The Southern Baptist Convention’s statement of faith calls on its members to “contend for the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.” But the nation’s largest Protestant denomination must now decide whether that includes situations in which respected men have abused their power with women.
Last week, an audio recording surfaced on which Paige Patterson, a high-profile Southern Baptist leader, says abused wives should avoid divorce, pray for their violent husbands, and “be submissive in every way that you can.” Patterson is an ordained pastor, a former SBC president and the current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree,” Patterson is heard saying on the 2000 tape. “I have never in my ministry counseled anybody to seek a divorce, and I do think that is always wrong counsel.” He adds, “On an occasion or two when the level of abuse was serious enough,” he has suggested a temporary separation.
Patterson’s comments and the ensuing controversy have placed Southern Baptist leaders in a precarious situation given our current cultural moment. Over the weekend, several Southern Baptist leaders tweeted general statements condemning spousal abuse. None of those tweets called out Patterson by name.
The seminary president is nearly untouchable among Southern Baptists, who revere him for decades of denominational leadership. But much has changed during Patterson’s reign as a religious gatekeeper. America has experienced a cultural reckoning where powerful men have been held accountable for abusive behaviors and dangerous comments.
After a wave of scandals from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein, most Americans have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for the abuse of women. We have collectively decided not to abide powerful men who have contributed to bodily violence. During the past year in particular, this cultural consensus has seemingly reached a fever pitch, touching every corner of America from Hollywood to Wall Street.
But are Southern Baptists ready for their #Metoo moment?
Patterson is scheduled to deliver the coveted keynote sermon when Southern Baptists gather for their annual meeting in June. It would be wise for denominational leaders to rethink this invitation lest they appear both culturally out of step and lacking in moral courage. Replacing Patterson will send a message to millions of Southern Baptist women that their bodies are not dispensable and that their valid concerns have been heard loudly and clearly.
The Patterson controversy comes less than a month after Frank Page casually announced his retirement as president and chief executive of the SBC Executive Committee. The next day, however, it was revealed that the resignation was precipitated by “a morally inappropriate relationship,” which reportedly involved a female congregant under his care at a church he previously pastored. The denomination responded with only a statement asking for prayers, “especially for Dr. and Mrs. Page.” In the chapel at Patterson’s seminary, the newly departed Page is depicted in honor on a stained-glass window.
Patterson isn’t the only person currently under scrutiny who is scheduled to take the stage at the Dallas SBC gathering. Ravi Zacharias, a best-selling author and Christian apologist who was accused in 2017 of leveraging his public influence to engage in an online affair with a married woman, will take the stage as a “special guest.”
Zacharias denied impropriety but admitted to receiving inappropriate picture messages from the woman and apologized for failing “to exercise wise caution” in the relationship. I know of no SBC leader who has questioned Zacharias’s involvement in the event.
When it comes to Patterson, the situation has intensified. In the audio file, the seminary president recounts a story of a woman who told him that she was being abused by her husband. Patterson says he sent the woman back into the horror of her home, telling her to pray each night “not out loud, quietly” that God would intervene.
The woman returned to church with two black eyes from her violent husband. When Patterson saw her wounds, he told her that he was “very happy” because her pain had made her husband feel guilty enough to attend church for the first time.
Domestic violence victims and advocates predictably erupted in outrage, claiming that such advice is dangerous and perhaps illegal. In response, Patterson released a defiant statement defending his comments and attacking his critics. In it, he said those who were upset about his comments had engaged in “mischaracterization,” “misrepresentation,” and “lies” driven by “hatred.”
Such a statement is troubling in that it seeks to offer himself as the true victim. Also, Patterson fights back when he is attacked, unlike the women he has counseled to pray quietly.
In an interview with Baptist Press published on Monday, Patterson said he doubts “seriously” that a person experiencing physical abuse would be morally obligated to remain in the home with a spouse. Yet, he said, “minor noninjurious abuse which happens in so many marriages” might spur a woman to “pray [her husband] through this” rather than leave, he told the publication.
The denomination, which has never passed a resolution on sexual harassment and has not passed a resolution on domestic violence since 1979, is often criticized for its conservative doctrines regarding women. The denomination holds that wives must submit to husbands and that only men can be church pastors, beliefs that progressive critics claim opens the door to the oppression of women and even domestic abuse. If Southern Baptists choose not to take a strong stand in this moment, it will lend credence to such charges.
With their annual gathering just weeks away, how Southern Baptists respond will tell you everything you need to know about their courage and convictions in this time of #Metoo.
Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for the Atlantic and author of the forthcoming book, “Learning to Speak God from Scratch.”