“I’ve Never in My Ministry Counseled That Anybody Seek a Divorce”

Why it’s momentous that Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has drawn fire from his community not for his actions but for his words.

Paige Patterson.
Paige Patterson.

One of the country’s most prominent Southern Baptist leaders is facing intense pressure to resign over a series of comments about women. In a 2000 audio clip that resurfaced recently on social media, former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson tells a conference audience about a woman in his church who told him that her husband was abusive. He counseled her to pray about it, and she returned to him with two black eyes. “I hope you’re happy,” he says she told him. “And I said ‘Yes … I’m very happy,’ ” because her husband had overheard her praying and returned to church. “I’ve never in my ministry counseled that anybody seek a divorce,” he said. Divorce is “always wrong counsel.”

Patterson, 75, is the president of Texas-based Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a two-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the late 1970s, Patterson was an architect of what is known as the SBC’s “conservative resurgence” (others call it the “fundamentalist takeover”): a decisive rightward wrenching of the denomination toward a stricter view of biblical interpretation. To many Southern Baptists, Patterson is a hero of the faith for his leadership of the country’s largest Protestant denomination through rough waters. When I saw Patterson preach in December, pro-Trump pastor Robert Jeffress introduced him as “the Winston Churchill of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

But in the #MeToo era, Patterson’s audience is looking at his approach to women’s issues in a new light. Since Sunday, almost 3,000 Southern Baptist women have signed an open letter calling for his removal as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. A similar letter was posted online Wednesday for Southern Baptist men to sign. (It is not clear who wrote and posted either letter.) The seminary’s board announced Sunday that it will hold a special meeting to determine Patterson’s future on May 22.

On June 13, Patterson is scheduled to deliver the keynote sermon at the SBC’s annual meeting in Dallas. Because of his stature and his past accomplishments, he will almost certainly receive a standing ovation, as influential Christianity Today columnist Ed Stetzer, a longtime Southern Baptist, observed in a column urging Patterson to resign for the good of the denomination. “Every news story will point to that moment … and say that Southern Baptists don’t take abuse seriously,” he wrote. “And it’s not just a public relations crisis. It’s a message to women that we must not send.”

It’s not just Patterson’s divorce comments that have disturbed many Southern Baptists. In another clip unearthed in recent weeks, Patterson tells a 2014 conference audience a supposedly amusing anecdote in which a 16-year-old girl is described approvingly as “built.” And his responses to the backlash have been less than reassuring. In an interview with Baptist Press, he said he doubted whether a person of either gender experiencing physical abuse would be obligated to stay in the home with their spouse. But he also said “minor non-injurious abuse” might prompt a woman to pray rather than leave.

The Patterson fracas is important for several reasons beyond his professional stature. First, the action is taking place in a firmly conservative context. Most participants in the conversation about Patterson’s future agree that, for example, women should not serve as head pastors in churches, that men are the God-ordained heads of their households, and that divorce should be strenuously avoided. His critics are merely making the case that lechery and tolerance for abuse can be made taboo without theological “backsliding” into a broader feminism.

The conservative context makes it all the more remarkable that Patterson is under such sustained scrutiny while not being accused of any kind of direct impropriety or abuse himself. (This sets him apart from his old conservative resurgence partner Paul Pressler, currently facing accusations by several men who say he molested them or inappropriately solicited them for sex.) Patterson’s is a scandal not of sexual misconduct but of wrong beliefs and dangerous pastoral counsel. The man himself has not seemed to fully grasp this distinction. In his initial statement released through the seminary, he repeatedly avers that he has never abused any “woman or girl ever associated with me.” But that was never the question.

The most crucial element of the story may be the way women have driven the criticism and refused to let it drop after the first wave of social media outrage over the old clips.
The letter posted Wednesday by Southern Baptist men acknowledges that women saw the problem more clearly than they did. “We should have noticed this long ago, and we were at fault for ignoring it until our sisters pointed it out,” it reads, adding that women’s voices do not need the men’s affirmation to be valid.

The Patterson reckoning is part of a larger ongoing conversation within conservative evangelicalism about men, women, and power. Last week, another prominent Southern Baptist, Bible teacher Beth Moore, published an impassioned open letter of her own, addressed to her “brothers in Christ.” In it, she describes decades of efforts to “show constant deference” to the men she worked with in Christian ministry, including wearing flats instead of heels when working with shorter men. And yet, she writes, she has experienced frequent misogyny and objectification. She has been mocked and dismissed in meetings, ignored in other professional settings, and condescended to by male seminary students decades her junior. When she met a respected male theologian she had long admired, she writes, he looked her up and down and declared her “better looking” than another female Bible teacher. “These examples may seem fairly benign in light of recent scandals of sexual abuse and assault coming to light,” she writes, “but the attitudes are growing from the same dangerously malignant root.”

Update, May 10, 2018, at 4:41 p.m. : On Thursday afternoon, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary posted a statement from Patterson in which he apologized “to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity.” He reiterated that he rejects “any form of abuse in demeaning or threatening talk, in physical blows, or in forced sexual acts.” He did not mention whether he thinks such abuse could ever be grounds for divorce, but in a recent interview he said that while he has occasionally recommended separation he had never prescribed divorce.