The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and a major force in conservative Christianity, is encountering its own #MeToo moment: a wave of anger over repeated comments by a prominent church leader seen as demeaning to women.
In sermons he gave between 2000 and 2014 that have been made public, Paige Patterson, seminary president and former denominational president, has encouraged women who are abused by their husbands not to divorce but to pray instead. He also commented in the sermons on female bodies, including that of a teenage girl, and women’s appearances. Now, thousands of people are calling for his removal just weeks before he is scheduled to deliver a key sermon at the huge denomination’s annual convention.
As some — including women — in the evangelical denomination rally around Patterson, 75, who is revered as an instrumental figure in the group’s rightward shift over the past several decades, other leaders are voicing concern that this furor is about much more than one man’s sermons. The uproar calls into question how women are treated in this religious community that preaches the theology of complementarianism, which says men and women are called to different roles, with men leading in the church and the home.
“I’ve been in Baptist circles my whole life,” said Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor who was one of more than 2,000 signers of a letter drafted by women that calls for Patterson to lose his job. “It is absolutely more than about Patterson. . . . This is about people and systems that have allowed individuals to get away with this behavior for decades. Things have changed.”
Prior said she has never seen an outcry like this before; in the past, women frustrated by sexism simply drifted away to more progressive denominations. She joined the long list of Southern Baptist women — including several influential writers and speakers — who wrote in their letter about Patterson, “These comments are damaging, sinful, and necessitate a decisive response.”
Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth since 2003, did not return requests for comment on the letter since it was made public late Sunday. When asked Friday if he knew a letter was being drafted, he declined to comment. “I’m not trying to be ugly,” he said. “Just understand that I’m not commenting any further.”
Those who signed the letter, which included some men, say that they are not pushing any theological boundaries within the Southern Baptist Convention. The letter says they affirm Southern Baptist views that men and women have different roles determined by God.
“The significance of this letter is the appeal from women who are not opposing the denomination but are part of it and want to see leadership represent the biblical message,” reverence for women, said Carolyn McCulley, an author and speaker who is among the signatories. “The letter is a heartcry from many people.”
Patterson doubled down on defending himself after his seminary’s commencement ceremony Friday, telling The Washington Post that he won’t step down. “I can’t apologize for what I didn’t do wrong,” he said.
The firestorm began less than two weeks ago, when a site called the Baptist Blogger posted a video of Patterson’s sermon from 2000, in which he told a story about a woman who told him she was being abused by her husband. He told her to pray, and she came back with two black eyes. “She said: ‘I hope you’re happy,’ ” Patterson recalled in the sermon. “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.
Patterson has since said that although he would never recommend divorce, he has advised on a few occasions for abused women to leave their husbands.
Since the blog post, women have highlighted other comments Patterson has made, including one sermon in 2014 in which he described a 16-year-old girl walking by, saying that “she was nice.” One young man commented, “Man, is she built!” Patterson said a woman scolded the young man, and Patterson said he responded, “Ma’am, leave him alone. He’s just being biblical.” The audience laughed.
In a 2013 sermon, 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.”
After The Post published clips of several of Patterson’s sermons that included comments about women, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary website that hosted the videos stopped working. One of the videos showed a 2010 address in which Patterson criticized 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.”
The women who wrote the open letter say they tried first to speak to seminary trustees, but felt they had to make their concerns public to be taken seriously, said one woman who works for a high-ranking leader in a Southern Baptist organization and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared her participation in organizing the letter could jeopardize her job.
The seminary’s full trustee board is expected to determine Patterson’s future later this month.
Women who signed their names included Lauren Chandler, an author, singer and wife of megachurch pastor Matt Chandler; Amanda Jones, the wife of a Southern Baptist pastor and daughter of Bible teacher Beth Moore; and Rachael Denhollander, the former gymnast who led abuse survivors to speak out about sexual abuse by sports physician Larry Nassar. Denhollander does not attend a Southern Baptist church, but her husband is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
The women state that because Patterson has not apologized for his “inappropriate words,” he is at odds with “the Bible’s elevated view of womanhood.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention cannot allow the biblical view of leadership to be misused in such a way that a leader with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood, and sexuality be allowed to continue in leadership,” the letter says.
Male leaders also have criticized Patterson’s words on abuse. Ed Stetzer, who runs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, wrote on the Christianity Today website, “If Paige Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation. 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.”
But in the Southern Baptist community, the nation’s second-largest religious group after Catholics, Patterson also has found many supporters.
A former SBC president from 1998 to 2000, Patterson is a giant in the denomination, remembered for his his role in steering the denomination in a more conservative direction in the 1970s, prompting many churches to leave to eventually to form the more moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The current president of the denomination, Steve Gaines, did not return repeated requests for comment. Two Southwestern graduates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Gaines appeared on Southwestern’s campus Friday to show support for Patterson. Gaines tweeted on Saturday an apparent response to the controversy: “Southern Baptists are biting and fussing when we should be praying and weeping,” he wrote. “Start talking directly to people, not about them.”
Samuel Schmidt, who received his master of divinity degree from Southwestern on Friday, wrote a different letter, standing beside Patterson. The letter, which has about 100 signatories, said, “Should we be surprised Paige Patterson is yet again the target of another string of unnecessarily evil attacks? Why wouldn’t our common enemy want to destroy Paige Patterson? Satan hates Paige. Satan despises him, and would not be content with anything less than the total destruction of Patterson.”
Patterson’s “heart and mind are set on things above. He shows great care for women day in and day out,” Southwestern student Sharayah Colter (who is married to Patterson’s chief of staff Scott Colter) wrote on SBC Today, a Southern Baptist blog.
The seminary fired a PhD student from his $40,000-a-year job as the catering kitchen manager and took away his scholarship for 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.”
Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece included the wrong location for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is in Fort Worth. This story has also been updated to correct that the churches that left the Southern Baptist Convention to eventually form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship did so after Patterson helped to take the SBC in a more conservative direction.
Update: This piece has been updated to note that Southwestern student Sharayah Colter is married to Patterson’s chief of staff Scott Colter.