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The Corrupt Architects

A devastating possible truth at the core of the Southern Baptist crisis
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The Washington Post has a stunning detail about Paige Patterson’s firing last night by the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary board.  Some background: Patterson was apparently cut loose because of his handling of a 2003 sexual assault at Southeastern Baptist Theological seminary, which he headed at the time. A woman, who has identified herself publicly as Megan Lively, says she was raped by a fellow seminary student, reported it to Patterson and the institution’s leadership, and was told to forgive and forget. Patterson has long taught as a matter of pastoral theology that women in abusive relationships should generally accept it in a sacrificial spirit.

Last night, the board at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, which until last week Patterson ran, reversed its earlier decision to ease Patterson out with a very generous golden parachute, and instead fired him flat-out after what a seminary press release said was new information about how Patterson handled a situation at an earlier place of employment — presumable the Lively case at Southeastern. The Post reported last night:

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern seminary, said he couldn’t confirm if the Southwestern leaders were referring to Lively’s alleged 2003 rape at his school. Akin said he believes files that would help them investigate the incident were taken from Southeastern when Patterson left that same year to become president at Southwestern in Texas.

“Whether by mistake or intentionally, I don’t know. We think there are files that probably belong to Southeastern so we’ve asked folks at Southwestern to look into that. They’re in the process of doing that,” he said.

That’s a shocking detail. If Patterson or a confederate took or destroyed those files – files that belonged to the seminary, not to Patterson – that would imply, though not quite prove, an intentional cover-up.

Still, last night’s defenestration in Fort Worth is a massively important event for the Southern Baptist Convention: the largest US Protestant denomination’s most important figure over the past few decades, has been thrown out of power in disgrace. If the SBC has a patriarch, it’s Paige Patterson. He and Paul Pressler, a retired Texas judge and Southern Baptist layman, were the chief architects of what has been called the Conservative Resurgence within the SBC – or, if you were one of the liberals or moderates purged, the Fundamentalist Takeover.

The Wikipedia page for the Conservative Resurgence tells the story. In short, a civil war broke out within America’s largest Protestant denomination between theological conservatives and liberals. Conservatives won. Liberals founded a new Baptist confederation, one that today supports women pastors, gay marriage, and the usual liberal Protestant social justice agenda. Moderate Baptists formed their own confederation, one that’s a little more conservative than the liberals’ (e.g., they don’t officially support gay marriage, but congregations retain the freedom to perform same-sex weddings).

Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler were the Peter and Paul of the Conservative Resurgence. Patterson was the more important, because he was a churchman by vocation. And now he’s done. The Post writes:

Patterson supporters seemed willing to live with [last week’s] decision but it infuriated many, especially conservative Christian women, who said Patterson had not been explicitly held accountable and had been allowed to retire with his stature intact. Ironically Patterson, leader of a historic conservative purifying in the 1980s and 1990s of Southern Baptism that called for male-only pastors and women to “submit graciously” to their husbands, was being held under the public light by conservative women, who by the thousand signed a May 6 petition calling for him to lose his job.

On Wednesday, some said they finally felt heard.

“It’s a sigh of relief. Maybe we feel somewhat dignified. They listened to us,” said Lauren Chandler, wife of Dallas megachurch pastor Matt Chandler and one of the first to sign the petition. Last week’s decision, she said, was a case of  “the punishment didn’t fit the crime…There was a lot of damage to women in particular… I’m saddened for people who have been bullied or silenced or made to feel less. I’m saddened for the loss of [the Pattersons] a couple who had led the way in the SBC for a while.”

Last week’s decision appeared aimed at offering a compromise regarding Patterson, who has been a huge figure in conservative evangelicalism for decades. He is known for holding the conservative line since the late 1980s in the massive Southern Baptist Convention as American society became more liberal about everything from biblical inerrancy to human sexuality.

People outside the SBC are paying attention. One prominent conservative Catholic intellectual wrote me this morning to say:

What the SWBTS board did was courageous and important. Sadly, the Catholic Church could not summon the same courage when it came to Law and his cohorts. The Baptists, with none of the sacraments except baptism, exhibit more wisdom than the Church holding the deposit of faith. I am proud of my Baptist brothers and sisters.

But Robert A.J. Gagnon, a prominent conservative theologian (and Presbyterian), is furious, posting to Facebook:

Even Peter who denied Christ three times was allowed to repent and change without the Holy Spirit retracting his leadership of the mission to the Jews. The same applied when he later stopped eating with despised Gentile believers at Antioch after “people from James came” and shamed him into forgetting core principles in the gospel. Apparently the idea of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration was still strong at the church’s inception. But then Peter (“the Rock”) didn’t have the Washington Post creating a public relations nightmare for the church. That’s the same WashPost that propped up Bill Clinton during the many sexual scandals of his presidency when Clinton’s machine tore down his female accusers. Did the Post call for Clinton’s impeachment?

Before the whole Board of Southwestern Baptist Seminary could meet to assess new information about Paige Patterson regarding an event that happened prior to his becoming president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary, the Executive Committee of the Board yesterday retracted all the benefits previously granted to Paige Patterson when he was ousted on May 23. No compensation, no President Emeritus status, no residence. Nothing but ignominy and shame.

In view of the fact that Paige had already been removed from the presidency and that multiple assurances had already been given that SWBTS would treat with the utmost seriousness all allegations of abuse and that no one was in imminent danger from the 75-year-old Patterson or his 74-year-old wife and that the Pattersons had done many a good thing for SWBTS and the SBC over many years and that the event in question occurred a decade-and-a-half ago, what was the emergency (other than public relations) that required the Executive Committee to preempt the decision of the whole Board?

How do we even know that this punishment is enough? Are the new administrators now going to remove all paintings and pictures of President Patterson and expunge any record of his memory from the institution? Shall all community members now be sternly warned never to mention the name of Paige Patterson again in a positive context (much less question the Executive Committee’s action)? Will they ban the Pattersons from eating in the cafeteria, using the library, or even setting foot on campus? In ancient days previous rulers who fell into disfavor had their images marred and names removed from monuments and temples, though that was usually after they had been dead for a number of years. Exile in a faraway land was sometimes the fate of the living, if not worse.

Let us do even worse to the man for in doing so we will inoculate ourselves from the taint of his sin and the wrath of the secular world and send an even greater message, thereby demonstrating our collective righteousness to all. Then we will be able to say on the Day of Judgment to our Lord and Savior: “At least I chastised and shunned the Pattersons for what they did.”

“During the May 30, 2018, Executive Committee meeting of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) Board of Trustees, new information confirmed this morning was presented regarding the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during Dr. Paige Patterson’s presidency at another institution and resulting issues connected with statements to the Board of Trustees that are inconsistent with SWBTS’s biblically informed core values.

“Deeming the information demanded immediate action and could not be deferred to a regular meeting of the Board, based on the details presented, the Executive Committee unanimously resolved to terminate Dr. Paige Patterson, effective immediately, removing all the benefits, rights and privileges provided by the May 22-23 board meeting, including the title of President Emeritus, the invitation to reside at the Baptist Heritage Center as theologian-in-residence and ongoing compensation.”

No word yet on whether the ERLC and TGC will be recanting its association with the memory of Martin Luther King for his lurid acts of immorality over a two-decade period, including an episode on the final night of his life in which he struck one of his mistresses because she chewed him out fiercely for “cheating” on her with additional mistresses. Or how about this episode recorded by David Garrow in his Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of MLK? “[Bill] Rutherford’s first shock [as executive director of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, MLK’s organization) stemmed from reports of an Atlanta group party that had featured both a hired prostitute as well as the unsuccessful ravishing of a seventeen-year-old SCLC secretary. Rutherford raised the subject at an executive staff session, ‘and the meeting cracked up in laughter…. The only one who wasn’t laughing was Bernard Lafayette,’ the other newcomer. King was laughing too, a further reflection of SCLC’s ‘very relaxed attitude toward sex’ and the ‘genuine ribald humor’ that predominated.”

Not to fear though: No heat from the Washington Post will befall conservative Christians for continuing to have conferences celebrating the memory of a man whose immorality would dwarf any accusations against Paige Patterson. Let us mention Paige Patterson’s name no more, except in whispered tones or loud condemnations. So shall our virtue be made known to the world.

Perhaps when he has passed away in grief, someone will dare to speak positively of Paige Patterson. Perhaps.

That extraordinary broadside offers a glimpse into what many Patterson supporters are likely to be saying in the days to come. Notice the strange invocation of Martin Luther King’s sexual corruption. This is a slap at the efforts that the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), headed by Russell Moore, and The Gospel Coalition (Reformed Evangelicals, including Calvinists within the SBC, whom Patterson’s faction opposed) to focus on racial reconciliation. Gagnon is accusing Patterson’s opponents within the SBC of swallowing the camel of Martin Luther King’s sexual sins while straining at the gnat of Paige Patterson’s.

This racially charged defense of Patterson touches a third rail within a denomination that came into being in the 19th century, defending slavery, and whose churches were often de facto supporters of segregation. Keeping in mind that both sides in this Baptist civil war are theologically conservative, it’s hard to imagine how any public defense of Patterson that depends on trashing Martin Luther King and current Southern Baptist efforts to atone for the denomination’s racist past will do those who make it much good in the court of public opinion.

What’s interesting about the Gagnon passage is the total absence of women. Southern Baptist women were the ones driving the movement to get rid of Patterson. These aren’t liberal women. Even Megan Lively, the woman who says she was raped, and told by Patterson to be quiet about it, is standing with the Southern Baptist Convention:


What do Patterson defenders have to say to the women? To their women — their wives, daughters, friends? What if Megan Lively had been their daughter? I am not a feminist, but it’s hard to see what Patterson did, and what he taught for all these years, as anything but misogyny.

And this gets to the dark heart of what modern Southern Baptists are facing regarding their own origin story, in the Conservative Resurgence.

You may have seen that Paul Pressler has been named in a civil lawsuit as a longtime sexual abuser of a man, who alleges Pressler started molesting him as a teenager, and that Pressler used to pick up boys through youth group activities. Two more accusers have recently gone public, attaching their names to specific accusations.  Pressler has denied the allegations. The lawsuit alleges that Paige Patterson and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary knew about the situation and actively covered it up.

If the Pressler allegations are true, then the Southern Baptist Convention has to reckon with the fact that the two chief architects of the Conservative Resurgence are a misogynist and a closeted predatory gay man.

This does not, of course, discredit the ideas behind the Conservative Resurgence, nor does it impugn the integrity of the countless theologically conservative Southern Baptist men and women who worked to bring it about and to defend it. But it does raise painful questions — questions that will have to be confronted. All the theological and moral truths Southern Baptist conservatism stands for are not negated by the monumental personal failures of the most important conservative leaders, but the ability of those teachings to be received authoritatively by the hearts and the minds of Southern Baptist Christians may well be compromised.

I’m thinking right now about the Southern Baptist friend of mine, a conservative woman, who is ready to walk away from the church because she’s disgusted by the leadership’s inability to confront brokenness, in this particular scandal and in the lives of its congregations, including hers.

And believe me, I know how this works from agonizing personal experience.

It will never be over until and unless there is a full reckoning with all aspects of this apocalypse. I hope for their sake that the Southern Baptists do a better job at this awful task than the Catholics did. So much is riding on it. So much.

UPDATE: Reader Lancelot Lamar, a Southern Baptist clergyman and graduate of Southwestern seminary, says this in last night’s Patterson thread:

This is an amazing sea change in Southern Baptist life, and has happened much more quickly than I or most anyone could have imagined last month. Everyone I have talked to about it is stunned at Patterson’s fall and the speed of it.

We should not discount the influence an even greater and more sickening scandal that is now hovering in the background but is likely to break open soon.

The whole Paul Pressler lawsuit, his alleged molestation of young teen boys, and the claim that Patterson knew about it and helped cover it up, is gaining credibility. This is especially true now that other men have come forward to say that Pressler also molested them when they were young. And these are not anonymous accusations; the men have made their identities public.

Again, for Baptists, the Bible is a big deal–the biggest deal–and the command to “establish a matter by two or three witnesses” 2 Cor. 13:1 is huge. This makes Patterson closer to the Catholic bishops and their cover-ups and will make people so angry. The fact that these were homosexual acts against teen boys perhaps should not, but in fact does in SouthernBapistWorld, make it much worse crime and sin than the covering up of the rape of a woman.

The possibility that Pressler was a monstrous hypocrite–a truly evil man–and not the hero of the conservative resurgence, and that Patterson helped to conceal his evil and enable him in it, will sicken all faithful Baptists to the core.

Not all of this is proved yet, but we have seen it before with the bishops and their ephebophile/pedophile priests. Baptists heretofore could not have imagined that their most influential and revered leaders could be so corrupt. Baptists are really “saved” after all, not like those “ritualistic” Catholics with their unbiblical celibate priests and idolatry of Mary. (Anti-Catholic bigotry is still a going thing among many Baptists. The imperative to evangelize the Catholic and Orthodox–who are widely assumed by Baptists to be “lost”–is strongly supported by none other than Paige Patterson, and many other Baptist poobahs.)

This is the kind of thing Mohler was thinking about in his strong statement last week, trying desperately to get ahead of this huge wave that I’m afraid has not crested yet, and will sweep many more away in the coming months. Amazing.