This story was updated May 4 to correct an error in the 24th paragraph.
Southern Baptist Convention leaders are distancing themselves from an embattled seminary president in an unusual departure from custom about never speaking ill in public about a fellow agency head, according to a former denominational worker.
Ed Stetzer, a professor at Wheaton College who formerly led LifeWay Research, said the reason SBC leaders rarely comment to media on controversies involving other denominational entities is an “unspoken policy” against criticizing other agency heads.
“Do not misunderstand the silence as inaction,” Stetzer said in column for Christianity Today. “I understand that in 2018, if you are not on social media, you are not ‘speaking up.’ However, social media quietness also happens because many leaders work in more behind-the-scenes ways to provide correctives.”
Stetzer said “instead of putting their cards on the table” via social media and the press, denominational leaders correct one another “in private interactions with individuals or governing bodies” or through floor debates and ballots when the Southern Baptist Convention is in session.
For that reason, Stetzer termed it “courageous” for his former boss, LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer, to call out Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson in a public statement rebutting recently resurfaced old comments by Patterson saying what he tells a wife in a troubled marriage “depends on the level of abuse.”
“There is no level or type of abuse of women that is acceptable,” Rainer posted April 30 on Twitter. “I stand with all who say ‘no’ to any type of abuse of women at any time and under any circumstance.”
Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said on Twitter that Rainer is right.
“The church should, and must, be clear on this,” Moore said. “A woman being abused should leave the house and call the police. The state should prosecute the abuser and the church should discipline him.”
Moore, Rainer and Stetzer are talking about the recent re-release of comments by Patterson recorded in March 2000 at a conference sponsored by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood about roles of male headship and wifely submission in Christian marriages.
During a session titled “How Submission Works in Practice,” Patterson shared extemporaneously a story about the time he told a wife who was being abused to return home and pray for her husband. When she returned with two black eyes from a beating, Patterson told the woman he was “happy” not because of her abuse, but because her submissive spirit caused her husband to come under conviction and accept Christ.
The exchange drew little attention when it surfaced on the Internet a decade ago, but in the #MeToo era, Patterson’s supporters have a harder time rationalizing things like his referring to a 16-year-old girl as “built” in a sermon in 2014. Asked in 1997 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his view of women, Patterson quipped, “I think everybody should own at least one.”
The controversy also renewed attention to a 1991 story in the Dallas Morning News claiming that Patterson disregarded numerous allegations of sexual abuse involving Darrell Gilyard, an aspiring young preacher he had taught and mentored at Criswell College. Gilyard pleaded guilty in 2009 to molesting a 15-year-old girl and sending lewd text messages to another teen. Gilyard served three years in prison and now is a registered sex offender.
Conservative leaders revere Patterson, 75, in part because they owe him for their jobs. Patterson and retired Houston judge Paul Pressler are widely credited with orchestrating the “conservative resurgence” that moved the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics toward the Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s.
Both are immortalized in stained glass in a pantheon of heroes of the conservative movement in the Southwestern Seminary chapel. They also are co-defendants in a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse and cover up so far unproven in court.
In the past few days, bloggers have called for Patterson to resign or be fired. “If Dr. Paige Patterson is allowed to continue in leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptists will lose any remaining credibility we possess as we share the Good News with the world at large,” said Wade Burleson, a former International Mission Board trustee who criticized Patterson’s remarks on abuse and divorce when he first heard them in 2008.
Others say he should at minimum be disinvited from his scheduled sermon at next month’s SBC annual meeting in Dallas.
“If Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation,” Stetzer said. “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.”
“It’s not just a public relations crisis,” Stetzer said. “It’s a message to women that we must not send.”
Stetzer said Patterson’s “inarticulate comments about abuse” are testing the limits of the “no criticism zone” approach that SBC leaders typically take. “Unspoken policies have their limits,” Stetzer said. “When people are actually asking where we stand on abuse, we have to look in the mirror and wonder how long we hold our tongues.”
Rachael Denhollander, recently named to Time’s 100 most influential people of 2018 for being the first of many women to accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse, said the test of how much evangelicals care about abuse “is how we respond when we have to reckon with ‘our own.’”
“Make no mistake, it is most painful when it is in my own community,” Denhollander said in a statement on Facebook May 1. “It costs the most when we speak up against those closest to us. And yet it is within my own community that I am most accountable for how I respond.”
Denhollander — who famously asked during the Nassar trial “how much is a little girl worth?” — said attention being paid to Patterson “doesn’t mention the worst evangelical institutional failure of handling sexual and domestic abuse — Sovereign Grace Ministries, which spans decades, and which leaders, both of SGM and those who supported SGM, have yet to address.”
“This damages God’s children,” she said. “It damages the gospel. And it should matter. Even, and especially, when it hurts and costs. Not because we want the church, or the gospel damaged, but because we want it seen in all its true beauty, and this mars it horribly.”
Denhollander says she left her former Southern Baptist church because it helped restore former Sovereign Grace Ministries head C.J. Mahaney to ministry after he was named in a dismissed lawsuit alleging a pattern of treating alleged sexual abuse of minors as matter of church discipline rather than a crime.
Mahaney, now pastor of Sovereign Grace Church in Louisville, Ky., is reportedly close friends with Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and wrote the foreword to Russell Moore’s 2009 book, Adopted for Life.
Over the weekend Patterson issued a statement retelling the 2000 story in different terms. Patterson originally said the woman who came to him “was being subject to some abuse” and he told her to quietly pray for her husband at their bedside, with the warning “get ready, because he may get a little more violent.”
In the April 29 version, the husband “was neither harsh nor physical with her, but she felt abused” and Patterson’s warning was that her husband “could become angry” over hearing her prayers and “seek to retaliate.”
The original story that she came to church with “both eyes black” now is with “some evidence of physical abuse” and adds that “she was very surprised that this had happened.” Neither version mentions any discussion of calling the police.
Damage control continued with a new statement May 1 by Patterson and the executive committee of his board of trustees affirming both “that law enforcement officials and civil authorities have a vital and God-ordained role in addressing abusive relationships” and “the importance of protecting the victims of abuse.”