Paige Patterson, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Abuse of Women

Seminary President Paige Patterson alongside oil portrait of B.H. Carroll, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's first president. (AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Paul Moseley)

Toward the end of last month, an audio recording of  Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson surfaced on which he can be heard claiming that he’s never counseled an abused woman to seek a divorce. Instead, he encourages them to pray for their husbands and “be submissive in every way that you can.”

Since the recording surfaced, Patterson, the 75-year-old president of Dallas’ Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and past Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president, has defended his statements and insists that he’s done nothing wrong. In a press release, he related the time a woman came to him who accused her husband of being abusive. Patterson urged her to return to her husband and pray for him. He “warned her that he could become angry over this and seek to retaliate.” Paige claims that “subsequently, on a Sunday morning, she arrived at church with some evidence of physical abuse.”

He then expressed that he was happy that what the man “had done to his wife brought conviction to his heart.”

“I was happy – not that she had suffered from his anger,” he said, “but that God had used her to move her husband to conviction of his sin.”

In an interview with Baptist Press, Patterson explained that “minor non-injurious abuse which happens in so many marriages” is cause for the wife to pray and not to leave.

The controversy continues to pick up steam, leading SBTS and Patterson to call for a special meeting of the seminary’s trustees on May 22. In the press release, the chairman of the board wrote, “Since April 28, 2018, I, and the Executive Committee of the board of trustees, have been in conversation with our president. In light of recent events, Dr. Patterson has requested that I convene our full trustee board to meet in official session.”

As an elder (a pastor) in an SBC church, I want to add my voice to the growing number of people denouncing Patterson’s words and calling for his resignation. The abuse of women is a heinous sin before God, and any leader of a church that takes the abuse of women less seriously than it deserves disqualifies himself for the ministry. Secondarily, Patterson has brought reproach upon the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention.

I say secondarily because God is quite able to defend Himself and He calls His church to protect and defend the vulnerable and oppressed. As far as the SBC is concerned, I’m far less concerned about the Convention’s reputation than I am the safety of women.

By repenting of our sins and placing our faith in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God and adopted into His eternal family. An outworking of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the healing of the broken relationships that are the result of sin. After Jesus Christ returns, those who are His will be ushered into His eternal kingdom in which there will be no conflict and no broken relationships.

Patterson’s comments are a sinful demonstration of the exact opposite of what the eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ looks like. By his words and confessed deeds, he is telling a broken and sinful world that the Church wants no part in the healing of hurt people and that violent human relationships will be tolerated within local churches.

Specifically, Patterson has communicated very clearly to women that the Church has little interest in protecting them and that local churches will mirror the broken and violent world by turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to the violence inflicted upon them by abusive men. It is never ok to counsel an abused woman to stay with her abuser.

Thankfully, Patterson doesn’t speak for the Church; only Jesus Christ, our Savior and King, can do that. Furthermore, Patterson can only speak for his local church and the local churches who ask him to do so.

At first, I resisted the urge to disavow Patterson’s words and to call him to repentance. He doesn’t speak for me, I thought. Nor does he speak for or represent the local church in which God has called me to serve.

However, after having heard from several of the dear sisters in Christ in my church family, I believe that I need to make publicly clear that Paige Patterson does not speak for me.

To that end, I will not tolerate the abuse of women within my church family. If a woman were to confide in me that her husband is abusing her, my first action would be to remove her from the situation and make sure that she is safe. My second action would be to contact the secular authorities and report her husband. Unlike Patterson, if a woman showed up at my church with a black eye given to her by her husband (or any other man, for that matter), I would immediately call the police and have the man arrested.

Repeating myself, I will not tolerate the abuse of women within my church family.

In the situation of abuse, after ensuring the woman’s safety and that the abusive man is in the process of being held accountable by secular authorities for his crimes, I would begin the hard task and long road of healing for the woman and repentance for the man. By God’s grace, no sin is out of reach of God’s forgiveness offered by faith in Jesus, and that includes abusive men. However, I would work toward that with the understanding that some sins so completely sever relationships that the woman and the man may never be reconciled as husband and wife.

It also needs to be noted that Patterson’s classification of “minor non-injurious abuse” enables abusers. Often, men who abuse women do so in a manner that makes it hard for the courts to prosecute. They become adept at inflicting abuse without leaving marks. That doesn’t mean that the abuse is not traumatic, both physically and emotionally. By creating a category of “minor non-injurious abuse,” Patterson provides cover for the abuser and shames the abused for complaining about something that’s not really that big of a deal. Well, no matter what words Patterson uses to gloss over abuse, all abuse of women is wicked. There is no such thing as “minor non-injurious abuse.”

Paige Patterson should repent and resign. If he doesn’t, the SBC should take action to remove him from positions of authority. Failing to do so will signal that the SBC doesn’t consider protecting women from violent men to be a priority.