They Should Have Known: Jephthah, Southern Baptists, and Sacrificing the Vulnerable

Early this year I started penning an article on Jephthah, but I had so much going on that I found it difficult to quiet my mind for writing. Things have settled down a bit now, though, so here goes nothing.

You may recall the narrative. Jephthah was that incomprehensible character who so misunderstood God’s word and his ways that he sacrificed his daughter to fulfill a vow. It’s one of those Bible horror stories that I hate so much, yet somehow feel compelled to decipher. Even when I try, I can’t escape my inner need to comprehend what went wrong and what we can do to avoid falling into the same trap.

But to do that, we first need to figure out exactly what that trap is. I mean, our natural reaction to Jephthah is that no way, not on your life or even your death, would we or could we ever make the same mistake. 

Child sacrifice? Are you kidding?

And then, when a decades-long mishandling of reports of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention hit the news outlets in May, I wondered if there was some connection between the two. What was going on inside Jephthah, and what is it that he should have known that would have altered the outcome? And what was going on inside the SBC, and what is it that they should have known that would have changed everything?

When we look at the SBC scandal, it’s not so much that we find sin in an institution populated by human beings since, as Jesus reminded us, these things will come (Matt. 18:7). Rather, it’s the way the abuse was denied and covered up for decades, the way victims were stonewalled and intimidated and accused of wrongdoing themselves, the way the perpetrators of over 700 cases of abuse were moved around and protected at the same time their names were placed on a secret list the Executive Committee claimed could not and did not exist.

It’s the fact that the leaders of the convention were convinced that clamping down was what they had to do, that they had no option, that these accusations might simply be the hysterical imaginations of “professional victims,” or even a satanic plot to distract the SBC from its mission.

Whatever you say

Still, for my purposes here, does all this SBC nightmare relate in any way to what Jephthah did to his daughter? 


Living during one of the most depraved times in Israel’s history, Jephthah is the consummate anti-hero, the unlikely and unexpected individual God raises up to accomplish his purposes. Son of a prostitute, Jephthah was driven out of the family circle by the legitimate sons. Without land or inheritance, Jephthah had to make his way in the world by his wits, eventually becoming known as an effective military leader. Later, when the Israelites were suffering under the Ammonites, they appealed to Jephthah for help. 

Here’s how he responded:

“Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” (Judg. 11:7)

It’s pretty clear that Jephthah had never gotten over his banishment, that he was still deeply wounded and bitter. Why should he help the people who kicked him to the curb, who treated him like dirt?

Which is a pretty good question. Yeah, why should he? But Gilead was in a bad way and desperately needed this outcast-outlaw, so the top-guns decided to take things to the next level and offer Jephthah a hefty enticement.

The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.” (Judg. 11:8)

You will be head. Wow. Now that’s worth pausing and thinking about. 

Dangling vindication and acceptance before his very eyes, these men were promising Jephthah actualization of the significance he had always longed for. It was an amazing offer, beyond belief. Would these Gileadites truly follow through once the victory was won? Or would they reverse gears, claiming they never said such a thing? 

So, to make extra certain his victory would secure his leadership, Jephthah asked: 

“Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me – will I really be your head?” The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” (Judg. 11:9-10)

The deep rejection Jephthah had suffered inflated the dream of becoming leader to an unmanageable size, setting him up to do the unthinkable. Obsessed by the possibility of his future glory, Jephthah was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the success of his mission.

Including bribing God.

Jephthah made a rash vow, promising to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return, if God would but grant him victory. The vow was very specific, very clear, very horrid: the sacrifice would be a burnt offering. And Jephthah knew very well that the first creature exiting his dwelling might not be an animal. 

Yet that was the point. In an environment influenced by pagan rites that viewed human sacrifice as the ultimate act of devotion,[1] Jephthah was willing to take that risk of risks as long as he got the victory he required. He didn’t promise human sacrifice outright, but if that’s the way it fell out, so be it.

And, as J. Clinton McCann notes, “Undoubtedly, the text reflects the arrangements of a patriarchal culture in which women were subordinate, marginalized, and manipulated. And it also reflects the typical reality that the marginalized have little choice but to comply.”[2]

Here’s the catch: Jephthah was wrong to make the vow and wrong to keep it.[3]

Disastrously, his only child, a daughter, emerged from the house, dancing to the sound of timbrels. Jephthah was devastated yet believed he must fulfill his promise.[4] So, after allowing two months for his daughter and her friends to mourn the fact that she would never marry, Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39).

While some commentators have sought to lessen the horror of Jephthah’s act by claiming that “he presented her at the local shrine as a perpetual spiritual sacrifice,” they “ignore the plain meaning of olah and overestimate Jephthah’s spirituality.”[5] Arguments that the sacrifice was symbolic rather than literal arise from wishful thinking and our revulsion at the heinousness of the act. There is nothing in the wording of the text to indicate a figurative interpretation. 

However difficult it may be to accept, “We are clearly meant to understand that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter.”[6]

Ultimately, Jephthah slayed this defenseless maiden on the altar he had constructed in his heart, the altar he hoped would take away his feelings of insignificance and pain, the altar of self-interest.

What’s strange is that Jephthah didn’t seem to know the things he should have known. Apparently aware of the teachings of the Mosaic Law regarding the importance of fulfilling your vows (Num. 30), Jephthah appears ignorant of the fact that this same Mosaic Law uncompromisingly condemns child sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5).[7]

Jephthah also seems devastatingly unaware that “if someone unwittingly vows to do something evil, when he realizes he has done wrong he must confess it and bring a suitable animal as a sin offering.”[8]

And if a person was so remarkably dense that they did not comprehend that killing one’s only daughter was wrong, something that never entered Yahweh’s mind (Jer. 32:35), they could fall back on the legal exception of paying the equivalent value in exchange for the person devoted to the Lord.[9] For a teenage girl, this would amount to ten shekels (Lev. 27:5).

Yet perhaps the most obvious thing Jephthah should have known was that he could have taken the hit himself. This was always the case with a vow and the big reason people made haste to fulfill them. If you made a vow, but didn’t follow through, you would bear the consequences, bringing the curse upon yourself.[10]

In other words, Jephthah could have refused to kill his daughter and instead cast himself on Yahweh’s mercy. It would seem that in the worst possible scenario, Yahweh would have struck Jephthah dead.

So, instead of an innocent bystander caught in the web of a grown man’s self-interest, a foolish and needy man would have faced the consequences himself.

And here is where I pause and ponder what the SBC Executive Committee should have known and what they could have done.

The first thing they should have known is simply that there are specks and there are logs (Matt. 7:3-5), that while it’s true we all stand before God as sinners, some sins cause far greater harm than others. 

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never told someone with a speck to take it out before helping another with their log? Yeah, I know this might simply be a case of perspective, that when it’s in your eye, a speck feels like a log. Perhaps the log and speck are the same size, perhaps your sin and my sin are equally bad, perhaps the big idea is to confront myself with a bit of no-punches-pulled truth. 

Which is always a worthwhile endeavor.

On the other hand, maybe there really is a difference between a speck and a log, and maybe Jesus meant that some blind spots are humongous while others are miniscule, and if we have a great, big, honkin’ log in our eye, we have no business picking at someone else’s speck.

So, let’s just say there’s a woman who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her pastor beginning at age fourteen and then, when pregnant, was required to “repent” before the church. She was not permitted to mention the identity of the father, however. Let’s say she grows up and at some point decides to speak out, and maybe she’s a little angry, or even a lot.

Then, just for argument’s sake, let’s imagine she sins in the process, perhaps by an inability or even unwillingness to love and pray for her enemy, as Jesus commanded. 

Then what if, in some leadership role we inhabit, we are charged with the task of picking out the specks and logs in this scenario. 

Where do we wield the ax? What are the logs and what are the specks? Or are all these attitudes and actions, well, equal? Do sexual abuse and its coverup truly correspond to an imperfect response to horrific mistreatment?

A second thing the SBC leaders should have known is how Jesus’s teaching about causing one of the “least of these” to stumble applies to their decision to cover up the abuse. 

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! (Matt. 18:6-7)

How many victims of abuse, when blamed, shamed, ignored, stonewalled, and vilified, manage to maintain their faith without stumbling or tumbling into disheartened disbelief? How many of these men, women, and children, but mostly women and children, walk into their future with hearts whole and minds free, souls full of trust in God?

And what does Jesus think about all this?

Another thing the Executive Committee should have known is that sometimes it’s necessary to break a vow. I don’t know what their commitment to the SBC looked like, but I do know that in positions like this you hold both a legal and ethical responsibility to protect the organization. 

However, as with Jephthah, there are limits. If greater principles are involved, such as truth or justice or protecting the least of these, the lesser must give way. You refuse to sacrifice the vulnerable on the altar of your duty or your reputation or even your mission.

You let go of self-interest and take the hit yourself.

As former Southern Baptist Russell Moore writes in his scathing rebuke of the conservative leadership that propelled the SBC on the trajectory that resulted in this massive coverup:

We were told they wanted to conserve the old time religion. What they wanted was to conquer their enemies and to make stained-glass windows honoring themselves – no matter who was hurt along the way.

Yes, there’s a price to pay when you take the hit, when you shelter the vulnerable instead of sacrificing them on your all-consuming altar of self-protection. 

Yes, you may be criticized. Yes, you may face legal ramifications. Yes, the mission may suffer.

And yes, you may even face death – death of the position or acceptance or significance you always longed for.

But that’s the price you pay to do what’s right.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

[1] “Child sacrifice is thought to be an extreme extension of the idea that the more important the object of sacrifice, the more devout the person giving it is.” Wikipedia, “Child Sacrifice.”

[2] J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Louisville: John Knox, 2002), 83.

[3] Barry G. Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 336.

[4] Webb, 335, writes, “Whether or not Jephthah should have kept his vow…he clearly thought he had to.”

[5] Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 372.

[6] Webb, 333.

[7] Webb, 336.

[8] Webb, 336.

[9] Block, 377.

[10] Block, 377.

So Yes, I Do Want Authority

There’s a lot of talk about authority in Christian circles these days – who has it, who does not, who should, who should not. It has become a dividing line between truth and error, solid ground and slippery slope, particularly when it comes to who holds authority in the church and in the home. 

Presuming what Jesus, Peter, and Paul really meant when it comes to men and women and womanhood and manhood, authority has become a line in the sand, the rails that tell us who grew up on the right side of the tracks and who still hangs out on the wrong, who is in and who is out, who deserves admiration and respect, who is worthy of heartfelt love, and who deserves nothing but scorn. 

More than anything, conceptions of authority govern who speaks and who is silent, who leads and who follows, who decides and who agrees. In extreme cases, authority grants one Christian the right to tell another she must not leave her violent husband. In more run-of-the-mill scenarios, authority justifies affixing “unbiblical” to a union where the husband listens to his wife as much as she listens to him, where responsibility, decision-making, and initiative are shared, where the hopes and dreams of both are equally cherished. 

On both sides of the deck beliefs about who has authority, how authority functions, and who may sit in official positions of authority define the limits of the pool.

I doubt that Jesus is happy about this. We are so often at odds, divided, devouring one another in our quarrel over authority. It must grieve his heart. 

Sometimes I simply want to bow out of the fight. 

Yet now, unexpectedly, I can’t. I’ve been launched into a position of authority so, like it or not, the battle has invaded my peace. 

My role is a supporting one.[1] Still, it entails a title, a platform, and includes leading, directing, teaching, and preaching. There is value in this positional authority, in the authority granted by a community of believers to those entrusted with oversight. We need structure. We need to know where to turn, whom to ask, what to follow. Someone, or some ones, need to bring focus, clarity, protection. 

I do see that.

But what I want to tell you is that the authority established by humans, the authority associated with a role, a position, or a title, is not important to me. It’s not been something I have looked for, desired, or run after. 

The authority I care about is the authority Jesus grants, the authority he demonstrated on a daily basis, the authority that sets people free. I want the authority that comes through humility, service, faith, love, pure-heartedness, and compassion, the authority that comes from walking with Jesus.

Jesus healed the sick, set demoniacs free, raised the dead, and forgave sinners. The crowds were amazed because Jesus spoke with authority – unlike the elite, those teachers of the law who whipped up so much batter about their positions of authority while their words fell flat as pancakes.

One day Jesus encountered two wildly violent demon-possessed men and set them free with a word. The demons jumped into a herd of pigs, cascaded them off a cliff, and the townspeople asked Jesus to hit the road.

Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region. (Matt. 8:34)

Jesus’s authority was way too much for the town, too dangerous, too uncontrollable.

The religious leaders were infuriated with Jesus, asking by what authority he went around doing so much good. Who did Jesus think he was, restoring a man’s hand on the Sabbath? Who did he think he was, forgiving sins, driving out demons, raising a girl from the dead? Who gave this interloper from the wrong side of the tracks the right, the authority, to do any of this?

Yet all their scurrying about, their flying accusations and whispered conspiracies could not stop Jesus. Their claims to power, their fantasies of control, could never hinder Jesus from doing what he was put on this earth to do. 

And that’s just it. You can’t control real authority, the authority backed by the power of God, no matter how hard you try. You can say it’s unauthorized and refuse to permit it in your circles, but you can’t control it.

When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. …After this the Lord appointed seventy-two and sent them two by two…. (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1)

I have no interest in the authority that can do no better than spend ten years working with a guy yet at the end all the poor man can do is barely manage his addiction. I couldn’t care less about the authority that has nothing more to offer the brokenhearted than a pat on the back and a tuna casserole, a hug and a don’t-give-up.

I will pass on the authority that holds onto its money and convinces itself it deserves this perk or that, this special treatment or that indulgence. I’m not interested in the authority that leads to arrogance and selfishness, to the quenching of every good and perfect gift. I recoil at the authority that twists the tangible work of Christ into warrant for abuse. I can live without the accolades, the deference, the respect, if Jesus will but work through me to set captives free.

Which I’ve seen a few times. 

I’ve seen a daughter, pushing seventy yet still traumatized by childhood suffering, by the abuse of a wicked father. I’ve seen her set free in a moment, in a prayer. 

I’ve seen a father sick, helpless, and virtually bedridden for three years, yet choose to worship God anyway. I’ve seen him touched and healed and restored to purpose and destiny.

I’ve seen a son, bound by pornography and all its destructive effects, helpless to help himself. I’ve seen him walk clean and clear, mind and heart free and alive.

I’ve seen a mother, overwhelmed by the death of her twelve-year-old daughter eight years running, released to move forward, to start living life again.

I’ve seen a husband, born with a broken body, bullied incessantly and struggling with despair and thoughts of ending it all, encounter the love of God in a real and tangible way, finally knowing that he is a true son worthy of love and respect and hope and destiny.

I’ve seen eyesight restored, demons cast out, hearts set free. 

So yes, I do want authority. 

Because I want to see more. I want to see more spirits and hearts and minds and bodies restored. I want to see purpose and destiny and healing released, freedom and joy experienced, life and love expressed. Sometimes it’s a process; sometimes it occurs instantly. 

Either way, I’m all in.

If you hold a position, the title of pastor or leader or elder, and Jesus has imbued your ministry with true authority, with the power that sets people free, I rejoice with you. The reason you have been given this platform, this role, is so you can do the work Jesus did, the work of rescuing, saving, delivering, setting free.

Never forget that.

If I speak and people listen, pray and demons flee, touch and hearts fly free, these are not from me; they are from Christ. On my own I can do nothing, I control nothing, I have authority over nothing.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And I’m absolutely fine with that. 

He must increase, but I must decrease. He must become greater; I must become less. (John 3:30; NASB and NIV)

[1] Executive pastor. To understand why I believe women can be pastors, please reference my articles on 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2:12.

The Double Standard, Men as Victims of Adultery, Prostitution, and Jesus: A Look at Proverbs 6:26

In reading commentaries for my post The Stereotype of the Nagging, Contentious Wife, I ran across an interpretation of Proverbs 6:26 that I’m not convinced is entirely accurate. This is the verse that seems to say it’s okay for a man to visit a prostitute, though he’d better stay away from another man’s wife. I don’t know about you, but it would not be okay with me if my husband dallied with any other woman, no matter who she was or how she made a living.[1]

For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man’s wife preys on your very life. (Prov. 6:26, NIV)

The comparison between the toll exacted on a man for having sex with a married woman versus a prostitute appears to imply that sleeping with the second is no big deal.[2] Even though it’s not entirely clear how to translate the Hebrew (it may mean that a prostitute reduces a man to a loaf of bread), becoming a pauper is not as bad as losing your life.[3]

What’s going on here? Tremper Longman III explains it like this: Continue reading “The Double Standard, Men as Victims of Adultery, Prostitution, and Jesus: A Look at Proverbs 6:26”

Emotion or Reason? What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Embracing a Full Humanity

I’ll admit I’ve been a bit distracted by the Coronavirus crisis. My youngest daughter is a trauma-ICU nurse in Nashville and she’s scared. They don’t have enough personal protective equipment and although her unit is not focused on COVID-19 patients, the physicians move between the emergency department and the trauma ward on a regular basis. One doctor has already tested positive and a few patients are pending. She texted me to say, “You and Dad aren’t going out, are you? You’re isolating, right?”

This sort of emotional response may seem like overkill to some. A longtime friend complained on Facebook about Colorado’s stay at home order, arguing it is unnecessary in such a sparsely populated state. This perspective may come from the fact that at the same time our governor is telling us to stay home, he is also trying to reassure us that only about 10% of cases need hospitalization and only 5% of those are critical. And when Time magazine reports a worldwide case fatality rate of 4% but a U.S. rate of 1.7%, no wonder people are complaining.

Yet those numbers belie the truth. Continue reading “Emotion or Reason? What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Embracing a Full Humanity”

Ignorance is Not Bliss – Another Sermon

My latest sermon from Littleton Vineyard, on why engaging deeply with God’s word (including the Old Testament) still matters today. Jesus confronted the Sadducees, those powerful religious leaders who thought they had a corner on biblical interpretation, on their extreme ignorance of God’s word. Let’s not repeat their mistake.

When we lack understanding of the Old Testament, we miss out on the comfort found in David and Bathsheba’s story – that good people can do bad things, that despite our desperate wickedness we can be forgiven for anything, but also that God takes our sin seriously and disciplines those he loves. Continue reading “Ignorance is Not Bliss – Another Sermon”

When Forgiving is a Mistake

At one point in our lives my husband and I oversaw several small groups at our local church. Our job was to be a resource for the leaders, helping them navigate the challenges they faced as they served God in this way. Now and then one would call because there was a problem.

One time a leader I’ll call Ron contacted us about a couple in his Bible study who had sinned against the group and refused to repent. Since their desire was to forgive the offenders and restore fellowship, Ron asked if we would first meet with him and his wife to understand the issue and then confront the offending couple according to Matthew 18:15-20. Continue reading “When Forgiving is a Mistake”

My Encounter With Jesus-Minimalism

I grew up dusting and sweeping and vacuuming around my mother’s seemingly endless array of stuff, vowing to myself from a young age, When I grow up I will never accumulate so many things and I will never-ever-ever spend so much time cleaning. Regularly purging my life of undesirables, I didn’t learn until later how weird my college classmates thought I was for wearing the same cords and the same two shirts (on alternate days, of course) as I rode my bike the eight miles to school each day. It made total sense to me. Yep, from day one I was a minimalist at heart.

But that didn’t make me a Jesus-minimalist. Continue reading “My Encounter With Jesus-Minimalism”

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