Prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson, who heads Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, is embroiled in controversy over past remarks about abuse and divorce.
Patterson, 75, played an instrumental role in what is known as the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention, a reform movement within the denomination in decades past. The conservatives resisted and sought to replace theological liberals who were heavily represented in the leadership of the denomination's seminaries and agencies with individuals who espoused biblical inerrancy.
In recent weeks, calls for Patterson to step down from his post as SWBTS president have emerged in reaction to a clip of an old interview he did with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that was posted on a blog. In the interview, he appeared to discourage a woman from leaving her abusive husband and counseled her to pray for him.
Others have issued statements of support for Patterson and the SWBTS president maintains he has never condoned abuse of any kind even as he believes in the permanence of marriage.
Here are five things you should know about the Patterson controversy.
As The Christian Post has reported, during the 2000 interview Patterson offered one example of a time where he advised a woman to pray for her abusive husband by his bedside and then one morning she showed up to church with two black eyes.
"She was angry at me," Patterson said. "And she said, 'I hope you're happy.' And I said, 'Yes ma'am, I am.' And I said, 'I'm sorry about that, but I'm very happy.'"
Patterson later explained that the husband had showed up to church that morning, had repented of his actions, and is "a great husband today."
Additionally, a video resurfaced days later of a January 2014 sermon Patterson gave at a Las Vegas church during a conference in which he talked about an unnamed 16-year-old girl. He recalled a time when a mother was speaking to Patterson about something she was unhappy about while her teenage son and his friend stood nearby. When an "attractive" young girl walked by, one of the teens remarked, "Man, is she built!" The mother then rebuked him, but Patterson defended the boy, saying, "Ma'am, leave him alone. He is just being biblical. That's exactly what the Bible says."
Another part of the Patterson controversy includes the firing of an employee. As calls began for Patterson to step down, SWBTS Ph.D. student Nathan Montgomery approvingly retweeted a May 1 Christianity Today article by Ed Stetzer in which Stetzer urged Patterson to retire, expressing his personal agreement with it. Montgomery was summarily fired from his job as a catering manager at the seminary and his scholarship was revoked; a document outlining his termination reportedly stated that "public disagreement does not align with Scripture."
Also, earlier this year, Patterson, the Southern Baptist Convention, SWBTS, and Houston's First Baptist Church were named as defendants in a sexual abuse case against retired Texas state judge Paul Pressler. The lawsuit, which demanded more than $1 million from the defendants, argued that the parties were liable for their connections with the judge and that they "had actual or constructive knowledge" of the judge's alleged misconduct and had covered it up. The plaintiff in the case alleged Patterson knew about molestations Pressler was allegedly committing but failed to report it, as reported by Texas Monitor.
A 1991 Dallas Morning News story has also re-emerged amid the most recent controversy surrounding Patterson. The report involves his time as president of a Bible college in the late 1980s. It was then when Patterson reportedly helped promote an African-American preacher named Darrell Gilyard even after several women confronted him with charges against Gilyard of sexual misconduct and abuse. Patterson said then that the women lacked evidence and witnesses and Gilyard would go on to serve in several churches and was arrested for sending obscene messages to underage girls in 2008.
Gilyard was subsequently convicted and spent three years in prison. Patterson maintained in 2008 that 20 years prior he had expelled Gilyard from Bible school when Gilyard confessed to adultery and has had nothing to do with him since that time.
What Critics Are Saying
What has come to light has upset many Southern Baptists, women in particular, and on May 6 an open letter to the SWBTS board of trustees demanding accountability was circulated online from concerned Southern Baptist women who expressed their shock and dismay at Patterson's words. So far, the letter has been signed by just over 3,000 people. Notably, the list includes some signatures from men and from non-Baptists.
"We are shocked by the video that has surfaced showing Dr. Paige Patterson objectify a teenage girl and then suggest this as behavior that is biblical. We are further grieved by the dangerous and unwise counsel given by Dr. Patterson to women in abusive situations. His recent remarks of clarification do not repudiate his unwise counsel in the past; nor has he offered explanation or repentance for inappropriate comments regarding a teenage girl, the unbiblical teaching he offered on the biblical meaning of womanhood in that objectification, and the inappropriate nature of his own observations of her body," the letter reads.
"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."
Among the Southern Baptist women who signed the letter is Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor, who tweeted that signing the letter was "most heartbreaking."
"I've been Baptist most of my life, Southern Baptist for almost two decades. I made this appeal privately but was not heard," she said.
"The church cannot be led by men who speak lasciviously of teen girls."
Writing in The Washington Post April 30, Jonathan Merritt — whose father is a former SBC president — asked if the denomination was ready to face the cultural reckoning now affecting every corner of America regarding sexual misconduct. He urged Southern Baptists to reconsider allowing Patterson to give the keynote sermon at their upcoming annual meeting in June "lest they appear both culturally out of step and lacking in moral courage."
"Replacing Patterson will send a message to millions of Southern Baptist women that their bodies are not dispensable and that their valid concerns have been heard loudly and clearly," he added, arguing that how the denomination responds at their annual meeting "will tell you everything you need to know about their courage and convictions in this time of #Metoo."
Many others have also called for Patterson's ouster as the story, which continues to develop, has made national headlines, appearing in influential publications like The Atlantic and on the front page of The Washington Post.
Well-known Southern Baptist figures like Russell Moore, Thom Rainer, Danny Akin, and Bruce Ashford have also weighed in, decrying the evil of abuse of women and asserting in no uncertain terms that a physically abused wife should separate from her husband, that the church should provide a safe haven for her, and that any counsel saying otherwise is unacceptable.
Brandon Watts Tejedor, an alumnus of SWBTS, has also spoken publicly about his frustrations with the SWBTS, noting in a Facebook post that the institution has a "good ol' boy protection system" that muzzles dissenting voices.
"What I am furious about is that one of my friends and former peers has been fired and his scholarship revoked for endorsing a balanced view that shows both appreciation for Patterson's positive contributions and concern over the areas of severe controversy going on," he wrote, referencing the firing of Ph.D. student Montgomery.
"This is the kind of self-righteous indignation and power plays that represent the very worst of the largest Protestant denomination and its politics."
Some SWBTS and SBC officials have a "revered and untouchable status," he explained, and during his freshman year, he would sometimes refer to a few of them as the "emperor" or "crowned prince" of the SBC given how overt the displays of that status was.
"[A]nd that was before I had any suspicion of anything malicious."
Watts Tejedor recounted how a seminary official called and rebuked him for being out of step with Matthew 18 when he voiced objections publicly to the seminary's sharing of blog entries in support of Donald Trump on their official TheologyMatters website during the 2016 election season.
Author Matthew Anderson articulated Saturday his disgust with this kind of culture within SBC-dominated evangelical Christianity, commenting on Twitter that the firing of Montgomery was "deplorable" but that he was not surprised.
"The aversion to public criticism among conservative evangelical leaders is often cowardice and self-interest cloaked as prudence," he said.
"Nothing in evangelicalism will change until those people with influence on the inside are willing to take risks and break ranks. And right now...they aren't," he added, noting that the solution to the Patterson situation was "obvious."
What Supporters Are Saying
Supporters of Patterson see this episode as a witch hunt of sorts and that efforts to remove him amount to an attack on a good man whom God has used to advance the Gospel around the world.
In an SBC Today article last week, Samuel L. Schmidt, pastor of Edgewood Baptist Church in Nicholasville, Kentucky, appealed to SWBTS trustees to stand by Patterson and criticized the social media frenzy. He forwarded his letter to the vice presidents and deans of the seminary and to the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Steve Gaines, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
"Should I 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," Schmidt wrote.
The issue is not abuse, he asserted, but the permanence of marriage. And journalists are in search of the "next big story," with which they can generate online traffic, he argued.
Schmidt added: "This is a coup to forcibly remove Dr. Patterson from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary by discrediting his ministry, from outside sources who are now putting pressure on you, as trustees ... due to decades old vendettas and other personal reasons."
The letter has become a petition, launched on May 5, called "The Right Thing for the Southern Baptist Convention and Paige Patterson" and has gained over 300 signatures.
Similarly, Brad Reynolds, vice president for academic affairs and professor of Christian studies at Truett McConnell University, opined that with regard to the present swirl around Patterson, there "are some in this controversy who have deservedly earned a reputation for being dirt diggers."
"For those of us familiar with the SBC, we have come to expect such behavior from them," he said, predicting Patterson would handle this with grace as he has with previous controversies.
A woman named Angie Brock claimed on a Twitter thread about the two black eyes incident that she was the one being physically abused and defended Patterson, explaining that he never suggested that she stay in an abusive relationship.
"What he did was bring in the authorities, remove my violent husband and encourage me in the Word. Not recommending divorce does not mean approval of abuse," she said.
The Christian Post reached out to Brock for clarification and further comment but has not received a response.
Patterson issued a statement on April 29 insisting that he has never been abusive to any woman nor condoned abuse of any kind. He also said he has never recommended divorce — "How could I as a minister of the Gospel? The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce" — and that he has on a few occasions helped women leave their abusive husbands, including in one instance where his life was threatened during his time as a pastor in New Orleans.
He subsequently told The Washington Post on May 4 that "allegations have been given on me all my life," said he was being falsely accused, and could not "apologize for what I didn't do wrong."
On May 10, Patterson issued an apology, saying: "I wish to apologize to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity. We live in a world of hurt and sorrow, and the last thing that I need to do is add to anyone's heartache. Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been."
Why This Matters
At issue not only within Southern Baptist life but in evangelicalism more broadly are the contentious questions surrounding the permissibility of divorce in certain circumstances and how churches handle abuse situations, especially given the #metoo, #timesup, and #churchtoo movements.
Allegations of abuse against a church or ministry leader, or even the appearance of support for a context like marriage where abuse may be occurring are being monitored with greater visibility in this present cultural moment, spurred on by social media.
"The world is watching us all, brothers," the May 6 letter from Southern Baptist women to the SWBTS trustees states.
"They wonder how we could possibly be part of a denomination that counts Dr. Patterson as a leader. They wonder if all Southern Baptist men believe that the biblical view of a sixteen-year-old girl is that she is 'built' and 'fine' — an object to be viewed sexually."
Patterson is scheduled to appear at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in mid-June and is slated to give the keynote sermon there. Some have expressed worry not only about the likely public relations fiasco that will ensue if he preaches and delegates applaud him, but also the message it will send to women and other abuse victims.
While she did not mention Patterson specifically, such sentiment has been accentuated by a viral May 3 letter Beth Moore wrote to her brothers in Christ outlining her experiences with misogyny and the disrespect she has been shown within conservative Southern Baptist circles.
Her letter has opened a broader discussion of serious issues within the SBC regarding the role of women in the denomination and the theology that undergirds it.
What remains to be seen is whether or not the SBC will acquiesce to the demands of prominent writers and others who are contending for Patterson's removal, perhaps for legitimate reasons or due to "decades old vendettas" and personal reasons.
The Patterson episode has also highlighted the need for discussion about how Southern Baptist leaders deal with critical voices from within their own denominational ranks.
What Comes Next
A May 22 meeting is scheduled at the seminary with the SWBTS trustees to address all of the allegations surrounding Patterson. They will also consider Montgomery's appeal regarding his employment termination and the removal of his scholarship from the seminary.
In June, the Southern Baptist Convention will hold its annual meeting in Dallas where they will elect a new president to replace outgoing president Steve Gaines, who will likely serve for the next two years.
Thus far, Patterson is still scheduled to give the convention sermon at the annual meeting, which is considered a special honor. The only way he would not preach is if he personally opted out or if the entire convention messengers voted to rescind it.
When asked if he still intends to give that sermon, Patterson told the Washington Post: "I have no comment. I try to follow the Lord as much as possible, and He's said not a word."
Sexual abuse and assault will be subjects of a panel discussion convened by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the policy arm of the denomination currently led by Russell Moore, on the eve of that annual meeting.