A few years ago I stumbled across a story about a Southern Baptist pastor who encouraged a woman to stay with her abusive husband and pray for him. When she returned to church with two black eyes, she said, “I hope you’re happy,” and the pastor responded, “Yes, I am very happy,” because her husband had shown up to church and “repented.”
Unfortunately, this story about Paige Patterson was not unlike stories I had heard countless battered women tell about their pastors. I think about a friend of mine whose husband threatened her life with a gun more than once. Her church community told her that he could become a better husband if she would learn to be a more submissive wife.
A few years ago Patterson’s story had garnered very little attention. Today that same story, told again, helped to oust the president of a prominent Southern Baptist seminary. If one uses the term “oust” quite loosely, that is. Patterson has been provided a pretty comfortable exit, and by “exit,” I mean he will live on campus as “president emeritus” and receive compensation.
The fact that pastors continue to be woefully under-informed about responding to abuse is ethically irresponsible. The fact that the president of a seminary that trains pastors didn’t seem to have a clue about how abuse works or what victims need in terms of support is terrifying. The fact that Patterson’s ignorance in this regard has been on display for years and the church is only just now taking note is … well, sad, but unsurprising.
To be clear, women have been taking note for a very long time. One of the benefits of the #metoo movement is that even in the church the conversation is no longer limited to battered and harassed women talking to other battered and harassed women. Somehow the dam has broken and women’s voices are voyaging further and more powerfully into the world, and as a result some privileged men and women who have not been beaten or assaulted are finally listening more closely to the experience of the abused than to the excuses of the abuser.
What is not as clear is whether Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is really listening. Deeming Patterson as president emeritus hardly seems to have addressed the issue. As one of my male congregants and Baylor University English professor, TJ Geiger, wisely stated to me, “I’m glad Southern Baptists have taken this step toward rejecting what Job would call ‘proverbs of ashes’ — theological platitudes that justify suffering. I hope, looking forward, they conduct something like the fourth step from recovery programs and perform ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory.’ It’s not one guy.” That Patterson could get away with such a comment for so many years points to a much deeper and wider problem that a mere shuffling of positions will hardly begin to solve.
The problem is of course far bigger theologically and systemically than I can tackle in a single article, but I want to address seminary education. Considering how common it is for victims to first disclose their abuse to their pastors, training clergy to recognize and respond to abuse should be a mandated part of the curriculum in any seminary. It is unconscionable that we still have pastors who would send a woman back into danger because a husband appears to have repented. Anyone even vaguely informed about the cycles of abuse knows that apologies are part of the cycle. A show of remorse means nothing except that the abuser has moved on to the next stage of the cycle.
The only indication that an abuser has changed is change — and the change has to be thorough, consistent, and persistent. A tearful apology on the part of an abuser is part of the ploy to remain in control of the victim and prevent her (or his) escape, and it is extremely dangerous for anyone in a position of influence to accept an abuser’s apology (or participation in church) at face value.
For those of you, like me, who had the misfortune of completing a seminary degree without receiving a lot of information about responding to abuse, allow me a few words of instruction. First, your job when talking to a victim is first to believe her and second to empower her. If you try to tell her what to do (even if you are telling her to leave), you are just one more person in her life standing over her. To question her reality is to dis-empower her, which is exactly what her abuser does on a daily basis. Your job is to listen, believe, affirm and support. Furthermore, if you suspect marital abuse, do not recommend marriage counseling. This is a mistake even well-informed clergy make. Research has shown that marriage therapy can increase the chance of violence, and if the abuser is manipulative enough, he (or she) can manipulate the therapist into taking his side. If you suspect marital abuse, recommend individual counseling instead. Finally, do not assume you are the best person to help. As a minister, educate yourself about your community’s resources and refer, refer, refer.
Of course, training about abuse hardly gets to the root of the issue if one’s theology still demeans, limits and subjugates women. Until the church and its seminaries are unequivocal about the equality of men and women, the church is contributing to an atmosphere that makes abuse possible. While it is true that women can be abusers and men can be victims, statistically speaking, women are far more at risk. That a Southern Baptist pastor made such disparaging remarks about women in not surprising given the SBC’s theological treatment of women. What is surprising is how many Southern Baptists pushed back. Logic would suggest that if women don’t have to accept husbands who beat them, they do not have to accept a theology that beats them down, either.
There is one thing about Patterson’s “demotion” that I find thoroughly heartening. Southern Baptist women spoke up and something changed. Not enough changed, but something did, and that is a start. If nothing else, women in the SBC are finding their voices. Once you start using your voice, I find the voice has a hard time quieting down. I can’t wait to see what the women say next.