I’ve written a lot about domestic violence and sexual abuse in the church, not so much because I believe Christians are more likely to carry out domestic abuse as because I grew up in the church and have seen how terribly such abuse can be handled, for several reasons. For one thing, the conservative evangelical church of my youth teaches that wives should submit to husbands, and that husbands are their wives’ spiritual heads. For another thing, it teaches that divorce is nearly always wrong.
And then there are other teachings—conservative evangelicals’ emphasis on forgiveness leads to a willingness to uncritically accept a “repentant” abuser, and to judgement of his victim if she does not forgive, and return, or stay. An emphasis on not “throwing the first stone” and the idea that “we are all sinners” leads to a downplaying of abuse as it is treated as just one sin among other sins, not unlike “gossiping” and “bitterness” (you can feel the silencing effects already).
But we’re not done! An emphasis on not being a bad “witness” can lead to the covering up of sexual sins or domestic violence committed by a pastor or an elder—they wouldn’t want to make Christianity look bad, after all! And then there is the lack of attention paid to the age of consent, and the emphasis on modesty. When a young teen girl is sexually assaulted, and her abuser claims it was consensual—or that she lured him in—it should not be hard to guess who is blamed. That Jezebel.
None of this is to say that conservative evangelicals always mishandle instances of sexual abuse or domestic violence. That is not the case. When things do go wrong, however, the varied collection of beliefs outlined above create a perfect storm. I saw it happen in the conservative evangelical community within which I grew up. I’ve seen it happen in wider evangelical and in Christian homeschool circles. Over the past few years, the voices speaking up and pushing back have grown louder.
Paige Patterson is the 75-year-old president of Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which claims to be one of the largest schools of its kind in the world. He is lionized among Baptists for his role in the “conservative resurgence,” which is what some call the movement to oust theological liberals beginning in the 1970s. But this week, his past legacy and present credibility were called into question when a 2000 audio recording surfaced in which Patterson said he has counseled physically abused women to avoid divorce and to focus instead on praying for their violent husbands, and to “be submissive in every way that you can.”
Patterson is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and was instrumental in the denomination’s conservative shift in the early 1980s and beyond. I’ve created a transcript of the audio recording. Patterson was responding to a question asked by an unidentified individual. Here is the ext of the question he was asked:
The media and even within the church usually jumps on the submission issue and talks about physical abuse, and women are going to be beat up, and harmed physically, and this question has come up several times as I’ve gone through the stack here. What do you recommend for women who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands, and the husbands say they should be submitting?
Here was Patterson’s response:
That’s an excellent question, and let me respond that it depends on the level of abuse to some degree. I have never in my ministry counseled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that’s always wrong counsel. There have been, however, an occasion or two when the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough that I have counseled temporary separation, and the seeking of help. I would urge you to understand that that should happen only in the most serious of cases. I would cite examples of it, but the examples that I’ve had in my ministry are so awful that I will not cite them in public. That is enough to say that there is a severe physical and or moral danger that is involved before you come to that.
More often, when you face abuse it is of a less serious variety, but all abuse is serious. There are two or three things that I say to women who are in those kinds of situations. First of all I say to them that you must not forget the power of prayer. Just as one of your little children comes to you with a broken heart, crawls up into your arms, looks into your face, and with tears running down his cheeks asks you to intervene in a situation, if you have anything in you, a loving parent’s heart at all, that will bring you to your attention and you’re off and running. Now if you then being evil know how to give good gives to your children, how much more shall your father in heaven do good to them that ask him. Do not forget the power of consecrated, concentrated prayer. Get on your face before God and ask him to intervene. He is a good and a dear heavenly father, and at some point he will intervene.
I’ll just give you one brief example of it, I had a woman who was in a church where I served and she was being subject to some abuse and I told her, I said, all right, every evening I want you to get down by the bed just as he goes to sleep, get down by the bed, and when you think he’s about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene, not out loud, quietly, but I said you just just there, and I said get ready, because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.
Sure enough he did, she came to church one morning with both eyes black, and she was angry at me, and at God and the world for that matter. 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.’ And what she didn’t know when she sat down in church that morning is her husband had come in and was standing in the back, the first time he ever came. And when I gave the invitation that morning he was the first one down to the front, and his heart was broken. He said, ‘my wife is praying for me and I can’t believe what I did to her.” And he said, ‘do you think God can forgive somebody like me?’ And he’s a great husband today. And it all came about because she sought God on a regular basis.
Remember, when nobody else can help, God can. And in the meantime, you have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can, and to elevate him. Obviously, if he’s doing that kind of thing he has some very deep spiritual problems in his life, and you have to pray that God brings him to that intersection of his life, those people and those events that need to come into his life to arrest him, and bring him to his knees.
In making these statements, Patterson was not being atypical. Other leaders have made similar comments. In some sense, though, Patterson has become a stand-in for all conservative evangelical leaders who have made (and continue to make) similar statements, in an age of #metoo. The surfacing of his comments presents a moment of reckoning for leaders of the church—a chance for reporters to ask pastors and theological leaders their views on sexual assault and domestic violence and get them on tape. And many of these leaders failing.
In the aftermath of these comments, a video surfaced that raised additional concerns. This video was from 2014, and showed Patterson giving a sermon before an audience. He was covering the creation of Eve.
And that’s the word he uses to describe only the creation of women. Way-yi-ben. It means to beautifully and artistically construct. And I didn’t need to learn Hebrew to figure that out either, huh. [leers at audience, audience laughs] That’s what he says, beautifully and artistically construct.
One night I was speaking somewhere, and a woman caught me after the service and a woman came up to me, and she was really unhappy with me and was giving me what for. I have that happen every once in a while, I just sat there and listened, took my punishment. Standing right next to her was an older teenage boy, and he had a friend with him, and they were quite humiliated of what momma was doing. They were looking at the floor and wishing they weren’t there. But she was undeterred, she was headed in for the kill, and she was working me over good.
Well about that time, a very attractive young co-ed walked by. And she wasn’t more than about 16, but mmmmmm. Let me just say, she was nice. As she walked by, they didn’t think that momma was paying any attention to them, and one young man turned to the other one and he said, ‘Man, is she built.’ In the middle of the sentence [their momma] stopped, wheeled around, slapped a hand over his mouth, loosened his teeth, said, ‘Young man, don’t you ever say anything like that again. If you do, I’ll mop up the face of the Earth with you!’
I saw my opportunity. I said, ‘Ma’am, leave him alone. He is just being biblical. That’s exactly what the Bible said.’
Patterson did not have to emphasize that this sixteen-year-old child was “nice,” and he certainly should not have encouraged the teenage boy’s harassment of her, but that is exactly what he did. Add to that his uncomfortable leering into the audience. What was this sermon about, exactly? What was the point of emphasizing that—unlike men, apparently–women were “beautifully and artistically constructed”?
Despite this second clip, the Southern Baptists appear to have circled the wagons. While some have condemned Patterson’s words, others have defended him or refused to make any statement at all. Importantly, Patterson is still slated to give the keynote address at the Southern Baptist Convention next month.
Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist and popular contributing editor of Christianity Today, has called on Patterson to resign from his position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Stetzer’s long and detailed critique of Patterson, however, centered Stetzer’s own history with Patterson, and not on Paterson’s comments. While Stetzer has had some good things to say against abuse in the past, his post on Patterson was not one of them.
Rather than address Patterson’s comments—or refute them—rather than stand up for women or condemn Patterson’s sentiment, Stetzer spent his article thanking Patterson for his work in moving the SBC in a conservative direction, aired some past grievances with Patterson (personal interactions, not theological positions), and stated that Patterson should resign—not because his comments were horrific, but for the good of the SBC.
Here is an excerpt from the end of the article:
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.
While I have appreciated some of Stetzer’s writing in the past, that is the most mealy mouthed thing I have read in a long time. I could not be more appalled. Stetzer’s article reads as opportunistic, and that’s putting it mildly. The proper response to the surfacing of comments like Patterson’s is not to fall all over Patterson thanking him for all of his work moving the Southern Baptist Convention in a positive direction. Nope.
Overall, however, I think there’s a bigger problem: Almost without exception, conservative evangelicals believe that wifely submission is ordained by God, that women’s spiritual heads are their husbands, and that divorce is wrong in all but the narrowest circumstances. These beliefs almost of necessity limit efforts to protect women from abusive partners. Until they leave aside their belief in wifely submission, these problems won’t—and can’t—go away.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Patterson’s greatest opposition has come from women. A group of over 1,000 Southern Baptist women have signed a petition calling on him to resign.
Don’t imagine that if he does resign, however, the problems with conservative evangelicals’ handling of domestic violence and sexual assault will disappear. They won’t. More on that later this week.
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