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Southern Baptist leader who advised abused women not to divorce doubles down, says he has nothing to apologize for

Paige Patterson at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s commencement on Friday. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey)

FORT WORTH — A prominent Southern Baptist leader whose comments about spousal abuse set off a firestorm last week said in an interview Friday that he couldn’t “apologize for what I didn’t do wrong.”

Wearing a black cowboy hat as he led graduates down the aisle, Paige Patterson set off laughter at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s commencement when he joked about quarreling Baptists. Patterson’s advice to abused women not to divorce has set off a huge public backlash among evangelicals – but not at the conservative Texas seminary where the 75-year-old is president.

The seminary, which instructs women not to teach men and offers them classes in homemaking, this week fired a PhD seminary student from his $40,000-a-year job for simply tweeting about the Patterson debate, telling him that he was “indiscreet” and that his decision to speak publicly about the dispute “does not exhibit conduct becoming a follower of Jesus” and shows he was not properly deferring to “those placed in authority over you.”

As some wondered this week whether the seminary trustees could remove its president, Patterson appeared to double down on Friday, saying in an interview that “allegations have been given on me all my life” and adding that he was being falsely accused but declining to provide examples. During the ceremony, Patterson sat front and center in a red velvet chair, casually twirling his black glasses before addressing the graduates without directly addressing the controversy.

Patterson’s comments about divorce, which were made in 2000 but weren’t widely circulated until last weekend, caused Southern Baptist leaders to scramble to denounce domestic abuse. The most surprising remarks in the recording came when 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.

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

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, numerous powerful men have come under scrutiny over sexist treatment of women. But Patterson, who has long held a special status within the nation’s largest Protestant denomination for his role in a conservative takeover of the convention going back decades, is known for not backing down from positions.

After his 2000 comments were published on a blog, he stated that while he would never recommend divorce, he has advised abused women to leave their husbands. Although Patterson issued a statement earlier this week with his trustees that did not mention resignation or retirement, two seminary graduates who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the seminary trustees, who control Patterson’s future, have been divided over how to handle its controversial president who some say has a pattern of poor behavior.

Patterson, in the interview, referred to the PhD student who was fired. “If you are going to be problematic and you’re indiscreet, you’ll be fired,” he said.

Nathan Montgomery, a PhD student in the philosophy program at the seminary, who recorded the meeting where he was fired, was told that his tweet did not exhibit loyalty to the seminary and that it did not reflect the institutional voice.

“Public disagreement does not align with Scripture,” a document outlining Montgomery’s termination states.

Montgomery, 31, said he also lost his tuition-free arrangement with the seminary, which was $7,000 a year. He has been working for the seminary in dining services since he began there in 2011, and has been the catering kitchen manager for the past two years.

On Tuesday, he retweeted a blog post from Ed Stetzer where Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, recommended Patterson retire. In his blog post, Stetzer listed a series of actions by Patterson that have raised concerns among Southern Baptists.

One reason why Patterson’s comments have generated such backlash is because he is slated to give the sermon at the Southern Baptists’ upcoming annual meeting in Dallas in June, considered a high honor for any pastor. If the question is still on the table, Patterson would have to decline to preach, or the entire convention would have to vote to rescind the honor, so some Southern Baptists worry the issue will drag on for weeks. When asked whether he still plans to give that sermon, Patterson said, “I have no comment. I try to follow the Lord as much as possible, and he’s said not a word.”

In his blog post, Stetzer, a Southern Baptist, highlighted how it puts the convention in a tricky spot.

“If Paige Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation,” Stetzer wrote in a blog post for Christianity Today. “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.”

In Montgomery’s tweet promoting Stetzer’s blog post, he said he believed he should say something publicly, but he said he didn’t expect anything to happen.

Patterson said in the interview that Montgomery had “a long history,” but declined to provide specifics. The document that lists reasons for Montgomery’s termination cited just one previous incident, which Montgomery said was a misunderstanding over catering for Patterson’s wife. He said he has never been given any warnings.

Montgomery still hopes to stay at the seminary, where he expects his PhD will take another four years to finish.

“I’m for the school,” he said while he sipped a Starbucks iced tea. “This is not a personal attack.”

Some students, however, support Patterson’s position on abuse and divorce. R. Patel, 29, who received his degree in preaching on Friday, said he, too, would encourage women not to divorce and instead separate from an abusive spouse.

“I was disappointed by the firestorm on Twitter,” he said. “I consider Dr. Patterson my hero of the faith.”

Some Southern Baptists say Patterson’s comments reflect larger attitudes about women within the seminary and the denomination’s circles. Southern Baptists hold to a theology of complementarianism, the belief that men and women are created as equal but have differing roles — specifically in the church and home. The Southern Baptist Convention does not support ordaining women.

Some more extreme adherents of complementarianism believe that women should not work outside of the home. This belief is held by many at Southwestern seminary, where women are not permitted to oversee men professionally and female students are allowed to get specific degrees that enable them to teach other women.

Rebecca Neyhard, a graduate of the seminary who worked in public relations from 2009 to 2011, where she wrote about the seminary’s homemaking degree, said Patterson’s recommendation that abused women should return to their husbands was an idea she heard repeated in her systematic theology class, an Old Testament class and a women’s ministry class.

“To counter such a ‘feminist idea,’ no-fault divorce, the attempts were shotgun-wide, and one of them was the idea that abused women should partake in the sufferings of Christ, or be like God loving humanity and being continually rejected by him over and over,” Neyhard wrote in an email. “Just as long as they stay together, they promote the one man, one woman marriage ideology that was so important to the movement.”

Patterson has given other advice to abused women since those comments in 2000. In a sermon he delivered in 2013, Patterson suggested women who have had “a problem in your home” should not bring their case to a judge because it could get in the way of that judge becoming a Christian.

“Settle it within the church of God,” he said. “And if you suffer for it, and if you were misused, and if you were abused, and if you’re not represented properly, it’s okay. You can trust it to the God who judges justly.”

He then prayed, “Lord, may we make up our minds that we won’t take our troubles to the press, we won’t take our troubles to the government, we won’t take our troubles anywhere except to the people of God and beyond that to the Lord Jesus.”

Another sermon has stirred up questions about whether Patterson’s objectifies women. In 2014, Patterson used a story in one of his sermons about an interaction he witnessed. In the story, a 16-year-old girl walked by and, Patterson said, “she was nice.” One young man commented, “Man, is she built.” A woman nearby slapped her hand over the young man’s mouth and scolded him. Patterson said he responded to the woman, “Ma’am, leave him alone. He’s just being biblical.” The audience laughed.

When asked about that sermon, Patterson on Friday declined to comment.

Patterson’s comments about a woman being “built” is part of a series of faux pas and it’s time for him to retire, Stetzer said on Friday.

“That’s a wink and a nod to a sexual reference,” said Stetzer, who noted that he has a 16-year-old daughter. “If I had a youth pastor who made that joke, I’d fire him on the spot. That’s creepy.”

And in 2010, Patterson called out female seminary students for not doing enough to make themselves pretty, saying, “It shouldn’t be any wonder why some of you don’t get a second look.”

Patterson’s comments have drawn a fierce backlash from Southern Baptist women, who do not usually hold formal leadership roles in the convention but are hugely influential. Most notably, Bible teacher Beth Moore, who attends a Southern Baptist church and has openly spoken of abuse by a family member when she was a child, has been tweeting about sexism this week. On Thursday, she published a blog post outlining the sexism she has faced within evangelical circles.

“[E]arly October 2016 surfaced attitudes among some key Christian leaders that smacked of misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women and it spread like wildfire,” she said, referring to the month that Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tapes, where he bragged about sexual abuse, came out. Patterson endorsed Trump from the chapel stage, according to a graduate who was present.

The last time the SBC issued a resolution about domestic abuse was in 1979. In 2011, it issued a resolution on marriage, citing concern for the high rates of divorce among Southern Baptists. “We do not serve those who are hurting from divorce by speaking to them only in therapeutic terms rather than in terms of both repentance and forgiveness,” the resolution states.

Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

Clarification: This piece has been updated to clarify that Southern Baptist churches ordain preachers, not seminaries, and that the convention does not support ordaining women.