More than a PR Problem: Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention

Remember the recording of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Paige Patterson giving some horrific advice on dealing with domestic violence that surfaced earlier this month? (I wrote about it here at the time.) Another story surfaced just this week. It seems that in 2003, a seminary student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson was president at the time, was raped—and Patterson told her not to report the rape to the police, and to forgive her rapist.

In the recording that surfaced earlier this month, Patterson recounted a story about a time he told a woman whose husband was beating her to submit to her husband, and pray—she came to church the next Sunday with two black eyes, and he said praise God, because her husband came to church with her. I was not surprised by these comments because I have long blogged against a collection of toxic ideas about domestic violence that are all too common in many evangelical circles. Patterson’s words fit many of these themes.

What did surprise me was Ed Stetzer’s response. (You’ll see why this is relevant in a moment.)

Ed Stetzer is a popular contributing editor of the influential evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. Stetzer was one of the first to condemn Pastor Andy Savage when news of his sexual assault of a minor while serving as a youth pastor in the late 1990s surfaced earlier this year—and his condemnation was righteous. Given Stetzer’s seemingly solid track record on responding to the abuse of women in the church, I expected a lot when read his post calling on Patterson to resign. I was deeply disappointed.

Instead of spending his article defending women or deconstructing the ideas Patterson promoted with his comments, Stetzer spent his article praising Patterson for his role in the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. He lauded Patterson up and down, and then stated that it is time for Patterson to move on, because we wouldn’t want anyone to—well, let me give you his words:

If Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation. Every news story will point to that moment, tie it together with the accusations against Paul Pressler, and say that Southern Baptists don’t take abuse seriously.

And it’s not just a public relations crisis. It’s a message to women that we must not send.

I think a better way forward is to think of the SBC’s future mission rather than Paige Patterson’s past success, and I hope he desires the same for the SBC he gave his life to.

Thank you, Dr. Patterson, for your service. You did the right thing when it was hard. Now, let me encourage you to do so again. Thank you for thinking first of the SBC as you step into a well-earned retirement.

We wouldn’t want anyone to think the Southern Baptist Convention doesn’t take abuse seriously! It would be horrible for people to think that!

You know what would be worse? For it to be true.

Stetzer never seemed to consider—at all—the actual implications of Patterson’s words and beliefs, and the harm Patterson and the institutions he shaped may have done women—and may still be doing women. There was no understanding in Stetzer’s treatment that ideas have consequences—that Patterson’s beliefs might have practical implications for women and for the entire Southern Baptist Convention. Stetzer treated it as a mere PR problem, something that would be quickly fixed if only Patterson would step down.

As a quick side note, Fred Clark of the Slactivist did all of us a huge favor by writing extensively about the problems with Stetzer’s telling of the history of the Southern Baptist Convention and the conservative takeover masterminded by Patterson. For instance, you wouldn’t know from Stetzer’s laudatory telling that that conservative takeover included the firing of all female seminary professors.

Clark also notes something that I missed. The conservative takeover of the SBC was largely engineered by Paige Patterson and a judge named Paul Pressler. Stetzer mentions very briefly—in his post urging the esteemed, lauded, the great Paige Patterson to step down from the SBC—that “troubling” allegations have been leveled against Pressler, but he does not state anything more than that.

I should have looked into these allegations, but Stetzer brushed over them so quickly (in a long article overall) that I completely missed them. Pressler has been accused of sexually molesting teenage boys and abusing his position of power to sexually harassing young men.

Amazingly, these allegations go back to before Pressler played his role in the conservative takeover of the SBC in the early 1980s. In 1978, Pressler was let go as youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston after a teenager alleged that Pressler had touched him sexually. The most recent allegation involves incidents that happened in 2016. Pressler has been making payments to at least one victim since 2004, and the list of men lodging allegations of rape and harassment against him has been only growing.

In other words, the two men behind the conservative takeover of the SBC have been accused of, in the first place, advising women to stay in abusive situations and submit to abusive husbands, and, in the second place, raping and harassing teenage boys and men. This matters. It matters as a lot more than a simple PR problem. It points to an underlying, fundamental problem that must be addressed.

As Clark so aptly writes:

Stetzer treats Pressler’s legal jeopardy and Patterson’s views as a PR problem for Southern Baptists. It’s also that, of course. But not only, or even mainly, that. That PR aspect of the SBC’s dilemma might be mitigated if Patterson takes Stetzer’s polite  advice and quietly exits the spotlight into some well-hidden emeritus role. But that would leave the deeper problem unaddressed.

That deeper problem is this: The Southern Baptist Convention as it presently exists was shaped and molded, guided and led by these men and by people who admired these men. One of those men stands accused of being a long-time sexual predator, the other has revealed himself as someone who views women as property.

The story about the seminary student who was told by Patterson, the president of the seminary, not to report her rape to the police? That is why this matters. It matters because these men shaped a culture and set norms. It matters because women have born the brunt of these norms. It matters because these norms won’t just disappear with Patterson’s retirement (Patterson was removed from his current position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at a meeting held Tuesday, as this story broke).

It matters because supporting women has to be about more than PR.

Given Stetzer’s ability to call for Patterson to step down over PR without showing any recognition that this moment might call for a greater rethinking of the Southern Baptist Convention’s positions on women, gender, and domestic violence, I refuse to respond to Patterson’s removal with a victory dance. It is too little, too late—and not at all enough to actually fix this problem.

On some level, the problem was never Patterson. It was the ideas he communicated. It would be wrong—and highly naive—to assume that these ideas will disappear with him.

Do better.

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