves against “secular feminism” — recently wrote a fundraising email that criticized both Barr’s book and her church, First Baptist Church in Elm Mott, Texas. The church’s online statement of faith included the word “Godself” instead of “himself” for God. Smothers also wrote a longer article, which ended with a request for donations, that further criticized the church and its “eye-popping statement of faith.”
“This kind of revisionism is dangerous, unorthodox, and should be rejected by confessional Christians,” Smothers wrote. The article also took issue with a pair of columns from Religion New Service columnist Mark Silk about God and pronouns.
First Baptist-Elm Mott, a little-known small congregation outside of Waco, was mentioned because of its ties to Barr, a Baylor University professor and associate dean. She’s the author of The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, which critiques the teaching of groups like the CBMW.
Barr has no official role at the church and had nothing to do with the statement of faith. That statement of faith, according to the church website, predates her husband’s arrival as pastor. She’s used to people taking issue with her work but said going after her church was “below the belt.”
“What really ticked me off was that it wasn’t just attacking me,” she said. ”It was attacking this congregation that had nothing to do with any of that, aside from the fact that they hired my husband.”
She added: “It was really uncalled for.”
Barr was also concerned that CBMW was trying to raise money off of critiquing her church. Like many small congregations, First Baptist has struggled during COVID, with attendance at services dropping from about 70 to less than 30. The church has also faced financial struggles. Last fall, the church’s former secretary was indicted on charges of embezzling more than $150,000 from the church, wiping out much of the congregation’s savings.
Barr said the church has orthodox views of Christian beliefs such as the Trinity and a high view of the Bible. It also has a long history of supporting women in ministry, dating back to the 1930s, and has tried to be faithful to serving its community, she said, despite the struggles of COVID.
The critique of First Baptist, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, reflects a larger debate over the roles of women in the church and at home that has intensified in recent years, pitting groups such as the CBMW that promote “complementarianism,” a view that men and women are equal but have different roles, against those who hold egalitarian views.
Authors such as Barr and Calvin historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez — whose book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, was also critiqued in Smothers’ letter — have argued that the complementarian view has been harmful to women in the church, while leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention have labeled women who preach as threats to biblical authority.
After Barr shared the CBMW article on social media, it was updated to include a statement from the First Baptist website, which has since replaced the term “Godself” with “Himself.”
“While there is nothing inaccurate about the word ‘Godself,’ the Scriptures clearly uses ‘Himself” in reference to God, and our church has no problem with that,” the statement read. “We seek to use gender-neutral pronouns when the scriptural text does so in the original languages, and we use gendered pronouns when the text does so in the original languages.”
Smothers, who did not immediately reply to a request for comment, called the statement a “‘neutering’ of God’s self-revelation.”
After Barr tweeted about the CBMW fundraising email, First Baptist began receiving donations through the church’s website. By Wednesday afternoon, more than $6,500 had come in from 80 donors. After Barr tweeted that total, Texas Baptist pastor Dwight McKissic promised more was on the way.
Becky Castle Miller was one of the donors who chipped in. A recent graduate of Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois, she knows Barr from Twitter but has never met her in person. Miller served on the staff of a small church in the Netherlands, a congregation she loved dearly, before returning to the United States.
“I would have been mama bear-angry if someone had gone after my church the way CBMW mocked Dr. Barr’s church,” she said. “I love Jesus, and I love the church. I care about small churches. I’m sad to hear about the struggles First Baptist of Elm Mott has been facing.”
By Thursday morning, more than $15,000 in donations from 182 people had been received at the church, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Jeb Barr. By Friday morning, that number topped $21,000.
“We’re a small church in a low resource community, and COVID has hit us pretty hard,” he said. “This will be our Thanksgiving miracle!
“It’s also a reminder of God’s faithfulness and provision, often in ways we could never anticipate. On a practical level, we meet in an aging facility, and there are needed repairs that we’ve been putting off that we may now be able to address,” he continued.
“This might help save our church,” Beth Allison Barr said.
This article has been updated to include a new donation amount.