The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Southern Baptist leader apologizes for sermon example about teenage girl’s physical appearance

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram via AP)

A prominent Southern Baptist leader has issued an apology just days after thousands of Southern Baptist women signed an open letter to the trustees of his seminary that said they were shocked by his comments that “objectify a teenage girl.”

Comments made by Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, about divorce, women and abuse that surfaced nearly two weeks ago have sent Southern Baptist leaders scrambling to respond over how women are treated in their churches.

Patterson, who told The Washington Post last week after the seminary’s commencement that he has nothing to apologize for, issued an apology Thursday focused mostly on an example in a sermon describing a teenage girl’s physical appearance.

“I wish to apologize to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity,” Patterson wrote in a statement.

‘We are shocked’: Thousands of Southern Baptist women denounce leader’s ‘objectifying’ comments, advice to abused women

The apology took many by surprise Thursday, since Patterson is known for not backing down from previous statements. Patterson is revered within the SBC for helping orchestrate a conservative takeover of the denomination decades ago, and he is scheduled to deliver a sermon at the convention’s annual meeting next month in Dallas.

His seminary trustees are scheduled to meet later this month, and it’s unclear whether his status at the seminary or at the convention’s meeting will change. The seminary is scheduled to open a $2.5 million “Baptist Heritage Library” this summer that will house Patterson’s collections, and where he and his wife intend to retire.

Patterson’s comments going back to 2000 have raised concerns within the larger Southern Baptist world over how women are talked about and treated. After some Southern Baptist women expressed their concerns privately to the seminary trustees but didn’t feel heard, they took their concerns public, launching an open letter Sunday that was signed by thousands. One of the women behind the letter who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the women who signed the letter are still processing their response to Patterson’s apology.

The women’s letter highlighted Patterson’s sermon illustration from 2014 in which he described a 16-year-old girl walking by, saying that “she was nice.” A young man had been watching the girl and exclaimed, “Man, is she built!” A woman then scolded the young man, and Patterson said he told her, “Ma’am, leave him alone. He’s just being biblical.” The audience laughed. The example was also used in a 2010 sermon in which Patterson said, “God built her [Eve] and brought her to Adam.”

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

In his apology, Patterson wrote that that “pastoral ministry” took place 54 years ago and was repeated in sermons on more than one occasion. He said he used it as an illustration to try to explain a Hebrew word banah, “build or construct,” to explain the biblical passage Genesis 2:22, which states: “And the Lord God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman; and he brought her to the man.”

Those sermon illustrations, he said, “have obviously been hurtful to women in several possible ways.”

“Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been,” he said in the statement.

The controversy surrounding Patterson’s comments began about  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 said in his 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.

His comments on abuse highlighted divisions among Southern Baptists over when divorce is considered biblically appropriate. Patterson, who has stated in the past that he would not recommend divorce, did not apologize for his advice to the woman in his sermon illustration to go back to her abusive husband. He denounced “any form of abuse in demeaning or threatening talk, in physical blows, or in forced sexual acts.”

Patterson has made other remarks about women and their appearance, and has given advice for those who have been abused. His statement Thursday did not directly address other sermon remarks beyond describing the teenage girl’s appearance.

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.”

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 thinks 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.

And in a sermon he delivered in 2013, Patterson suggested that 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’s faith.

Women who signed their names to the open letter this week included Lauren Chandler, an author, singer and wife of megachurch pastor Matt Chandler; Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor; 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 against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar. Denhollander does not attend an SBC church, but her husband is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

A group of Southern Baptist men issued a similar letter to the women’s letter Wednesday night that has about 200 signatures.