A recent controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention reminds us that living out Christian principles sometimes means repudiating our own.
Christianity has long been known – commended and reviled – for its Biblical approach to sexual purity, one that does not compromise in the face of changing societal norms. But one series of revelations about a prominent Baptist pastor, and its context in the #MeToo era, has cast fresh doubt upon the way evangelical, Bible-believing Christians engage with this issue.
When Dr. Paige Patterson, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, brazenly objectified a 16-year old girl in a sermon he preached on Adam and Eve, one couldn’t be helped but be reminded of a horny, party-hardy teenage boy with no self-control around women. In the 2014 sermon, Patterson mentions that the girl was “built” and that he would not deprive a similarly-aged young man from ogling at her.
“But let me say – she was nice,” Patterson said, with a clearly physical connotation to the word “nice.” With regards to the boy who was staring at her, Dr. Patterson says that the boy is “just being Biblical; that’s exactly what the Bible says.”
The image was meant as an analogy to the way that Christians are to look upon a woman’s God-given beauty, but make no mistake – the comments were disturbing and inappropriate in any context. The whole clip was gratuitous gawking masquerading as preaching.
Dr. Patterson has not apologized for this incident, saying that he couldn’t “apologize for what I didn’t do wrong.” Neither has he apologized for some other controversial incidents regarding female objectification. In 2010, he had ridiculed some of his female seminary students over their appearance by saying “it shouldn’t be any wonder why some of you don’t get a second look.” Never mind also the ramping allegations that he also counselled women to stay in abusive marriages, which sparked its own debate on Christianity and domestic violence. The #MeToo era, having changed the political landscape in Hollywood and Washington, D.C., is now coming for the Southern Baptist Convention.
On Sunday, after the video and other deplorable comments about women surfaced, over 2500 Southern Baptist women signed a document denouncing Dr. Patterson’s actions and leadership position within the SBC. They noted that “This pattern of discourse is unbefitting the sober, wise, and sound character required of an elder, pastor, and leader.” Many other SBC leaders, including LifeWay Books president Thom Rainer and seminary president Danny Akin, have also issued denouncements.
But this “pattern of discourse” extends beyond just one bad apple and one bad speech. Beth Moore, a prominent female evangelical leader and counsellor, wrote that during her time in leadership she had repeatedly been subject to objectifying remarks made by her male counterparts, including comparisons of her physical appearance to other prominent evangelical women. Her criticism of her colleagues’ attitudes towards her paints a troubling picture for the evangelical community, one that can’t be erased by simply pushing it under the rug.
There is certainly no respite for these men in Scripture. The Bible warns against any kind of talk that objectifies other women, with Jesus himself saying that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). But while all sins can be forgiven, indulging in them publicly while participating in Christian leadership is unacceptable to the church. The Bible clearly mentions that teachers and pastors must be “above reproach” and “well thought of by outsiders” (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Indeed, “not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Teaching pastors must model upright and sober behavior, and when they do not, and refuse to apologize for their actions, they should be removed.
My evangelical cohorts may contend that the legacy of Paige Patterson, who led a successful coup of the Southern Baptist Convention from theological liberals, would be diminished if he is to be removed from leadership. But Christians do not worship Paige Patterson. We worship God, and God calls us to stand against sexual objectification, even when it hurts our own. Furthermore, God often calls people to do great things, and then humbles them when they do wrong (see: King David, King Solomon). We do not repudiate Dr. Patterson’s contributions to evangelicalism when we remove him. But Christian leadership cannot also prioritize the weight of select few leaders over Christ’s decree.
Furthermore, removing Dr. Patterson from his post would send a strong message to the rest of the world that the Christian church stands by its own principles. When we reject abortion as a moral evil, we also have the responsibility to provide and care for people who face such a choice, including robust adoption services and pre- and post-trauma care. When we reject our culture’s hyper-sexualization of everything, we must also be careful not to promulgate those same objectifications to our sex-saturated young boys. Bible-believing Christians cannot rail against pornography and hookup culture on one end of our mouths and publicly ogle at women on the other.
As per usual, the Bible is apt to predict our contemporary controversies and admonish its flock into doing the right thing. In this case, it means showing zero tolerance for pastors who alienate women by sexually objectifying them.