Are Some (of Paige Patterson’s) Sins More Heinous than Others?

In the land of Presbyterianism, we profess, with the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that “some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others.”

That’s a line that comes to mind in the discussion so far about Paige Patterson who has stepped down as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after allegations that he gave bad counsel and used sermon illustrations offensive to women. The way some are reacting to the news about Patterson’s words, which began about a month ago, would make you think Patterson himself was guilty of sexual misconduct.

Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote about the controversy this way:

America’s largest evangelical denomination has been in the headlines day after day. The SBC is in the midst of its own horrifying #MeToo moment.

At one of our seminaries, controversy has centered on a president (now former president) whose sermon illustration from years ago included advice that a battered wife remain in the home and the marriage in hope of the conversion of her abusive husband. Other comments represented the objectification of a teenage girl. The issues only grew more urgent with the sense that the dated statements represented ongoing advice and counsel.

But the issues are far deeper and wider.

Sexual misconduct is as old as sin, but the avalanche of sexual misconduct that has come to light in recent weeks is almost too much to bear. These grievous revelations of sin have occurred in churches, in denominational ministries, and even in our seminaries.

We thought this was a Roman Catholic problem. The unbiblical requirement of priestly celibacy and the organized conspiracy of silence within the hierarchy helped to explain the cesspool of child sex abuse that has robbed the Roman Catholic Church of so much of its moral authority. When people said that Evangelicals had a similar crisis coming, it didn’t seem plausible — even to me. I have been president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twenty-five years. I did not see this coming.

I was wrong. The judgment of God has come.

Notice, the implication is that Patterson represents a problem comparable to the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests and the cover-up by overseeing bishops.

Rod Dreher also went there — compared the SBC to the Roman Catholic Church’s sex scandal:

This is a breathtaking act of leadership, and I applaud it strongly. I wish it were not unusual, but as we have seen so many times, in so many American churches caught up in scandal, the leadership class has a habit of evading responsibility. As Mohler said, the Southern Baptist Convention has behaved not so differently from the US Catholic Church.

(Think of it: if a US Catholic cardinal had given a speech like this in 2002, at the big bishops’ meeting in Dallas that addressed the sex abuse scandal, how might things have been different — and better — for the Catholic Church?)

Actually, the Patterson situation is different. He has offered questionable (for some objectionable) counsel about abuse in marriage and he has referred to a woman in a sermon in ways entirely inappropriate. (Why isn’t anyone using this to argue for banning illustrations in sermons since many of those attempts to be relevant can offend almost anyone in a mixed body of listeners?) He has also allegedly attempted to prevent a report to police about a rape. I would like to think that I would not have done this, and I can certainly understand why people object to these instances of poor judgment if not sinful conduct.

But Paige Patterson has not (so far) been charged with abusing women or engaging in sinful forms of sex.

So why make the comparison to the sex scandal among Roman Catholics? The reasons are likely many, but if you go there then you may want to hear what Richard John Neuhaus thought about rushing to judge priests who had sinned and the policies that bishops adopted in their rush to measure up to the standards of the scolding press:

Let us stipulate that reprehensible things have been done to children and young people. That is heartbreakingly evident to anyone equipped with common sense and a conscience. My point here is that there is not a scintilla of evidence that a person who did a stupidly wicked thing many years ago and is repentant and has rendered decades of faithful service without a hint of suspicion poses any threat whatever to children or anyone else. We used to call that redemption. Such a person is not to be thrown out as an abuser but welcomed as a forgiven sinner to the company of forgiven sinners that is the Church. The bishops are paying a high price for making themselves look good in the eyes of a media that is largely indifferent to the gospel that bishops are to serve. Pity the priests who are on the receiving end of this punitive policy, and their people. But the bishops, too, bear a burden. For instance, wrestling with their consciences about how to square “one strike and you’re out” with the teachings of the One who spoke about forgiving seventy times seven. He did not say to the one who denied him three times, “Sorry, Peter, one strike and you’re out.” The morning after the Dallas vote, all the bishops celebrated Mass. I wonder how many noticed how often the words of the Mass appeal for mercy, declaring our utter dependence upon forgiveness. And if they did, I wonder if they thought about their vote the day before. I hope that at least some of them were worrying that, just maybe, they had tried to save their public relations skins at the price of betraying the gospel.

If Neuhaus could remember Christ’s words to Peter under that dark cloud of scandal, why can’t Al Mohler or Rod Dreher?

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