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Southern Baptist leader’s advice to abused women sends leaders scrambling to respond

Controversial comments about women, abuse and divorce made by a highly respected leader in the Southern Baptist Convention have put many of its leaders in a deeply uncomfortable position as some scramble to respond under pressure from Southern Baptists and other evangelicals.

An audio recording recently surfaced on which Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson says that abused women should focus on praying and “be submissive in every way that you can” and not seek divorce. Those comments, which were made 18 years ago, have set off a wave of criticism within Southern Baptist circles over the message it could send to women.

The backlash has some wondering whether Patterson, who is not known for backing down from controversies about women, will resign from his presidency at Fort Worth-based Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The firestorm comes weeks before the SBC, which has thrived on giving churches autonomy while still claiming a strong network of 15 million members, will have its annual meeting in Dallas. Patterson, who is 75 and once served as president of the convention, is scheduled to give the one sermon at that meeting, which is considered an important honor.

“He has had such stature within the denomination that maybe he’s gotten a pass,” said Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor University, which is part of a separate Baptist convention. “The combination of his stature and he’s old, there’s a sense of give him a break. In those days there wasn’t the awareness of abuse [as it is] these days in the whole culture, not just evangelical culture.”

Patterson is seen as a giant within in the SBC, deeply respected for his leadership role in what some call the “conservative resurgence,” a major internal battle that began in the late 1970s involving interpretation of the Bible. Many SBC churches left to form the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which allows women to be ordained as a pastor. Patterson, who was one of those conservative leaders seen as saving the convention from a more liberal direction, has maintained a special status because of his role.

Southern Baptist leader pushes back after comments leak urging abused women to pray and avoid divorce

In the 2000 recording, Patterson tells the story of a woman who came to him about abuse, and how he counseled her to pray 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 her husband had heard her prayers and come to church for the first time the next day.

Since his comments came out, several Southern Baptist leaders tweeted that they opposed Patterson’s beliefs, but few mentioned his name. That began to change Tuesday night when the president of LifeWay, the publishing division of the SBC, called Patterson out by name and said “there is no type or level of abuse of women that is acceptable.”

Matt Chandler, the Dallas-based pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch, said in an interview that Patterson should have never have made his comments.

“Anyone who would say that a woman has to stay in a violent or abusive relationship because it honors God is wrong,” he said. Chandler said he won’t preach on passages of the Bible that address wives submitting to their husbands without advising women who are experiencing abuse that “this text is not talking about you.”

“We would strongly disagree with one another with how he arrived to that conclusion,” Chandler said. “I think those are texts divorced from the entirety of scripture.” He said it wasn’t his call to decide whether Patterson should deliver a sermon at the convention.

Popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, who attends a Southern Baptist church, on Twitter denounced the ideas behind Patterson’s comments.

In a statement issued Sunday, Patterson said he has advised and helped women to leave abusive husbands, but stood by his commitment to never recommend divorce. In a new statement issued on Tuesday, the trustees did not address Patterson’s comments 18 years ago or the question of whether Patterson will deliver the convention’s sermon or remain president of the seminary.

In a follow-up Baptist Press interview published Monday, Patterson said he doubts “seriously” that a person experiencing physical abuse would be morally obligated to remain in the home with a spouse. However, 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 said. Baptist Press said the word “minor” was later added “to reflect Patterson’s intent.”

Patterson did not respond to requests for additional comment on Tuesday. The current president of the SBC, Steve Gaines, also did not respond to requests for comment.

In the tape from 2000, Patterson 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. The CBMW, which is led by Southern Baptist Boyce College professor Denny Burk, recently 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.” However, neither Burk nor the council have mentioned Patterson by name since his comments came out on a blog.

Patterson was also supposed to be on a council panel at the annual meeting, but that panel has been pulled given the controversy. Burk, who posted comments on his blog about abuse and divorce on Tuesday, declined an interview.

It is unusual for leaders of Southern Baptist institutions to criticize one another, which is why Patterson’s comments have put other leaders — many of whom disagree with him — in an uncomfortable position. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, said he affirms what the council has said about abuse and referred to the SBC’s upcoming meeting, at which Patterson is slated to speak.

“I stand behind the CBMW statement on abuse and I am sure that the Southern Baptist Convention would also stand behind that statement,” Mohler said in a statement. “I am also certain that Southern Baptists at the convention in June will and must speak clearly and take an unequivocal stand against any abuse of women.”

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Patterson’s role as the sole sermon giver at the convention presents Southern Baptists with a question that could drag out until the annual meeting in Dallas in June. The leader who gives that sermon is selected by a committee at the previous year’s convention and then voted on by the entire convention, according to Roger S. Oldham, a spokesman for the SBC’s executive committee. If Patterson doesn’t back down from giving the sermon, and if the question is still on the table, the convention would have to vote on a changed agenda when it meets in June.

“If Paige Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation,” Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist who is executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, said in a blog post suggesting Patterson retire. “Every news story will point to that moment … and say that Southern Baptists don’t take abuse seriously. … It’s a message to women that we must not send.”

Most evangelicals would not support Patterson’s suggestion that God can work it out if a woman sticks with her abusive husband, said Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, but they don’t always agree on whether divorce is appropriate.

“It’s a very particular problem of biblical interpretation,” Kidd said, noting that some pastors believe abuse and abandonment are the same thing. “Most evangelical pastors would certainly concede abuse is a terrible problem, but it’s not specifically stated in scripture that it opens the possibility for divorce.”

Patterson’s critics list a pattern of behavior that goes back decades.

Patterson has been accused of being part of a coverup in a pending lawsuit that alleges another Southern Baptist leader, Paul Pressler, sexually abused a young man for several decades, starting when the alleged victim, a member of his youth group, was 14. The plaintiff alleged that Patterson knew about molestations but failed to report it, according to the Texas Monitor. In separate affidavits filed in April, two men say Pressler molested or solicited them for sex in a pair of incidents that span nearly 40 years, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Pressler has said that the court does not need to decide who is telling the truth because the statute of limitations, or window of opportunity for the lawsuit, closed eight years ago. Calls placed to Pressler’s attorney were not returned immediately on Tuesday.

“The courts will run their course on the allegations to see what is true and what isn’t,” Mark Lanier, the attorney representing the seminary, said in an email. “But Dr. Patterson and the seminary never had any reason to suspect any untoward conduct.”

In the late 1980s, when he was president of a Bible college, Patterson helped to promote preacher Darrell Gilyard even after several women confronted Patterson with charges against Gilyard of sexual abuse and misconduct, according to a 1991 Dallas Morning News report. Patterson said at the time the women lacked evidence and witnesses. Gilyard went on to serve in several churches and was arrested in Florida in 2008 for sending lewd messages to underage girls. He was convicted and served three years in prison. Patterson said in 2008 he had had nothing to do with Gilyard since Patterson expelled Gilyard from the school two decades earlier after Gilyard confessed to adultery.

Some questioned whether Patterson’s beliefs on women and divorce extends to how he manages his seminary. Hebrew professor Sheri Klouda claimed she was wrongly dismissed from a tenure-track position at his seminary in 2006 because she is a woman. Klouda filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and fraud, and a federal judge ruled in favor of the seminary. Patterson has stated that the seminary’s policy prohibiting women from teaching theology is drawn from its “desire to model the local church,” according to the Baptist Press.

In an article published in 1997 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Wake Forest University’s plan to open a divinity school, its former dean Bill Leonard said he believes women should be ordained as ministers because he believes the Christian act of baptism “means everybody is free,” including women who want to preach. “I think everybody should own at least one,” Patterson quipped when asked about women, according to the article.

Hankins, the Baylor professor, says Patterson “is a born controversialist” and he and his wife have been champions of a complementarian position that says women and men have different roles.

“He doesn’t begrudgingly accept controversy. He’s willing to take it on,” Hankins said. “He would believe God used his pugnacious personality to lead him to do things he otherwise wouldn’t do.”

As with many seminaries across the country, enrollment at Southwestern seminary has fallen, according to annual reports from the SBC. In the 2015-16 academic year, it had 1,249 students, compared with two decades ago, when it had more than 2,000 students. The seminary is scheduled to open a $2.5 million “Baptist Heritage Library” this summer that will house Patterson’s collections. He and his wife intend to retire there.