After a week of intense criticism, leaders of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of trustees reversed a vote by the full board to remove Paige Patterson as president but allow him to live on campus with pay and the honorary title president emeritus.
The trustee executive committee voted May 30 to remove all benefits provided to Patterson at a specially called board meeting May 22-23, including his new title, the invitation to reside as the first theologian-in-residence in a newly established Baptist Heritage Center, and “ongoing compensation.”
A statement on the seminary website attributed the turnabout to new information confirmed earlier in the day regarding the handling of the alleged sexual abuse of a student before Patterson became president of the seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
The statement did not say what the earlier case was about or how the new information came to light, but last week the Washington Post broke a story about a woman claiming leaders of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., mishandled her report of a rape during Patterson’s term as president there in 2003.
Patterson, 75, came under criticism a month ago when audio from an old sermon surfaced of him saying he once sent a woman complaining about an abusive spouse to return to the home and pray for her husband. When she came back with two black eyes, he told her he was “happy” not because of her bruises but because her husband felt guilty after beating her and as a result accepted Christ.
Since that revelation a number of women have come forward with allegations of misogyny by Patterson both while he was president at Southeastern Seminary from 1992 until 2003 and since he replaced ousted president Ken Hemphill 15 years ago at Southwestern.
Last week’s vote by a majority of trustees appeared to be a compromise between Southern Baptists who wanted Patterson to be fired and those who honor him for his role in the “conservative resurgence,” a movement he started with Houston layman Paul Pressler to halt a perceived liberal drift in the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in the 1970s. The solution satisfied neither side.
Wednesday’s vote by the trustee executive committee raises new questions, including whether Patterson will voluntarily withdraw from his invitation to preach the convention sermon at the upcoming annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas or risk action from the floor to have him removed.
Other questions include what will happen to stained-glass windows depicting Patterson and Pressler, co-defendants in a pending lawsuit alleging sexual abuse and cover up, installed in a pantheon of heroes of the conservative resurgence at the 3,500-seat J.W. MacGorman Chapel, which opened at Southwestern in 2011.
The controversy also renews attention to the SBC’s stance on women. One of the first acts by the Patterson-Pressler coalition was to stem an increasing openness to women serving as local church pastors in the convention’s six seminaries during the 1980s.
A 1998 amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message, the convention’s official confession of faith, assigned separate and complementary roles to men and women in marriage. The husband has the “God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family,” the article says, while the wife should “submit herself graciously” to his “servant leadership.”
That is the same year Patterson was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. During his customary second one-year term of office, he appointed a committee to do a thorough revision of the Baptist Faith and Message version adopted in 1963.
Changes to the document approved in 2000 removed assertions that confessions of faith “are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience” and “the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures.”
The new version also for the first time made clear that, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Thousands of women signed an open letter earlier this month claiming to “affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, including its statements on the roles of men and women in the family and in the church” while charging Patterson “with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood and sexuality.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said in an essay May 23 that “complementarianism” is not the problem.
“The same Bible that reveals the complementarian pattern of male leadership in the home and the church also reveals God’s steadfast and unyielding concern for the abused, the threatened, the suffering, and the fearful,” Mohler wrote. “There is no excuse whatsoever for abuse of any form, verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual or sexual.”
Wade Burleson, a Southern Baptist blogger often critical of Patterson, disagrees. He said he actively supported the conservative resurgence until the mid-1990s, when male Southern Baptist leaders “began espousing the unbiblical teaching that males have an inherent ‘spiritual authority’ over women” and that pastors “have the greatest spiritual authority of all.”
A lawsuit pending in the 127th Judicial District Court in Harris County, Texas, claims male privilege lies at the root of the conservative resurgence. “It is, among other things, about power, a key ingredient in the abuse of children and women, the property of males of the species,” argues Houston attorney Daniel Shea, who in 2008 won settlement in an abuse lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston and Houston.
The lawsuit presents both Patterson and Pressler as “individuals whose lives revolve around power, money and sex.” Citing Pressler’s own words from his 2002 memoir, A Hill on Which to Die, Shea argues that the SBC by the late 1980s “had become the creature of Pressler and Patterson through its president, whose election ins controlled by Pressler and Patterson.”
The Southern Baptist Convention is one of nine defendants named in the lawsuit seeking $1 million in damages for a Houston man who claims Pressler sexually abused him for years beginning when he was a teenager.
It accuses Patterson and other parties of engaging in “joint enterprise” to allow Pressler access to victims and conceal criminal acts, all the while upholding the retired judge as “a Godlike, sexually safe, moral and great person” who “as a magistrate, worked God’s wisdom and thus would not be sexually dangerous to minors.”
The next court hearing, scheduled July 10, is about a motion filed by Southern Baptist Convention lawyers claiming the lawsuit is barred by statute of limitations. Shea claims the statute of limitations should not apply, because according to a psychiatrist his client has “unsound mind and repressed memory” resulting from childhood sexual abuse.
Patterson, who a week ago said he was “hurt” by his demotion but “did not compromise,” has not commented on his firing. He is reportedly preaching in Germany and out of the country until June 3.