I read recently that powerful men accused of harassment typically have a shelf period of about four months before they’re right back in power. That’s just about right on target for Paige Patterson, who preached two sermons at a rival in Alabama this month after being fired from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary last May over allegations that he advised women to stay with abusive husbands and, as seminary president, failed to report allegations of rape to the authorities, instead blaming the victim.
What struck me even more than Patterson’s return to the pulpit itself—it does not surprise me that a church in Alabama would invite him to speak—was his choice of sermon material, as well as his completely tone-deaf preaching style.
As Jonathan Merritt reports in the Washington Post:
In his first of two sermons, Patterson told a story of evangelizing a former church member’s mother whom he wanted to meet after being told she “could whip” him. Upon visiting her for the first time, his parishioner’s mother didn’t knock him out but, according to Patterson, “she filled the door.” After being invited into her home, Patterson said he was finally able to persuade the woman to convert to Christianity, and when she came to his church for baptism, he joked, they had to “fill the baptistery half full.”
The crowd erupted in laughter.
“She was not just fat. I mean to tell you what: I think she pumped iron probably an hour or so a day,” he said of the woman. “She literally could have played guard for the Green Bay Packers.”
Merritt briefly discusses the role body shaming plays in evangelical Christianity and in Patterson’s fall from grace, providing context for Patterson’s sermon remarks:
In American evangelical Christianity — the powerful religious movement that is led predominantly by white men — body-shaming women is not altogether uncommon. Numerous accounts of this kind of behavior in churches can be found online. But it is an especially inappropriate, even befuddling, choice of material for Patterson (who was coincidentally speaking in a state with the nation’s third-highest obesity rate). After all, the furor that led to his demise was partially sparked by a sermon in which he objectified a 16-year-old girl’s physical appearance.
What is the purpose of bringing up the woman’s size in a sermon like this? Was there a point to it? Was the message that even a very very fat woman can be saved—which, seriously, don’t do that—or was the goal simply to titillate the audience and make them laugh? Such a funny, witty pastor. But what message does that communicate to fat people, or about fat people?
As Merritt notes, Patterson’s comments were completely inappropriate—and also not exactly the best foot to start a comeback on, after a fall from grace that hinged in part on Patterson’s objectifying of women’s bodies.
As bad as that was, however, Patterson’s second sermon raises even more questions: Questions like, did Patterson actually ever apologize? Questions like, does Patterson actually think he did anything wrong? (No, and no.)
Merritt describes the sermon as follows:
Patterson returned to the pulpit at the same conference the following day to preach another sermon. His chosen text was the biblical story of Joseph, a Jewish patriarch who refused to be seduced by an Egyptian woman, who then falsely accused Joseph of sexually abusing her. Patterson used this passage as an opportunity to address the #MeToo movement — the movement that brought him down just months ago.
“I’m all in favor of the #MeToo movement when there is a guilty party,” Patterson said, adding that men who abuse women are cowardly. But then he added, “By the same token, I have nothing good to say about a woman who falsely accuses a man. She runs the risk of ruining a life. She runs the risk of causing sorrow unknown when the person is, in fact, innocent.”
Why that passage? Patterson had the entire Bible to choose from, and he chose that passage?! Why in the world would he do that? The only intelligible answer is that Patterson wanted to start his comeback—a comeback from a fall grounded in blaming rape victims for their own rapes, no less—with a biblically backed statement that women really do lie about being raped.
This is basically the one passage Patterson needed to avoid. He could have preached about love, from I Corinthians. He could have preached about wealth and charitable giving, from the gospels. He could have preached about good kings and bad kings, from I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles. He could have preached about literally anything else.
In choosing this passage, Patterson made a statement. He is not sorry. He is not remorseful. He has not changed. Instead, he is doubling down. After all, it cannot possibly be a coincidence that Patterson would choose this passage to preach on, out of the entire Bible. It has to have been completely intentional. Patterson is making a statement—and it’s not a pretty one.
Merritt argues that Patterson’s flubbed comeback is yet one more data point of “fallen Christian pastors” who “rush back to the spotlight before they seem ready to lead or even emotionally healthy.” These leaders, he say, “subtly communicate that redemption is a quick and easy process.” I don’t disagree with Merritt entirely, but I think there’s a slight distinction to be made here: I don’t think Patterson is after redemption.
Patterson never apologized for what he said or taught, and given his choice of sermon fodder last week, I don’t think he thinks he actually did anything wrong. Merritt argues that we should not “conflate an apology with repentance,” and this is true, but I don’t think Patterson has ever actually admitted to wrongdoing. This isn’t about conflating an apology with repentance. It’s about someone who never apologized to begin with, and has no intention to even pretend to repent.
Let’s not conflate not repenting with repenting. Not every fallen leader repents. Some of them double down and insist that they really did nothing wrong. Any church that invites Patterson to speak makes a statement—a statement that they value perpetrators over victims, a statement that they’ll throw abused women under the bus, a statement that they feel objectifying young teen girls is a-okay.
But you know what? At least Patterson’s blatant not repenting means we don’t have to hash out whether he’s truly repentant or just trying-to-get-back-into-power repentant. Patterson is simply not repentant. It’s as clear as that.
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