A major Southern Baptist seminary has fired one of the movement’s giants of the last quarter-century, Paige Patterson, after new information came to light regarding how Patterson handled a sexual abuse allegation while he led another institution, the school said in a statement Wednesday night.
Patterson was demoted one week ago from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary following the publication of a flurry of statements he made starting in 2000 about the Bible’s view of women and his beliefs about spousal abuse and why it’s not grounds for divorce. The school’s trustees moved him from being president to president emeritus, framing it as a desire for change and fresh blood.
Patterson supporters seemed willing to live with the decision but it infuriated many, especially conservative Christian women, who said Patterson had not been explicitly held accountable and had been allowed to retire with his stature intact. Ironically Patterson, leader of a historic conservative purifying in the 1980s and 1990s of Southern Baptism that called for male-only pastors and women to “submit graciously” to their husbands, was being held under the public light by conservative women, who by the thousand signed a May 6 petition calling for him to lose his job.
On Wednesday, some said they finally felt heard.
“It’s a sigh of relief. Maybe we feel somewhat dignified. They listened to us,” said Lauren Chandler, wife of Dallas megachurch pastor Matt Chandler and one of the first to sign the petition. Last week’s decision, she said, was a case of “the punishment didn’t fit the crime…There was a lot of damage to women in particular… I’m saddened for people who have been bullied or silenced or made to feel less. I’m saddened for the loss of [the Pattersons] a couple who had led the way in the SBC for a while.”
Last week’s decision appeared aimed at offering a compromise regarding Patterson, who has been a huge figure in conservative evangelicalism for decades. He is known for holding the conservative line since the late 1980s in the massive Southern Baptist Convention as American society became more liberal about everything from biblical inerrancy to human sexuality.
A meeting Wednesday of Southwestern’s executive committee found that the new information “could not be deferred to a regular meeting of the Board,” and the body “unanimously resolved to terminate Dr. Paige Patterson, effective immediately, removing all the benefits, rights and privileges … including the title of President Emeritus, the invitation to reside at the Baptist Heritage Center as theologian-in-residence and ongoing compensation.”
The statement didn’t say explicitly what the earlier case was, nor what new information had come to light. Calls for comment to Kevin Ueckert, chairman of the Southwestern board of trustees, and Southwestern seminary spokesman Charles Patrick were not returned.
However, The Washington Post reported on May 22 that a woman who was a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003 said she had come to Patterson — then president of that school — and was encouraged by him not to go to police and to forgive her alleged assailant.
The Post does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but on Monday, Megan Lively identified herself in public as the person in the Post article.
She later tweeted that she and her husband forgave Patterson on Saturday. She didn’t speak with him.
On Wednesday night, Lively declined to comment to the Post.
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern seminary, said he couldn’t confirm if the Southwestern leaders were referring to Lively’s alleged 2003 rape at his school. Akin said he believes files that would help them investigate the incident were taken from Southeastern when Patterson left that same year to become president at Southwestern in Texas.
“Whether by mistake or intentionally, I don’t know. We think there are files that probably belong to Southeastern so we’ve asked folks at Southwestern to look into that. They’re in the process of doing that,” he said.
Patterson was Akin’s preaching professor and they worked together for nine years, Akin said. But in his first detailed comments about the alleged rape, he said he believes Lively “was badly counseled. If someone comes to us today and says there’s been abuse, certainly a sexual assault, we’re going to contact law enforcement officials. We told Megan we love her and we support her. If at any point in time, if she chose to press charges, we would support her.”
The Wednesday statement from Southwestern also said that “the Seminary stands against all forms of abuse and grieves for individuals wounded by abuse. … SWBTS denounces all abusive behavior, any behavior that enables abuse, any failure to protect the abused and any failure to safeguard those who are vulnerable to abuse.”
“The trustees have acted decisively and have acted well. Women matter. That’s the key,” said Ed Stetzer, a prominent Southern Baptist who is a professor at Wheaton College. “Nobody was happy with [Southwestern’s] initial decision. Paige Patterson supporters didn’t like the decision. The vast majority of people I talked to thought it was inappropriately lenient for the situation.”
Patterson is scheduled next month to deliver a key sermon to thousands of people at the denomination’s annual meeting in Texas. The statement Wednesday technically doesn’t affect the sermon, but Stetzer said if Patterson doesn’t withdraw, “there would be overwhelming support to remove him.”
Stetzer was among a tiny number of Southern Baptist leaders — the movement has around 15 million members — who until Wednesday would speak directly against Patterson and his comments, which included not only those about spousal abuse, but also pulpit sermons seen as lecherous and sexualizing of women as young as 16. The silence of leaders fueled outrage among many evangelicals, men and women.
Russell Moore, leader of the movement’s public policy arm, said Wednesday night that the firing was “the right call” and that he hoped Patterson would step aside by choice from the upcoming scheduled sermon. Moore sighed deeply, twice, as he spoke.
“I’ve been hearing constantly from women in Southern Baptist life who are hurt and angry, and understandably so. I’m hoping that coming out of this, we will have a reconsideration of how to teach and train churches to deal with abuse and with abuse victims, that we will work to ask women who have been abused to come forward and that they will be heard. I’m hoping we will get back to honoring and recognizing the vital place of women’s leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Moore said.
Southern Baptist leaders have been heavily focused in the last few years on racial diversity and justice, as the heavily white denomination bled members. But the eruption a few weeks ago of the Patterson scandal opened an unexpected front on the topic of gender. Conservative women who weren’t — and aren’t — pushing for the right to be lead pastors demanded a new look at what they called unbiblical sexism and misogyny that sprouted in the last quarter-century, a sick byproduct, they said, of the Southern Baptist rejection of feminism.
The scandal triggered many women to demand a conversation about what equality really looks like in 2018 in a “complementarian” — a conservative religious term for the idea that men and women have separate, God-given roles — culture. Can women teach in the religious realm? Can they expect equal treatment of their career aspirations with their husbands? Yet even as the Patterson scandal dominated talk in some Southern Baptist circles, others — including young people, including at Southern Baptist schools — were oblivious to the conversation about a man who to some might seem already a figure from history.
Vicki Courtney, an Austin-based Southern Baptist author who was one of the original signers, said Southern Baptists have needed for a long time to reevaluate their teachings on what it means to “submit” and also on abuse.
“There’s an old-school, dangerous ideology that has festered in the SBC,” Courtney said, noting how she would teach at women’s conferences where women in abusive marriages were told to forgive and submit to their husbands. “I’ve felt for a while now that women have had to be silent. If you’re even to ask questions, you’re labeled as difficult or stirring the pot.”
Since the Patterson controversy began this year, conservative women have been somewhat more willing than men to speak out specifically on Patterson — though many feared having their names used if they worked in Southern Baptist institutions.
Among those who spoke out was Beth Moore, a popular writer and teacher who tweeted Tuesday that God was coming “to clean house”:
An e-mail to Patterson wasn’t immediately returned, but a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter tweeted that he seemed to be preaching in Germany on Wednesday. Seminary spokesman Charles Patrick said this week Patterson is out of the country until June 3.
Southern Baptists have been laser-focused on recent days on the upcoming annual meeting in Dallas in June and how the topic of women will be handled. A resolution on “the dignity of women” already has the backing of numerous Southern Baptist leaders.
This story has been updated several times to include comments from several Southern Baptists.