Jonathan Merritt Has Some ‘Splaining To Do

Jonathan Merritt Has Some ‘Splaining To Do May 30, 2018

Where did the controversy over Paige Patterson come from?

For instance, on April 5, 2018 the Baptist Press ran an overview of conferences on preaching sponsored by Southern Baptist seminaries. It included a summary of Paige Patterson’s talk at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary:

Paige Patterson

The doctrine of salvation is the most important element in God’s Word, Patterson said in his message. “Every doctrine is important, and the Bible is about many things,” he said, “but from the earliest chapters of Genesis, the Bible is about the fall of man and the plan of God to bring about his redemption.”

Preaching Leviticus 16 on the Day of Atonement, Patterson noted how God told Aaron that he must approach Him in a prescribed way. “The first thing that we are met with is that you do not come to God anytime you choose, under your chosen circumstances…. You have to come to God in God’s way and on His timetable,” Patterson said. “There is no guarantee there will be another opportunity like that.”

While a sinner is subject to the laws of God, Patterson said, repentance and the blood of Jesus make atonement possible. “God is the eternal judge of the universe,” he said. “He has found us guilty of evil and said the wages of sin is death. But then the eternal judge laid aside His robes and took human form and paid the price for us.”

Apparently, in early April the president of SWBTS was not toxic.

But within four weeks, Patterson was facing a storm of controversy not owing to any recent developments but to a series of comments he had made before (in some cases many years before). First a video from 2000 surfaced where he made inappropriate and tasteless references to a young woman. With that smoke came the fire:

Then, a video recording from 2014 emerged in which Patterson resembles the ghost of Roy Moore, objectifying and sexualizing a 16-year-old girl in a sermon illustration.

If that were not enough, a news story published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1997 surfaced in which Patterson was asked about women and quipped, “I think everybody should own at least one.”

Patterson offered an interview to the denomination’s publicity arm, Baptist Press, in hopes of doing some damage control. But he made things worse by confirming that he believes “non-injurious physical abuse which happens in so many marriages” might spur a woman to “pray [her husband] through this.” (Baptist Press later manipulated the quote to read “minor non-injurious abuse” claiming that it better aligned with Patterson’s intention.)

Finally, The Washington Post published an article noting that Patterson has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit, which claims he knew about child-molestation accusations against a close friend of his, fellow Southern Baptist Paul Pressler, but chose to cover it up rather than report it.

Apparently, many of these public statements had not caught anyone’s attention for almost two decades. Then, voila, a dumpster fire of innuendo.

Who was responsible for making this a national controversy. Jonathan Merrit’s fingerprints appear to be prevalent at the scene of newsmaking. On April 28, 2018 he tweeted revelations about Patterson’s counsel to a wife in an abusive marriage. Then within less than a week, Merritt used his platform at The Atlantic to write a story about the unseemly side of the white male conservative leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention. Merritt could not restrain his mocking prose:

the tight-knit Southern Baptist boys’ club is not so easily unraveled, and many leaders have sheltered their colleague. Some have simply remained mum. The denomination’s Executive Committee has not acknowledged the controversy despite the media coverage it has received. . . . It’s not difficult to denounce domestic violence, and it shouldn’t be controversial. And yet, America’s largest Protestant denomination now seems to be ethically schizophrenic when it comes to the topic. . . .

A wave of such damning allegations and confirmed quotes would be enough to drag down almost any giant. In a #MeToo moment, it’s astounding that Patterson is still standing. But Southern Baptists are a loyal bunch. One wonders if Baptists’ loyalty to one of yesterday’s leaders is blinding them to the optics of his present involvement and the damage to their public witness should he remain in power.

I assume that Merritt’s editors at the magazine know that their reporter is a Southern Baptist and that his father was president of the SBC back in 2000 (preceded by none other than Paige Patterson). But I doubt readers of the Atlantic or the Washington Post (where Merritt also wrote an op-ed) understand that he may actually have a dog in this hunt. My own sense is that editors who don’t know a lot about religion give religion reporters a long leash.

Even so, reading Merritt on the SBC gives the overwhelming impression of someone hostile to the current leadership in the Convention. Shouldn’t Merritt come clean about his own relationship to the SBC and what he thinks as a Southern Baptist the Convention should be doing? Wouldn’t readers and editors interpret his material differently?

But to hear Merritt tell it, he’s simply a good Southern Baptist doing the work of a good journalist:

Yeah, right.

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