In his first of two sermons, Patterson told a story of evangelizing a former church member’s mother whom he wanted to meet after being told she “could whip” him. Upon visiting her for the first time, his parishioner’s mother didn’t knock him out but, according to Patterson, “she filled the door.” After being invited into her home, Patterson said he was finally able to persuade the woman to convert to Christianity, and when she came to his church for baptism, he joked, they had to “fill the baptistery half full.”
The crowd erupted in laughter.
“She was not just fat. I mean to tell you what: I think she pumped iron probably an hour or so a day,” he said of the woman. “She literally could have played guard for the Green Bay Packers.”
In American evangelical Christianity — the powerful religious movement that is led predominantly by white men — body-shaming women is not altogether uncommon. Numerous accounts of this kind of behavior in churches can be found online. But it is an especially inappropriate, even befuddling, choice of material for Patterson (who was coincidentally speaking in a state with the nation’s third-highest obesity rate). After all, the furor that led to his demise was partially sparked by a sermon in which he objectified a 16-year-old girl’s physical appearance.
Patterson returned to the pulpit at the same conference the following day to preach another sermon. His chosen text was the biblical story of Joseph, a Jewish patriarch who refused to be seduced by an Egyptian woman, who then falsely accused Joseph of sexually abusing her. Patterson used this passage as an opportunity to address the #MeToo movement — the movement that brought him down just months ago.
“I’m all in favor of the #MeToo movement when there is a guilty party,” Patterson said, adding that men who abuse women are cowardly. But then he added, “By the same token, I have nothing good to say about a woman who falsely accuses a man. She runs the risk of ruining a life. She runs the risk of causing sorrow unknown when the person is, in fact, innocent.”
No one will dispute that a false accusation of any kind, let alone one of a criminal nature, is a terrible thing. But Patterson is parroting a myth that has been used for decades by men who wish to dismiss female victims, a myth which has created a culture of suspicion around the sexual abuse of women. In fact, studies indicate that the prevalence of false accusations of sexual assault is as low as 2 percent.
So why would Patterson focus so much attention on a 2 percent non-issue while brushing past the 98 percent epidemic? And why would he take this approach less than four months after comments surfaced in which he advised a battered woman to return to her abusive husband, and after he was credibly accused of mismanaging an accusation of sexual assault, and after he was publicly asked to resign by 3,500 women in his own denomination?
The answers to these questions are unclear. All we know is that Patterson’s whiff attempt at a comeback bears striking resemblance to the kind of thinking and rhetoric that led to his epic downfall to begin with.
But there’s a valuable lesson for 21st-century American Christians and their pastors in Patterson’s recent blunder. At its core, Christianity is one giant comeback story. It’s a religion built upon a narrative about the death, burial and resurrection of a first-century rabbi who claimed to be the actual Son of God. In addition to the Jesus story, the New Testament is filled with tales of prodigals returning home, lost sheep being found, blind people receiving sight. And all of these stories culminate in an invitation for “sinners” to be “saved” by conversion — which is to say, by spinning a spiritual comeback story of their own.
No one should expect pastors to be perfect people, nor should we be surprised when we learn that they are as flawed as the rest of us. But by rushing to the resurrection part of the story, fallen leaders subtly communicate that redemption is a quick and easy process. Or, perhaps, that it can be fast-tracked when you’re an influential or charismatic pastor.
What American Christians need instead is church leaders who model a serious and spiritually rich restoration process from which we can all glean insight. A process that refuses to conflate an apology with repentance, a process that is willing to make amends with those who’ve been hurt, a process that is committed to addressing the internal wounds that may have precipitated the downfall.
This week in Pisgah — ironically, the name of the place where Moses was forced to face the consequences for his own bad behavior — Patterson aimed to make his sermon a teaching moment. He succeeded, but not in the way he intended. By rushing to find his Easter Sunday moment, he has reminded us why every Good Friday deserves a Holy Saturday.
Jonathan Merritt is the author of “Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing – And How We Can Revive Them.”