A few days ago, Dave Miller shared his thoughts on the “Patterson brouhaha” in this post: A Few Words about the Patterson Saga. In my opinion, it was balanced, honest, and gracious.
As I reflected on Dave’s post, I started to wonder: How exactly did we get in this mess? Make no mistake, it is a mess, and all Southern Baptists are in it – together.
People are debating whether Dr. Paige Patterson should preach the convention sermon or whether he should remain president of Southwestern Seminary. Those questions are important. I’m not taking away from those discussions, but that’s not my point today. I believe there are bigger and more important questions at stake.
At the heart of the “Patterson Saga” are three moral issues. Regardless of the action that the SWBTS board of trustees decide to take, Southern Baptist Convention has to address these moral issues.
First, will Southern Baptists condone advice to abused women that they have an obligation to remain in a physically threatening place? Or, will we speak with clarity that they have the right to be safe? By definition, there is no non-injurious abuse.
Second, will the SBC condone the objectification of women? Do we want youth pastors, senior pastors, denominational leaders, seminary professors, and entity heads referring to 16-year-old girls as “Uh. She was all there?”
Third, will the SBC and its leaders listen and respond to the concerns of Southern Baptist women when they tell us about pressures and disrespect they experience?
The moment in which we find ourselves is profoundly moral. The answer to the questions raised above should be obvious. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we are answering clearly enough.
Some see this situation differently. Friends, colleagues, family members, and former students of Dr. Patterson have spoken out in defense of the man they know and trust. They say, paraphrasing: “Dr. Patterson is being attacked by people who are seeking to bring him down.” “He has never abused anyone.” And, “He has said that, on occasion, he has advised women experiencing abuse to separate from their husbands.”
No one is questioning the truthfulness of those statements. Throughout his ministry, Dr. Patterson has been the subject of malicious attacks. No one has accused Dr. Patterson of abuse. In fact, those who have known him over the years know if he became aware of sister in Christ being abused by her husband, he would do everything in his power to protect her. Further, we know that the husband, who is set on harming his wife, would have an adversary in Dr. Patterson like he has never faced in his life. Further still, the wife would have a gracious, compassionate, and staunch advocate in Dr. Patterson.
In the midst of tensions surrounding this conversation, we have to think clearly about what is at the heart of this issue now and what we need to consider as Southern Baptists. This is about giving pastorally unwise, potentially harmful counsel and about using humor that objectifies women. Both of these violate the second commandment. This is not about one instance 18 years ago, but rather a pattern in public speaking that raises concern – and a continued refusal to admit there is anything wrong with these.
In reality, we should all defend Dr. Patterson from ungodly, vindictive attacks that seek to ruin every good thing that he has done. But we should also hold him accountable for failing to live up to the high standard of a Christian leader when he chooses to be entertaining rather than godly with his words.
As sides in this SBC mess have been drawn, there’s danger in both positions. The risk is that both sides could lose sight of the real issue.
Dr. Patterson’s supporters can lose sight – with blind support – and condone behavior that is not defensible. While there are moral concerns about the ungodly motives of some people toward Dr. Patterson, those concerns can’t be used to justify ignoring another, separate moral issue.
For those who think it is time for Dr. Patterson to retire, they can lose sight also. Dr. Patterson’s retirement has been discussed among many in the SBC for a few years now. Part of the reason has to do with SWBTS’s financial and enrollment challenges. Another reason, honestly, is a growing “Patterson fatigue.” He has been a polarizing figure. He keeps the alarms blaring about the threats of Calvinism. He has played in the sandboxes of other entity heads for years, seeking to impose his will upon the direction of entities that he does not lead. He has sent countless correspondence sharing freely his criticism of people and institutions over the years. He has played by a different set of rules, and that has engendered a weariness. For many people, they see the time of his retirement is closer than ever, and they are already measuring for new drapes in the president’s office at SWBTS. Salivating over someone’s demise is not right, and we all should be prepared to call that what it is – sin.
Both sides in this mess can easily slide into politics and end up ignoring the real issue. We should not do that. We have a moral issue on our hands. If we ignore a real moral issue and merely play politics on the two sides, we’re falling far short of our calling to reflect God’s holiness to the world.
The moral issue at stake is not whether we affirm the sanctity of marriage. To the degree that people have tried to make that the issue, they are interjecting a red herring to distract from the real problem. No one is arguing that we should not honor marriage and pastors should start advising divorce.
The moral issue revolves around Dr. Patterson’s words, what he has said about and to women and what he is saying now about those previous statements when he tells a reporter he can’t “apologize for what I didn’t do wrong.”
There was a day that the stories he told and the advice he gave simply got a pass. In truth, there has been more Southern culture in our expressions than we might want to admit, but we have to be willing to acknowledge that we must change.
SBC preachers for decades told stories in pulpit for many years that objectified women. In fact, the “she is built” analogy was also in a sermon that Dr. W. A. Criswell preached on Genesis 2:21-25 at FBC Dallas in 1981:
And I think one of the finest expressions – and they don’t know it – is when a beautiful damsel goes by, a gorgeous female, and you say, “Man, is that woman built!” Well, that’s godly. That’s in the Book. That’s something God did. He built her. He built a woman. And He brought her unto the man [Genesis 2:22].
This isn’t something new. We’ve let these types of so-called humorous and harmless inappropriate comments slide for a long time. We can still appreciate contributions of leaders and preachers and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. But we also can’t hide behind the excuse of “well, it was different back then.” Whether making a point or using offhanded humor, our words always matter. And if we had a habit of speaking about human beings made in the image of God in an objective way, or a habit of laughing it off, we should be willing to admit that it wasn’t right.
The reality is SBC needs to say on these points: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put the the ways of childhood behind me.” (1 Cor. 13:11). Now, it is time that we become adults and give up the ways of children.
We are at an important time in SBC history. This moment in the life of the convention has revealed to us that our society has, in some ways, stepped out ahead of us in taking the necessary steps to honor the dignity of women. No doubt, there’s irony in this situation. The world often fails to recognize value and dignity the way God’s image in us demands. But here, on this issue, in many cases they’ve helped show the church a better way.
Our society has said, “enough is enough” when it comes to objectifying talk and failing to radically protect women from the “hands of sinful men.” The irony is that they do not have the doctrinal foundations for this admonition, but in his common grace, God has shown light in our world about how his female image-bearers have been unjustly treated and talked about in derogatory ways.
Now, we have to say, “enough is enough.” Let us all agree this is not about Dr. Patterson. This moment is about the SBC. We have to decide if we are going to be different. Dr. Patterson’s comments coming to light at this time provides us an opportunity to make that decision.
I close with an appeal to Dr. Patterson. At this point and time, we need leaders to help us say “enough is enough.” You can be one of those leaders. Forget your enemies who are trying to destroy you. Do what great leaders do. Admit where you were wrong, explain to us why, and call us all to be and do better for the sake of one another, our churches, and the glory of Jesus.