Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is pictured on Oct. 12, 2010. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram via AP)

The leader of a major Southern Baptist seminary issued a statement Sunday pushing back after a 2000 tape surfaced purporting to quote him saying that abused women should focus on praying and “be submissive in every way that you can” and not seek divorce.

Paige Patterson is president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Fort Worth school whose Web site says it is one of the largest seminaries in the world. About 15 million people are part of Southern Baptist churches, the largest Protestant group in the United States. Patterson is slated to deliver the primary sermon — a high-profile honor — in June at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Dallas.

Patterson, who declined to comment Sunday, is heard on an audiotape being interviewed in 2000 about what he recommends for women “who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands, and the husband says they should submit.”

“It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree,” Patterson says. “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel.” Only on an occasion or two in his career, he says, when the level of abuse “was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough,” has he recommended a temporary separation and the seeking of help.

He goes on to tell the story of a woman who came to him about abuse, and how he counseled her to pray at night beside her bed, quietly, for God to intervene. The woman, he said, came to him later with two black eyes. “She said: ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said ‘Yes … I’m very happy,’ ” because it turned out her husband had heard her quiet prayers and come for the first time to church the next day, he said.

Patterson has huge stature in the Southern Baptist Convention because he was one of the leaders, starting in the late 1970s, of what his supporters would call “the conservative resurgence” (more liberal Protestants would call it the “fundamentalist takeover”). It was a planned political takeover of the Convention and its institutions by those who believe the Bible is totally free of error. However, enrollment at Southwest seminary has nose-dived in the past 20 years — something Patterson had vowed to stop when he arrived in 2003.

The original source of the tape wasn’t clear. The excerpt appeared on the site the Baptist Blogger on Saturday.

The author of that blog told The Washington Post that the tape has surfaced several times since 2000 on church watchdog sites. That author said it was published last week in light of “the new season” of the #MeToo movement and a “reckoning” that appears to be happening in society around abuse, the person said. The author spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is no longer part of the Southern Baptist community and doesn’t want to become a central part of the story.

According to the author, Patterson in the tape was being interviewed by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an evangelical organization that promotes the idea that men and women have different traditional roles. Efforts to confirm that with the council late Sunday were not successful.

The spreading of the tape over the weekend set off discussion among conservative Christians on social media, including many in roles of leadership. Most were eager to condemn abuse but many also declined to directly name Patterson or address the issue of divorce.

The Southern Baptist Convention has agonized in the past decade over how to respond to rising rates of divorce among its members. Entwined through that issue is gender equity, as women are not allowed to be pastors in SBC churches.

Evangelical Christians have higher-than-average divorce rates in the United States, according to research by Baylor University, a prominent Baptist school.

Among those who publicly commented over the weekend were Bruce Ashford Jr., provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the seminary’s president, Daniel Akin. The seminary is another Convention school in North Carolina, where Patterson was the past president.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood tweeted a statement it adopted in March that said physical, sexual or emotional abuse is “not only a sin but is also a crime … that must not be tolerated in the Christian community.”

“We believe that the church must offer tender concern and care for the abused and must help the abused to find hope and healing through the gospel. The church should do all it can to provide ongoing counseling and support for the abused,” the statement read.

Others who responded included Bible teacher Beth Moore and evangelical writer Katelyn Beaty, who both spoke about divorce:

On Sunday in an email to The Post, Patterson declined to comment on the audio and related conversations: “75 years of experience teaches me (though a slow learner) that no one’s life is made materially better by entering these discussions. I have said enough.”

In the statement on his seminary website, Patterson did not dispute the tape but said he was being “subjected to rigorous misrepresentation.” Patterson was president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1990s.

In his statement, he said that he has never been accused of abusing anyone, that he has counseled “on more than one occasion” women to leave abusive husbands, and that physical or sexual abuse of any kind should be reported “to the appropriate authorities.” He praised the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood statement and said it reflected his view.

“I have also said that I have never recommended or prescribed divorce. How could I as a minister of the Gospel? The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce,” he wrote.

He continued: “To all who love me and have supported me across the years and to those who have been wounded by these accusations, I express my deepest regret. I do not apologize for my stand for the family and for seeking to mend a marriage through forgiveness rather than divorce.”

Southern Baptist leaders were not elaborating Sunday evening, either about the tape, or about Patterson’s role at the convention in June.

Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, responded to a request to speak by saying he was “unavailable to comment on our day of worship.”

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