The Historic Downfall of Paige Patterson

The religious leader has long helped normalize sexist attitudes in the Southern Baptist community. Now his career may finally be done.

Paige Patterson
Paige Patterson. Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP

Last week, a major Southern Baptist seminary demoted its president, one of the most well-known figures in the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Paige Patterson has faced mounting criticism over his pastoral handling of issues related to domestic violence and women. In a 13-hour closed-door meeting, the board of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary shifted Patterson’s status to president emeritus. The landing was too soft for many critics but still significant.

Now, one week later, the Texas seminary has fired Patterson, citing new information about his handling of an allegation of sexual abuse while he led another institution. Though the seminary’s statement did not go into details, the Washington Post reported last week that a woman who was a student at a different Baptist seminary in 2003 said that Patterson had encouraged her not to report her rape to the police.

The first wave of accusations against Patterson largely concerned statements he had made in sermons and other public contexts. In 2000, for example, he told a conference audience an anecdote about a woman in his church who said her husband was abusing her. He counseled her to pray about it, he said, and she returned later with two black eyes. “I hope you’re happy,” she said, in his account. He was very happy, because audible prayers had nudged her husband to return to church. “I’ve never in my ministry counseled that anybody seek a divorce,” he said. Divorce is “always wrong counsel.”

An audio clip of the talk resurfaced online recently and received harsh criticism from those who said it was an irresponsible response to spousal abuse. In another disturbing clip that circulated online, Patterson told a 2014 conference audience a supposedly charming anecdote in which a 16-year-old girl was described as “built.”

The controversy ignited a wider conversation about gender, harassment, and power within the Southern Baptist Convention, a theologically conservative denomination in which women are forbidden from becoming pastors. A petition calling for Patterson to resign that was posted online on May 6 has been signed by more than 3,300 Southern Baptist women. Prominent Southern Baptist author and Bible teacher Beth Moore published a powerful open letter in which she did not mention Patterson but lamented the misogyny she had seen and experienced in her career as a female leader within conservative evangelicalism. In the shadow of the #MeToo movement, Patterson’s glib comments—which even a few years ago seemed unremarkable to many—had taken on a darker cast.

Patterson, 75, is revered as the architect of the denomination’s rightward shift in the 1970s and 1980s, and is an icon to many theologically conservative Christians. A number of male Southern Baptist leaders seemed unable or unwilling to speak up as the controversy unfurled over the past few weeks. Asked by the Washington Post whether Patterson’s comments fell short of honoring women, Denny Burk, the president of the leading organization promoting “complementarian” gender roles, fell silent for a full minute and then ended the interview.

That was before the Washington Post’s latest bombshell report. The woman—who said she had been raped in 2003 by her boyfriend while she was a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, which Patterson then led—told an administrator, who reported it to Patterson. The woman was required to meet with Patterson and several male seminarians who were his protégés. She says Patterson encouraged her not to report the rape to the police, and then put her on probation for two years. She suspected the probation was punishment for allowing her boyfriend into her home, which violated seminary rules. In her account, Patterson also encouraged her to forgive the man. Patterson became president at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary later that year.

The woman remained anonymous in the Post story but later identified herself on Twitter as Megan Lively:

In its statement Wednesday, the seminary’s executive committee said Patterson had been terminated effective immediately. He will be stripped of future compensation, the title “president emeritus,” and the invitation to reside as theologian-in-residence at a two-story archive on the seminary’s campus that is set to open this fall. Patterson had donated his own 35,000-book library and personal manuscripts to the center, which was to include an apartment for him and his wife, who teaches in the seminary.

The current president of Southeastern seminary, meanwhile, tweeted on Thursday morning that he was praying for Southwestern, its trustees, faculty, staff, students, and for Patterson and his wife. He did not mention Megan Lively.