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Prominent Southern Baptist leader removed as seminary president following controversial remarks about abused women

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke at the AWAKEN Conference in Las Vegas on Jan. 2014. (Video: Hope Church)

FORT WORTH — Prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has been removed from his job as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary amid an evangelical #MeToo moment: a massive backlash from women upset over comments he made in the past that are newly perceived as sexist and demeaning.

Seminary leaders were vague as to the reason for the dramatic move, issuing a statement in the wee hours Wednesday morning that didn’t mention Patterson’s comments. Instead, the statement said that the seminary is moving “in the direction of new leadership” due to challenges related to “enrollment, financial, leadership and institutional identity.”

The brief statement said Patterson will be president emeritus, “for the benefit of the future mission of the Seminary.” He will receive compensation and may live on campus as “theologian-in-residence” at a brand new Baptist Heritage Center, the statement said.

For some among the thousands of Southern Baptist women who signed an unusual letter demanding Patterson’s ouster, his demotion on Wednesday came as a relief, a signal of change in a conservative denomination where men are understood to have the God-given role of leading the church and the family and where dissenters rarely speak up so publicly. For others, the lack of condemnation of sexism from the seminary, and Patterson’s continued compensation and home at the school, indicate Southern Baptists still aren’t taking discrimination against women seriously enough.

After 13 hours of closed-door sessions, the seminary’s trustees appointed D. Jeffrey Bingham, the seminary’s dean of the school of theology, as interim president. Bingham has worked for numerous evangelical institutions, including Criswell College, Dallas Theological Seminary and Wheaton College.

Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University who attends a Southern Baptist church and signed the letter denouncing Patterson, met the news with satisfaction. “Misogyny and disrespecting women has nothing to do with scriptural teaching,” Prior said.

Southern Baptist leader encouraged a woman not to report alleged rape to police and told her to forgive assailant, she says

But some Southern Baptists voiced concerns that allowing Patterson to continue to live on campus might not send a strong enough message.

Krissie Inserra, a signer of the letter and the wife of prominent young Tallahassee Southern Baptist pastor Dean Inserra, said she was disappointed the seminary didn’t go further. “Women and men in the SBC and in general aren’t going to stand for this. There has to be some real consequences, and we need to show people — we need to have the conviction to do what’s right. None of this was right,” she said Wednesday. “Just because he had a major role to play decades ago — and we’ll be forever grateful for that — there still need to be consequences for his actions in recent years.”

Bekah Mason, 38, another signatory and alumna of a Southern Baptist seminary, said she believes women who are abused will see the recent outcry against Patterson as encouragement that Southern Baptists do not condone abuse. But Mason, an administrator of a Christian school in Louisville and the daughter and granddaughter of Southern Baptist pastors, also found the seminary’s message lacking. “There hasn’t been any acknowledgment from the board or the Pattersons that we have considerably hurt and damaged not only those women who came forward, but because of that, we have a generation of our denomination who now has to work to overcome what we’ve been taught about gender roles and relations between men and women and how we handle abuse,” she said.

Albert Mohler Jr., president of the denomination’s largest seminary, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, released a blistering essay Wednesday evening comparing the Patterson’ saga and other recent evangelical scandals with the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis. His denomination, he said, paid attention to what conservatives see as the Biblical call to gender difference — but the same Bible also “reveals God’s steadfast and unyielding concern for the abused, the threatened, the suffering, and the fearful. There is no excuse whatsoever for abuse of any form, verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual or sexual. The Bible warns so clearly of those who would abuse power and weaponize authority.”

“Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over,” Mohler wrote. “This moment requires the very best of us. The Southern Baptist Convention is on trial and our public credibility is at stake. May God have mercy on us all.”

Patterson, who earlier apologized for one sermon example remarking on a teenager’s appearance but has remained largely defiant of his critics, sent an unapologetic email to seminary students and staff on Wednesday. “As for the Pattersons, we are, of course, hurt. But we did not compromise and we still have our voice to witness. That we will attempt faithfully to do,” he and his wife, Dorothy, wrote in the email. “What matters in all this is not the lives of a couple of old soldiers, but your bright futures for Christ. Pray for us when you thought arises, but steady your life and preparation for service to our Lord.”

About 30 male trustees and three female trustees of the 1,200-student Texas seminary were present for the meeting that began Tuesday afternoon to discuss the fate of Patterson, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention who has been revered as a giant for standing guard for decades against liberalizing changes.

In recent weeks, Patterson, 75,  came under fire for taped comments he made between 2000 and 2014 about women, including remarking on a teenage girl’s figure and saying female seminarians need to work harder to look attractive. He also said women who are abused almost always should stay with their husbands. After thousands of Southern Baptist women petitioned the seminary’s board of trustees to oust him from his position, he apologized for his comments about the teenager but not those about abused women. The comments had resurfaced on a blog this year.

The Washington Post also reported Tuesday that Patterson allegedly told a woman who said she had been raped while a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. in 2003 that she should not report her allegations to the police and instead encouraged her to forgive her alleged assailant. Patterson was that seminary’s president at the time.

The Post’s story was published as the seminary’s board was meeting. Patterson did not respond to requests for comment on the alleged incident.

“The board also affirmed a motion stating evidence exists that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse,” the board of trustees’ chairman, Kevin Ueckert, said in the board’s statement. He did not say more on that matter except a bullet point noting “The seminary stands against all forms of abuse.”

Ueckert also addressed the seminary’s firing of a PhD student from his $40,000-a-year job as the catering kitchen manager and the revoking of his scholarship for tweeting about the Patterson debate. The school had told the student that he was “indiscreet” and that his decision to speak publicly about the dispute “does not exhibit conduct becoming a follower of Jesus.” Patterson had told The Post that Nathan Montgomery had “a long history,” but Ueckert disputed this, saying that the board has found no evidence of misconduct in Montgomery’s employee file. He did not address whether the student’s job or scholarship would be reinstated.

Ueckert declined to answer further questions from The Post.

Patterson has been widely revered for his role, starting in the 1970s, in a conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination with 15 million members. During that time, Patterson and other leaders passed resolutions that tied Southern Baptists’ belief in the Bible’s inerrancy directly to a ban on female pastors and the teaching that women should be submissive to their husbands.

Paul Pressler, credited as Patterson’s co-founder of the “conservative resurgence,” also faces a lawsuit alleging he concealed inappropriate sexual conduct. The suit names Patterson and his seminary as well, saying that Patterson helped cover up the abuse; Pressler and the Southern Baptist Convention dispute the lawsuit’s claims.

Patterson was scheduled to deliver a high-profile sermon at the denomination’s annual meeting in Dallas next month. Now, it is unclear whether he will still deliver the sermon.

Patterson and his wife had planned to retire on the grounds of the Baptist Heritage Library, which the seminary plans to open this summer and which will house Patterson’s collections. The board passed a motion that would still allow the Pattersons to retire there.

R. Marie Griffith, director of the John Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University, said Patterson’s exit reflects a “turning point moment” for Southern Baptists. Any other time in recent decades, she said, Patterson could have avoided repercussions for statements like the ones recently circulated.

“The tide has shifted so strongly on these issues of sexual harassment and assault, all I can think is: Enough leaders knew they’d really be condemned and look terrible if they stood up for him at this point,” she said. Griffith said Patterson’s leaving doesn’t reflect less commitment among the younger generation of conservative male evangelicals to female submission — but it does show they have a limit as to what that means. “There are an awful lot of people who believe in female submission but don’t counsel people to stay with abusive husbands.”

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

Barry Hankins, a history professor at Baylor University, which is part of a separate Baptist convention, agreed that Patterson’s departure represents a turning point in the Southern Baptist Convention and in evangelicalism more broadly. “There is no bigger name in a Southern Baptist conservative movement that could be pressured out [of a job] than Paige Patterson,” said Hankins.

Denominational leaders expressed two sentiments on Wednesday: condemnation of abuse, but also ongoing reverence for Patterson.

For instance, Thom S. Rainer, the president of the Southern Baptist publisher LifeWay, said in a statement that he was praying for the Patterson family, then wrote, “We pray that this moment will be powerful and pivotal for all of us to stand boldly with all women who are victims of any form of abuse, and to stand together as the body of Christ saying ‘no’ to any type of abuse of women at any time and under any circumstance.”

J.D. Greear, another prominent Southern Baptist pastor, echoed those themes in his statement: “Dr. Patterson was very influential in my early ministry, which has made this whole situation heartbreaking for me …. One thing must be clear, however: There can be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and to be a safe place for the vulnerable. Abuse can never be tolerated, minimized, hidden, or ‘handled internally.’ Those in leadership who turn a blind eye toward abuse are complicit with it and must be held accountable.”

During the board meeting Tuesday, the campus was quiet, with most students away for summer break.

Most female students approached by The Post declined to be interviewed, but Sarah Reiter, 20, a sophomore music major from Cross Plains, Tex., said she was happy to talk. Reiter’s father, Kenneth, is a Southwestern Baptist graduate and the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in her home town.

Reiter said she is torn over what Patterson said. On the one hand, she was in an emotionally abusive relationship that ended about a year ago, she said. On the other hand, her current boyfriend’s father was “doing awful things” at one time, such as using drugs, but his story wound up having a happy ending, she said. “His mother stuck around and loved his father through that,” said Reiter. “He became a Christian and was saved, and now their relationship is wonderful.”

Reiter, who said she hadn’t heard much discussion among her seminary friends about the controversy, said she was willing to give Patterson the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t feel like he’s promoting abuse,” she said. “He’s not saying, ‘Men, beat your wives so they know how to trust God.’ That’s not what he’s saying.”

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Another student, Sharayah Colter, who is pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies, came to the meeting — part of which was open before the closed session began — to show support for Patterson. Her husband, Scott, a fellow student and assistant pastor at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, serves as chief of staff for Patterson.

“I think people have mischaracterized him and misconstrued what he has said in the past,” Colter said. “And he’s clarified comments. So just like anybody likes to be taken at their word when they clarify what they really mean, I take him at his word when he explains what he means.”

“I’m just very grateful for Dr. Patterson,” she added. “He would be one of my faith heroes, I would say.”

This story has been updated.

Bobby Ross Jr. reported from Fort Worth. Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported from New York. Michelle Boorstein reported from Washington. Julie Zauzmer contributed to this story.

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