National News

Southern Baptist Leader Removed as Seminary President for Remarks on Women

Posted May 23, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT

A prominent Southern Baptist leader has been removed as president of his seminary after coming under fire for controversial comments to and about women, including advice that women who are abused by their husbands should focus on praying for them, rather than on divorce, and should “be submissive in every way that you can.”

The board of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Fort Worth, Texas, announced its decision Tuesday to replace the leader, Paige Patterson, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In recent weeks, video and audio recordings of comments Patterson is said to have made between 2000 and 2014, released on a blog and on social media, have prompted a backlash. Several influential women, including Beth Moore, founder of Living Proof Ministries in Houston, spoke out publicly against Patterson’s demonization of divorce. And earlier this month, more than 3,200 Southern Baptist women signed an open letter demanding his resignation.

Then, on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported new allegations that he had advised a woman who said she had been raped not to file a police report and encouraged her to forgive her attacker. The woman said she was raped as a student at a different Baptist seminary in 2013 where Patterson was then president.

The board did not make reference to the recent wave of complaints against Patterson in its statement on its decision. Having served as the seminary’s president since 2003, he was given the status of president emeritus, with compensation. He will be able to live on campus, serving as a “theologian-in-residence” in a new Baptist Heritage Center, scheduled to be completed next summer, the board said.

“After much prayer and a more than 13-hour discussion regarding challenges facing the institution, including those of enrollment, financial, leadership and institutional identity,” the statement said, “the Board determined to move in the direction of new leadership.”

Several women who had called for Patterson’s removal said Wednesday that the decision fell far short of the repercussions he should have faced.

“They got exposed so they had to do something, but he still gets a nice house, he still gets a pension, and they didn’t say what he said was wrong,” said Mary DeMuth, a Christian self-help author, who attends Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas. “It’s just the old guard of the Southern Baptist Convention that appears to prefer their reputation over the truth.”

Still, critics of Patterson credited the #MeToo movement for creating a climate in which Southern Baptist leaders felt compelled to act. The recordings now circulating have surfaced before, they said, but failed to incite the outrage that has now led to Patterson’s removal.

“I’ve known about them for years,” said Rachael Denhollander, of Louisville, Kentucky, a Baptist who was the first woman to speak out publicly against Dr. Lawrence Nassar, the former Michigan State University physician convicted of molesting members of the Olympics gymnastics team. “But it took this new climate and this kind of public pressure to make something happen, which is in itself disturbing.”

Patterson is credited with orchestrating a takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, from its centrist leadership in the 1980s, and pushing it to the right. Key elements of his platform were banning ordination for women and re-establishing traditional gender roles, including the teaching that wives should submit to their husbands.

In an audio recording that was circulated in recent weeks, Patterson recounts a story about a female congregant who had sought his counsel about domestic abuse. Having advised her to go home and pray, he saw her return the next Sunday with two black eyes. When she asked if he was happy, he said yes, because the abuse had inspired her husband to feel guilty enough to appear at the back of the church, attending for the first time.

In late April, Patterson said in a statement that he regretted that the way he expressed his conviction that abused women should avoid divorce “has brought hurt,” but declined to apologize for the stance.

He did apologize for an anecdote he told in a 2014 sermon, cited in the open letter that called for his removal. Patterson recalls a moment when “a very attractive coed walked by. She wasn’t more than about 16 but let me just say, ‘She was nice.'” When a young man nearby is chastised by an older woman for exclaiming, “Man, is she built!” Patterson tells the woman to leave him alone, saying, “he’s just being biblical.”

“I wish to apologize to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity,” Patterson said in that statement.

About 15 million people are part of the Southern Baptist Convention; proceeds from its 46,000 churches help finance six seminaries, including the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Scholars of conservative Christianity cautioned against reading Patterson’s abrupt retirement as a signal of a broader progressive shift.

But the move, said Molly Worthen, a historian of religion at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sends a message to young evangelicals that even one of the “titans of Southern Baptist patriarchy” is not invulnerable to public pressure on gender issues.

Patterson had been scheduled to deliver a high-profile sermon at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting next month in Dallas. It was not immediately clear whether he would still do so.

Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University and an organizer of the open letter, posted a mixed response on Twitter on Wednesday.

“There is no triumph here,” she wrote. “This hard but necessary decision is a step toward the corporate repentance and healing needed in the SBC. It’s a new chapter. Let’s make it a good one, filled with faith, hope, and love.”