In four weeks, thousands of messengers from churches will descend on Dallas, Texas for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Every SBC meeting is unique and interesting. But this year’s meeting is shaping up to be a doozey. A major story in our current denominational news cycle involves an SBC legendary figure: Paige Patterson.
Patterson’s SBC Shadow
For those that don’t know, Paige Patterson is the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). He has also been the president of Southeastern Seminary and Criswell College. Patterson, along with Judge Paul Pressler, were the twin juggernauts largely responsible for the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC. These men led the grassroots movement that saved our denomination from liberalism in the ‘70s. In recent SBC history, no one casts a larger shadow than Paige Patterson. And we owe a huge debt of gratitude for his courage and leadership in those days.
But for all that he has done right, Patterson has had some issues. In June 2014 he unilaterally admitted a Muslim student into SWBTS. (He issued an apology.) In August 2014, he lobbied against David Platt becoming the IMB president. (He issued an apology.) In December 2017 he was named in a lawsuit claiming that he helped cover up sexual abuse allegations involving Paul Pressler. (Patterson has denied involvement.) Finally, SWBTS, which was the world’s largest seminary when Patterson came there, has seen its enrollment drop by 35% under his leadership.
If that wasn’t enough, a more recent Patterson story has taken center stage. Two audio recordings of him talking about women have surfaced which have caused quite a stir with many (especially in conjunction with the recent Pressler lawsuit.)
Patterson’s Past Remarks
In January 2014 Patterson was preaching at a conference in Las Vegas. During his sermon, he publicly described a teenage girl, who was walking by him to her seat, in a way that some have called “chauvinistic at best and creepy at worst.”
Beyond that, at a 2000 Q&A session, Patterson was asked about how to give pastoral advice to a wife experiencing domestic abuse.
Patterson answered by relating a specific incident from his own ministry. When he was pastoring, a woman told him that she was being physically abused by her husband. His advice? Pray. In Patterson’s own words,
“She came back with two black eyes. She said: ‘I hope you’re happy,’ And I said, ‘Yes. I’m very happy,’ because her husband had heard her prayers and come to church for the first time…”
Whether he intended it or not, Patterson’s example and remarks clearly gave the impression that enduring a certain level of violent, physical abuse, as a wife, is the godly, submissive, and biblical response. He shared that story in the positive.
(Pastoral Aside: I know this raises many questions that I don’t have space to answer. But let me personally give some pastoral advice of my own: a woman who is being physically abused should immediately seek safety and call the cops! And yes, she should pray. She should separate from her husband for a time, with the hope of reconciliation, while seeking help from elders and others.
Yes, God hates divorce. God also hates abuse and violence against the innocent! See Genesis 4, Psalm 140, and pretty much every single verse in the minor prophets!
A husband abusing his wife is a blasphemous picture of the gospel. The church and its leaders should never empower or enable abusers but should intervene to serve and protect the afflicted. In this we become agents of God’s mercy.)
Needless to say, you can see why Patterson’s scant advice was shocking.
Patterson & The Aftermath
After these two clips made the rounds, Patterson was quoted in a Washington Post interview (on May 4) saying that he couldn’t “apologize for what I didn’t do wrong.” He initially doubled-down on both his remarks about the teenager and the domestic abuse advice. He did not clarify or express regret but came off as defiant.
Soon after, a letter was posted online in response. The letter which was written and signed by BF&M-affirming SBC women repudiates his comments and asks the trustees of SWBTS to act. It has more than 3,000 signatures thus far.
This story might not be as big of an issue, except for one more complicating twist: Patterson was selected, in 2017, to give the keynote sermon at this year’s SBC. What’s the problem? As Ed Stetzer wrote:
“If Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation. Every news story will point to that moment, tie it together with the accusations against Paul Pressler (and Patterson’s own remarks), and say that Southern Baptists don’t take abuse seriously. And it’s not just a public relations crisis. It’s a message to women that we must not send.”
I fear that Stetzer may be right.
Patterson’s Apology Published
On May 10, Patterson published a press release entitled, “An Apology to God’s People.” In it, he apologized for “anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity.” Patterson stated, “I utterly reject any form of abuse in demeaning or threatening talk, in physical blows, or in forced sexual acts” against any woman.
Patterson’s Apology Evaluated
I, for one, am thankful for Dr. Patterson’s apology. I don’t know many things in life, but I do know that “God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.” Is Patterson truly sorry? Or is he sorry he got caught? I do not know. Only time will tell.
Nevertheless, I personally think, at this point, that it would be best if Patterson would step aside from preaching this year’s convention sermon. My fear is that we will be talking more about Paige than Jesus. That’s never good for Southern Baptists. He can still withdraw his name. There is an alternate preacher already in queue for just such an occasion. We rarely use that option, but this is, I believe, the time to exercise it. Will we? Only time will tell.
As for his tenure at SWBTS, some have said that this may be the beginning of the end (if not the end of the end) for Patterson. Interestingly, the trustees of SWBTS are holding a special meeting this Tuesday (May 22) to discuss these events and Dr. Patterson’s future. What will be the outcome? Only time will tell.
Let’s pray for them and the SBC as we navigate these choppy waters together.