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Unless you’re a student of late twentieth century Southern Baptist history or you’re just an old enough Southern Baptist to remember him, you probably don’t know who Paige Patterson is. (I wasn’t very familiar with him until recently, myself.)

The short version: Dr. Paige Patterson has been the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) since 2003. Prior to that he spent eleven years as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), served two terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was instrumental in the Conservative Resurgence, and pastored several churches. (You can read the longer version here.)

So why are we talking about Dr. Patterson today?

One of the ripple effects of the #MeToo movement has been #ChurchToo. Ephesians 5:11, in the context of addressing sexual immorality, says:

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

The #ChurchToo movement has rightly exposed many shameful instances of sexual abuse in the church and forced a reckoning- of criminal charges, of church discipline, and, hopefully, of genuine repentance on the part of the victimizers.

But ripples don’t rein themselves in, they keep spreading farther and farther out. And that’s what’s happening with this social (media) phenomenon. We’ve moved from sexual assault victims comforting one another, to rightfully exposing the guilty, to fishing expeditions into the pasts of high profile individuals to see if any inappropriate behavior or remarks turn up.

In some cases this is a good thing because it brings a guilty individual to justice. And in some cases, innocent people get caught up in the too-wide dragnet that’s been tossed out.

Which, at some point along that spectrum, is how Dr. Patterson’s name arrived in the spotlight recently.

At the time I’m posting this article, to the best of my knowledge, Dr. Patterson has not been publicly accused of any sexual misconduct (nor am I anticipating that he will be). Apologies to those of you who actually read every word of an article and comprehend what you’ve read, but let me say this again loudly for those who don’t: Dr. Patterson has not been accused of any sexual misconduct.

However, as #MeToo and #ChurchToo ripples continue to reach farther out, and more and more past remarks and behaviors of those in leadership come to light, some troubling comments from Dr. Patterson on spousal abuse (not sexual abuse – physical spousal abuse) have been made public to the watching world, embroiling him, his family, and SWBTS in controversy.

Please click here and listen to an excerpt (less than five minutes in length) from an interview Dr. Patterson gave in 2000 on his thoughts on spousal abuse and how he counseled an abused wife who came to him for help.

Overall, though I’m sure well-intentioned, Dr. Patterson’s remarks seem shockingly ignorant, hurtful, and, at best, ill-advised, to our 21st century mindset on abuse. But he did actually say a few things that are correct, even biblical.

I have talked to enough abused women to know that being victimized by an abuser is an agonizing experience that can leave you with overwhelming emotions any time the subject of abuse is broached. May I say – with the utmost love and compassion – I know if you’ve been abused and you listened to Dr. Patterson’s comments it may be too painful to accept that anything he said was correct. I get that. So as we move on to examine his remarks, it might help to mentally separate what was said from who said it and just examine the statement at face value, as though the originator of the statement were unknown to you.

Let’s take a look at some of the things Dr. Patterson got wrong, a few things he got right, and what we can learn as we seek to minister biblically to victims of abuse.

“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree…”(:56)
These were the first words out of Dr. Patterson’s mouth in response to the interviewer’s question, “What do you recommend for women who are undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands and the husbands say they should be submitting?”

There are two issues in this question and answer that need to be addressed.

First is the issue of abuse and biblical submission. These two terms should never even be in the same sentence unless it’s to say that abuse should never, under any circumstances whatsoever, be part of the equation when it comes to biblical submission. The two are universes apart, and one has nothing to do with the other.

This is the first, and more important, issue that Dr. Patterson should have addressed. Any “man” who thinks abuse is a justified response to a wife who isn’t submitting is indulging his own self-centered, sinful anger, and has no clue what biblical submission is. In fact, he’s not even interested in biblical submission, he wants his wife to submit to his own personal, selfish will. He’s just twisting the Bible and turning it into one more weapon of abuse. Biblical submission is a gift a woman freely gives her husband out of love for him and love for Christ, not a cowering bowing-and-scraping he beats out of her.

Counseling women in abusive situations to “do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can, and to elevate [your husband]” (as Dr. Patterson says later: 4:24), is reckless and unloving. It leaves a woman with the impression that if her husband continues to abuse her, it’s her fault. She’s not being submissive enough. She’s not praying hard enough. She’s not elevating him enough. That’s not the biblical picture of submission in marriage.

The secondary issue in this statement is two tiered. Dr. Patterson is correct in saying that different levels of abuse exist. There is a vast difference between, say, a Christian husband who, in the heat of an argument, grabs his wife by the arm, immediately realizes what he’s just done and lets go, grieved over his sin against God and his wife, apologizes, repents, asks forgiveness, and never does such a thing again, and a pagan husband who, in drug-fueled rages, regularly beats his wife bloody and broken-boned with whatever weapon is handy and has no intention of ever repenting.

Do those differences in behavior mean that it was OK for the Christian husband to grab his wife’s arm in anger? Of course not. That’s a sin that requires repentance and proactive safeguards and accountability to make sure it never happens again. What those differences in behavior do mean is that you’re going to handle those two situations very differently. It would not be biblically appropriate to handle the arm-grabbing situation with the exact same level of intensity as you would handle the man who has put his wife in the hospital multiple times.

All abuse is sinful. All abuse needs to be addressed. All cases of abuse need to be handled on a case by case basis to determine the most biblical, legally appropriate, and safest response.

“I have never, in my ministry, counseled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that’s always wrong counsel.”(1:00)
Dr. Patterson may never have run across a situation in his own ministry in which it was biblically appropriate to counsel a divorce, but the Bible would disagree with him that it is always wrong counsel.

God’s design is for marriage to be for life and for a husband and wife to be reconciled to one another even when one sins egregiously against the other. God uses the picture of marriage multiple times in the Old Testament when addressing the issue of His “bride,” Israel, whoring after idols. God’s desire is not to “divorce” Israel, but that she should repent and be reconciled to Him. Jesus re-emphasizes that marriage is for life, and the New Testament uses marriage as a picture of Christ’s relationship to His church. Whenever possible, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation of husband and wife (who is living in a safe place during this process) should be a pastor’s counsel.

But even God made allowances for those impossible circumstances. And when physically separating from an abuser is insufficient to legally protect a woman and her children from harm, there may be no alternative but a divorce.

“I say to them, ‘You must not forget the power of prayer.’.”(2:06)
This is absolutely true (although it is not our prayers that are powerful but the God who answers them perfectly). It is not beyond God’s power to save and completely transform an abusive husband into a trophy of grace. And what an amazing testimony it is when God does that.

Behold, the Lord‘s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
Isaiah 59:1

We need to urge women in abusive situations to pray fervently for their husbands and for God’s help. But we should also urge them to remember that God can hear them wherever they pray and that they need to get to safety first. Indeed, they will probably be better able to focus and pray undistracted in a safe environment than in an abusive one.

“At some point, He will intervene.”(2:57)
God does hear and answer the abused Christian woman’s prayers, but this remark coupled with the subsequent anecdote leave the impression that God will always save the husband and restore the marriage. Though it’s a wonderful thing when that happens, that’s not always the case.

God may intervene by having her husband arrested and spending many years in jail. He may cause her husband’s life to end. He may move the wife and children across the country to safety. We don’t know how God will intervene in the situation, only that he will intervene, and that He will intervene for His glory and for the good of the Believer. The wife needs to take advantage of the safety nets God has placed in her life and prayerfully trust Him to do what He knows to be right and best.

“…she was being subject to some abuse…’get down by the bed, and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene…get ready, because he may get a little MORE violent’…”
My personal opinion is that this qualifies as pastoral malpractice. It was not the wife’s responsibility to handle this problem. It was her pastor’s responsibility to step in, protect her, and confront the husband. Titus 1:9 says that pastors are to “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” This husband was contradicting sound doctrine regarding the treatment of his wife, and was sorely in need of a rebuke and instruction in sound doctrine – starting with the gospel – from Dr. Patterson. Yet Dr. Patterson not only chose to put the burden of handling the situation back on the woman’s shoulders, but gave her terrible advice.

This woman was already being abused and Dr. Patterson knew it. Even so, he sent her back into an abusive environment with instructions he knew could cause the husband to become – in his own words, mind you – “more violent.”

I realize Dr. Patterson is 75 years old and times were different during his formative years. That might help us to better understand the origin of his perspective, but it in no way excuses this horrific pastoral counsel.

Pastors, sisters – we should never counsel a woman to immediately return to a husband who has a history of abusing her and has not repented or made any attempt to change his ways. And we should certainly never instruct her to do something we know could cause more abuse. There is absolutely no biblical foundation or justification for counseling an abused woman this way, and if anybody should know that it should be an experienced pastor with a seminary Ph.D. like Dr. Patterson.

It is unfathomable to me that, not only would a pastor have counseled this woman this way in the first place, but that he cites the way he handled this incident as an example to pastors and anyone else listening of a proper way to handle an abusive situation.

“…and she was angry at me, and at God…and she said, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I am.’.”(3:34)
An abused, vulnerable woman comes to her pastor for help. She wants to do what’s godly and she wants her husband to stop using her as a punching bag. Her pastor sends her back to the abuser, the duty of handling the situation resting on her shoulders, and instructs her to do something he knows will result in more abuse. When she returns to the pastor, having been further abused, he says he’s happy.

Does she have reason to be angry with her pastor? You’d better believe it. Good reason.

Dr. Patterson is also the one who has caused her to be angry with God. The fault for that anger, while her responsibility to deal with in a godly way, lies squarely at his feet. He is her pastor. He is supposed to protect her and give her biblical counsel. She trusted that what he told her to do was the godly thing to do, so she did it. He was telling her what God wanted her to do, so, in a sense, he was the voice of God to her. It is only natural that she would be angry with God when her pastor failed her.

And to reply, “Yes ma’am, I am,” to her “I hope you’re happy!” comment? Unconscionable. I’m at a loss for words as to how any pastor could think that was an appropriate, godly, compassionate rejoinder to an abused woman’s pain and hopelessness when he should have been brokenhearted over failing her, and begging her forgiveness.

 

God has been abundantly gracious in Scripture to show us people who serve as good examples to us as well as people who serve as poor examples to us. The same is true today. There are pastors and other brothers and sisters in Christ who show us good examples of how to live out the Christian faith and there are times when those pastors and brothers and sisters fail and serve as an example of what not to do.

Paige Patterson is a brother in Christ who has failed, just like we all do. It is the duty of those Christians who are closest to him to rebuke him and encourage him to repent. God can and will cause this situation to work for Dr. Patterson’s good, and for ours as well, if we take the opportunity to learn from it. Let us put this sorrowful situation to work for the good of the Kingdom and for victims who need our help by using it to help us see how to biblically handle instances of spousal abuse in the church.


Additional Resources

Press release from Paige Patterson 

SWBTS Statement on Abuse by Paige Patterson and Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees

CBMW Statement on Abuse at The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

What about divorce and abuse? by Denny Burk, President of CBMW

Paige Patterson and Doing the Right Thing for the SBC, Again by Ed Stetzer

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