Abuse, Southern Baptist/SBC

A Pastoral Response to the SATF Report

Listen in as two of my pastors discuss the SBC Guidepost Solutions / Sexual Abuse Task Force report and recommendations.

If you’re serving as a messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention in Anaheim next week, it’s a conversation you can’t afford to miss.


4 Ways Christian Advocates for Victims of Abuse Need to Get Biblically Back on Track

Abuse. There’s no other word in evangelicalism these days that evokes as much passion – and compassion. And rightly so. Abuse – sexual or physical – is one of the most egregious sins a person can commit. It ravages the victim’s body and soul and leaves scars that never completely vanish. It is evil, and abominable, and horrifying, and something I wish no one on the planet ever had to experience.

For Christians thinking with the mind of Christ, our perspective on abuse ought to be reflexive:

•love and sympathy for the victim

•a desire to help the victim come to biblical healing and wholeness (and salvation if she is lost)

•hatred for the sin of abuse and the pain it caused

•a desire to see the perpetrator brought to justice

•a desire to see the perpetrator repent of his sin and be redeemed by Christ

I don’t know of a single genuinely regenerated, Bible-believing Christian who wouldn’t take this visceral approach to abuse. It’s when we start acting on various aspects of this perspective that things can go awry – in many different directions.

Victim advocates have helpfully explained one direction in which we can react inappropriately to cases of abuse. Victims have been told the abuse was their fault, or that they just need to forget about it and get over it. Abusers have had their sins and crimes overlooked or covered up. Grace-extending Christians have believed abusers’ fake repentance and unwittingly allowed them access to more victims.

It is good that these things have been exposed and that we now have a more heightened awareness of them in the church so we can respond to cases of abuse more carefully, wisely, and biblically. We owe a debt to courageous victims for telling us their stories, and to victim advocates for making sure we hear them, because their experiences help us to take helpful, rather than harmful, action. We cannot prevent or respond appropriately to that which is invisible to us.

And because of that, it’s important that we make visible and be aware of another way in which our approach to the abuse issue can take, and unfortunately, in many cases has taken, a wrong turn. As Christian victim advocates have helped me and so many others see inappropriate ways to respond to abuse, I hope advocates who desire to advocate for and serve victims biblically will find this article helpful in bringing to their attention other inappropriate ways to respond to the abuse issue. This is what we do as Christians. When we see a brother or sister getting off track, we lovingly come alongside him or her, point back to where the track is, and walk back to it together.

Here are four ways I’ve seen Christian victim advocacy getting off the biblical track lately…

The abuse issue is giving false teachers
a new avenue into the church.

I’ve said many times that the two primary ways I’ve seen false doctrine and false teachers creep into relatively solid churches is via the worship music (Bethel, Jesus Culture, Hillsong, Elevation, etc.) and via women’s “Bible” study (Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, Lysa TerKeurst, IF: Gathering, etc.). The abuse issue seems to have opened a new, third door for unbiblical teachers and teaching to be welcomed in.

I discussed this issue at length in my articles From Victimhood to Victory: Biblically Helping Abused Women Heal and Band-Aids vs. Chemotherapy: Why Suffering Women are Drawn to False Doctrine and 7 Things We Can do to Help. In a nutshell, multiple high profile false teachers are in the spotlight of the abuse issue. Many have been telling their personal stories of abuse for years, and are now speaking at conferences on abuse, instructing pastors and churches on how to minister to victims, etc. Because these women are in the spotlight, they are the “experts” pastors, women’s ministry leaders, and others turn to for resources on ministering to victims. And when these false teachers walk through the victim advocacy door of your church, they bring their false doctrine on everything else with them.

Getting Back on Track:

Churches must exercise discernment and vet the experts they listen to on this and all other issues, remembering that just because someone claims to be a Christian, is an evangelical celebrity, has written lots of books and is on the conference circuit, is sold at major Christian retailers, is endorsed by other evangelical celebrities, and really cares about victims of abuse does not guarantee that person is teaching and behaving in accordance with sound doctrine.

Victim advocates must also carefully vet the evangelical celebrities they point victims to, whose materials they use, or whom they choose to share a stage with, recalling that Scripture forbids Christians from yoking in ministry with false teachers, and that to point victims to false teachers is to victimize them a second time.

Scripture is being abused by the
“abuse hermeneutic”.

Ruth was an abuse victim. Rahab was an abuse victim. Mary Magdalene, and the woman at the well, and the Syrophoenician woman, and Bathsheba, and Gomer, and Hagar were abuse victims. Every biblical passage that talks about male headship, or says that wives are to submit to their husbands, or that women are not to serve or function as pastors and elders is only and always a “potential for abuse” passage.

Are there victims of abuse in Scripture? Undoubtedly. And we know this when the Bible clearly tells us someone was abused. Have abusers sinfully twisted headship and submission and pastoral leadership passages? Of course. But that doesn’t mean we should try to hide them in the closet and ignore the good and holy purposes for which God breathed them out.

And one of the good and holy purposes for which God breathed out the passages about the biblical roles for men and women in the home and in the church is to protect women and children from abuse. As many godly pastors, husbands, churches, and the women who love them could tell you, a proper teaching and understanding of these passages results in Christian men who value and treasure women for all that God created them to be. Men walking in obedience to the headship and pastoral leadership passages would never think of being abusive or sexist. They lay their lives down for the protection and flourishing of the women and children under their care.

Is it the fault of these godly men that sinful men twist and abuse these passages? Is it the fault of God or His Word that sinful men twist and abuse these passages? No. Just like it’s not the fault of the woman when a sinful man abuses her. To fault or punish God for putting those passages in the Bible, or complementarianism for upholding those passages, or godly pastors for teaching those passages, or godly husbands for living in obedience to those passages, or to place the guilt anywhere besides on the man sinfully twisting and abusing Scripture is victim-blaming. Because all of the godly are victims when sinful men – and women – abuse Scripture for their own purposes. Even for the purpose of victim advocacy.

Far too many Christian victim’s advocates see nearly every passage of Scripture through the lens of the abuse issue. This does violence to the text and a disservice not only to their own understanding of Scripture and their growth in the knowledge of Christ, it also teaches abuse victims to use this same hermeneutic and stunts their sanctification every bit as much as New Apostolic Reformation heresy, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, or any other false teaching. It’s a hermeneutic that warps the user’s view of God, Scripture, the church, the family, and the fellowship of the saints.

Getting Back on Track:

For the sake of their own spiritual lives as well as the spiritual lives of the victims they minister to, it’s important that victim advocates learn to submit to and carry out Scripture’s admonition to rightly handle the word of Truth, to stop reading abuse into Scripture (eisegesis) when it isn’t there, and to trust that our almighty God is powerful enough to work through a proper reading and teaching of what Scripture does say about abuse to convict the abuser and comfort and heal the victim.

Abuse is the only, or most important,
issue for pastors and churches.

If you just read that sentence and you think it says, “Abuse is not an important issue,” despite what it actually says and despite what I said earlier in this article, it might be because you believe abuse is the only, or most important, issue in the church. It isn’t. There isn’t just one important issue in the church, there are lots of them, including abuse, and they all need to be handled biblically as they arise. God did not intend for the church to center around, and focus all its energy and teaching on abuse, or abortion, or homosexuality, or discernment, or feeding the hungry, or the environment, or any of the other issues that may be especially meaningful to any one of us.

But I have seen some victim advocates who are so solely focused on the abuse issue that they practically expect every church and pastor to be focused on abuse to the exclusion of nearly everything else. And if they find a church or pastor who doesn’t focus on abuse to that extent, they proclaim that church to be an unsafe place for victims, or a place that doesn’t care about abuse, or even a place that harbors abusers. I recently saw this outrageous statement by a victim advocate on Twitter: “If a pastor asks a serious but sincere question about whether or not church meetings really violate CDC guidelines [regarding COVID-19], chances are that pastor cares only about not being able to preach AND likely also disputes the seriousness of sexual abuse and domestic violence in the church.”

That kind of thing is wrong, and it’s slanderous and verbally abusive toward pastors and churches who do care about handling the abuse issue – along with all the other issues they’re facing – biblically.

Additionally, regarding the abuse issue as the only or most important issue worthy of spotlighting minimizes the very real suffering of others in the church. Yes, abuse victims have suffered horribly. So have people who have lost a child or spouse, people who have a terminal disease, people whose spouses have been unfaithful, people who have lost everything in a natural disaster, and so on. Everyone suffers. The Bible says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together,” not that only one type of member suffers.

Getting Back on Track:

Have you ever heard someone say that even a good thing can become an idol? It can. I know from firsthand experience because I’ve been guilty of that sin. Advocating for victims of abuse is a good thing. It is a worthy and necessary thing. But if you’ve gotten to the point where the abuse issue is the only thing you can see and that perspective is causing you to sin, you need to get alone with God and His Word and ask Him honestly and objectively to reveal to you whether the abuse issue has become an idol in your life. Because maybe it has. And that’s not going to help you, or the victims you’re trying to minister to, or the churches you’re trying to advocate to. Repent and ask God to help you prioritize your passion His way. And remember, God tells us that the Body is made up of many parts – different people with different passions – and He’s the one who created it that way. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” Let’s strive to each do our part in the Body and cheer on other “body parts” as they do their job so the church can be balanced and healthy – addressing all issues in a biblical way.

Looking to secular abuse experts first can undermine the authority of Scripture and the church.

More and more I’m hearing Christian victim advocates tout the virtues of seeking out psychologists, victim help groups, legal agencies, and other secular professionals and organizations because pastors “aren’t properly trained” to help abuse victims. That may be the case (and it may not be – in one interview I heard with a Christian victim advocate, she made it sound as though any pastor who isn’t an expert in every aspect of abuse with years of training under his belt isn’t “properly trained”), but the solution to a problem in the church isn’t to give up and look outside the church, it’s to biblically fix the problem in the church.

In other words, if pastors need more training than the pastoral counseling training they’re already getting in seminary, let’s get them trained – biblically. Not in psychology (which, as someone who has a degree and a half in psychology and counseling, I can tell you is humanistic at its core), not by non-Christian abuse experts – by doctrinally sound, biblically knowledgeable, experts in biblical and pastoral counseling.

“But women who have been abused won’t go to a man for counseling!”. Then get some godly, spiritually mature women from your church trained so they can minister to women who are hurting.

And really, I am all for training because we should strive to do everything with excellence, but I want us to stop and think about something for a minute. Are we over-educationalizing this? Christians have been ministering to hurting people for 2000 years with Scripture, prayer, and godly counsel, and without benefit of specialized secular experts or even seminary training. And it has worked, because God has worked through those prescribed means to help and heal those people. Any Holy Spirit-indwelt, spiritually mature, biblically knowledgeable, humble, obedient to the Word Christian can come alongside an abuse victim (or anyone else who’s struggling) and listen, work through Scripture with her, pray with her, cry with her, and be there for her, because the help and healing that victim needs is not dependent on the person helping her, but on God working through the person helping her. God calls Christians to do those things, and those are the means spelled out in Scripture through which He works. You will not find a passage of Scripture that tells you that godly, mature pastors, elders, and older women can’t rightly help the hurting because they haven’t been “properly trained,” and especially not by non-Christian “experts”. Abuse is an issue of sin for the abuser. For the victim, it’s about finding healing, wholeness, and, eventually, the ability to forgive in Christ. That’s not something the best trained non-Christian expert in the world can help with.

Are there sometimes things we can learn from non-Christian experts that don’t conflict with Scripture? Yes (particularly the legal ins and outs of the abuse issue). But pointing victims and “untrained” pastors and church members outside the church to non-Christians as their primary, or “first line of defense” source of help is wrong-headed, unbiblical, and ultimately detrimental for all involved, because long before abuse is a legal or advocacy issue, it is a spiritual issue. And putting a spiritual issue in the hands of unbelievers is never the right answer. “Don’t look to the church for help, look to the world,” is not the message we want to send anyone.

Getting Back on Track:

I’ve said that “Holy Spirit indwelt, spiritually mature, biblically knowledgeable, humble, obedient to the Word Christians” are equipped to help abuse victims. Perhaps part of the reason Christian victim advocates suggest looking to the world for help and training is that the “churches” they’ve most often worked with don’t grow Christians like that. And that would not surprise me. Many churches have devolved into entertainment centers with unqualified “pastors,” no gospel, no serious training in the Word, and rampant false doctrine. Basically, they are the world.

Pastors must take seriously Scripture’s charge to preach the Word, and to train their people in Scripture, prayer, and growth in holiness. Biblical training for ministering to abuse victims is great, but that training isn’t going to stick or be effective if it’s not carried out by godly, genuinely regenerated people.


Ministering to and advocating for victims of abuse is a challenging task – even more so for Christians than for the world because we are obligated to seek to do so in a way that pleases God and is obedient to Scripture, not just in a pragmatic way. When we minister to others, we’re going to get things wrong sometimes (something else I know from firsthand experience), but when we turn back to the standard of God’s Word, see things from His perspective, and trust Him to do His good work through His prescribed means, we will find that He works through us to minister His heart to the hurting.

Abuse, Suffering

From Victimhood to Victory: Biblically Helping Abused Women Heal

Ever since the Me Too movement exploded on social media a couple of years ago, we’ve been hearing more and more heartbreaking stories of women who have experienced physical and sexual abuse. If anyone can help and should be helping victims of abuse, it ought to be the church. But, unfortunately, it seems that the people in the evangelical spotlight who are stepping up to advocate for victims are often popular false teachers.

In 2019, we saw Beth Moore take the lead at the Caring Well conference, which centered around helping abuse victims. Christine Caine is the founder and leader of A 21, an anti-human trafficking ministry. In 2018, Lisa Harper was the keynote speaker at the Pastors’ Wives Conference at the annual Southern Baptist Convention where she addressed the issue of abuse. And in addition to stepping out into the spotlight as champions for abuse victims, Beth Moore, Christine Caine, and Lisa Harper, as well as Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Lysa TerKeurst, Jackie Hill Perry – and many more, I’m sure – share their own personal stories of abuse at their conferences, in their books, and so on.

These are the people being showcased to the average Jane in the pew as those who care about abuse victims. These are the people who are actually (supposedly) doing something about abuse. By and large, we’re not seeing doctrinally sound men and women being put forth on the stage of the visible church as caring about abuse victims or doing anything about abuse.

And so, when an Evangelical woman is coming to terms with her abuse, these are the women she’s seeing, so these are the women and their resources that she reaches out for. And by the same token, because these false teachers are in the spotlight and have name recognition and resources available, and there aren’t very many well known doctrinally sound resources available, churches who want to help abuse victims are also reaching out and grabbing hold of false teaching to try to help the women in their churches.

So what we’re finding is that women who are victims of abuse are especially vulnerable to false teaching because they see these teachers as someone who has gone through the same thing they’ve gone through: “This teacher knows how I feel. She has experienced the same thing.” And that’s the primary reason victims seek out these false teachers, rather than seeking out someone who – regardless of whether or not he or she has experienced abuse – can help them to heal with rightly handled Scripture.

This is one reason I am purposely not disclosing in this article whether or not I have ever been abused. Because biblical healing from abuse isn’t about me or my personal experiences. It’s about what the Bible says. My experiences don’t change what God’s Word says. The Bible remains the same whether I’ve been abused or not. Scripture is our standard, not our personal experiences.

But, unfortunately in the church, and particularly in the realm of women’s Bible study, we have indoctrinated women with the idea that personal experience reigns, not Scripture. So what abused women get when they seek out these false teachers for help dealing with their abuse is exactly what I’ve said before is the problem with women’s Bible study in general: narcissism.

These victims of abuse don’t get taught how to biblically come to terms with what happened to them and how to biblically heal from it. They get a cheap, shallow compassion that teaches them to focus on their own pain and feelings, and to harbor bitterness against their abuser and everyone and everything else they can assign blame to for the abuse (some of those things supposedly being biblical complementarianism, sexism in the church, misogyny in the church, not enough women in positions of leadership in the church, as Beth Moore said at the Caring Well conference, etc.)

These women are being victimized twice.

And so these women are being victimized twice – once by the abuser, and once by false teachers who are not only not helping them to heal biblically, but are actually eroding biblical teaching and sound doctrine – for that woman personally and in the church in general – by saying that biblical precepts, such as leadership of the church being restricted to men, are at fault for their abuse. It’s really insidious, because what’s implied by this whole paradigm is that this mixture of focusing on your feelings and believing unbiblical teaching is the quick fix that will make them feel better right away. This is what will finally bring them healing and wholeness. They’re being sold a lie.

Praise be to God, there are lots of doctrinally sound Christians out there who are quietly, out of the spotlight, helping victims of abuse in a biblical way, one on one, in their own local churches. So, how are they doing it, and how should we be doing it? What are some biblical ways we can help abuse victims?

Genuine Compassion

Abuse is a horrible, despicable thing that no one should ever have to suffer. The pain that it causes doesn’t just magically disappear because it happened years ago. It is not something about which any woman should ever be told, “You just need to get over it and forget about it.”

And certainly no woman should ever be made to feel that it was her fault, or that if she had just done something differently it wouldn’t have happened. The sin of abuse lies with the abuser, not the victim.

The sin of abuse lies with the abuser, not the victim.

So when we disciple a woman who is just beginning the journey of healing from her abuse, it should be handled with biblical compassion every step of the way. It’s important, especially in the beginning, to do what Romans 12:15 says, and “weep with those who weep”.

Let her pour out her feelings of pain and anger, and sit there in that with her.

Yes, that was awful.

No, you didn’t do anything to cause it. It wasn’t your fault.

That man was evil and took advantage of you. It was his sin, not yours.

We need to have that same heart for her that God has in Psalm 147:3: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

A Biblical Perspective of Suffering

It’s imperative that we have a biblical perspective of suffering so we can teach it to abuse victims. Because one of the things you’ll notice about the way false teachers approach the issue of abuse is that this component is completely missing. Why? Because walking through suffering in a biblical way can be hard and scary and painful and messy. It’s much easier to just smile and exude sympathy and say, “Just listen to me and I’ll tell you how to feel better right now.”

And if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Our flesh doesn’t want to suffer, we just want to feel better now. And that’s what makes this a hard sell that false teachers don’t want to deal with. It doesn’t fit in with their ear-tickling paradigm. But if we want to offer victims true help and true healing in Christ, we have to address the issue of suffering, and address it biblically and correctly.

A biblical theology of suffering applied to the issue of abuse understands that…

Everyone suffers. You’re not the first person to suffer, and you won’t be the last. 1 Peter 4:12 says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” When it comes to suffering, you’re not special, and neither am I. We don’t all suffer in the same way, but everybody suffers. It’s just the human condition resulting from the Fall.

Even Jesus suffered. Isaiah 53 tells us: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,”

Abuse is not a special class of suffering that exempts you from dealing with it in obedience to Scripture. We’re kind of seeing this line of thinking with homosexuality- that it’s a special class of sin that people don’t have to repent of. That homosexuals can hold onto their sin, cherish it in their hearts, and maybe even live it out, and still supposedly be biblical Christians.

And that’s the same sort of mindset a lot of the false teachers espouse: Abuse is a special class of suffering that you don’t have to walk through in a biblical way. You get to wallow in your victimhood for the rest of your life and think and act and feel and express yourself however you want to because you’ve been hurt so deeply. That’s not right. Perpetual victimhood is not biblical, it doesn’t help you heal, and it doesn’t bring your abuser to justice. It makes God look impotent and uncaring. If He can’t or won’t transform someone from victimhood to victory, how could He have the power to raise Christ from the dead? If He doesn’t care about a victim of abuse, why would He care about anybody else’s problems?

I would never minimize the pain and suffering of abuse victims, but all Believers are required by Scripture to act in a godly way regardless of their particular kind of suffering. Believers who have terminal diseases have to deal with that in a godly way. Believers who have lost a child have to deal with that in a godly way. Believers whose spouses have cheated on them have to deal with that in a godly way. Believers who are being tortured and persecuted just for being Christians have to deal with that in a godly way. We all have to bear up and respond to suffering in a godly way, regardless of what kind of suffering we’re dealing with.

1 Peter 4:19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”

Jesus understands your pain and serves as your perfect example for responding to suffering. Go back and read Isaiah 53. Go back and read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trials, flogging, and crucifixion. He knows what it feels like to be abused. And look at the way he handled it. He didn’t give up. He didn’t feel sorry for himself or lash out at his abusers or become bitter. He didn’t blame God or the church or anyone else or His circumstances.

Jesus knows what it feels like to be abused.

Jesus kept his eyes on the Father. He continued to walk out God’s plan for Him and didn’t let the abusers distract him from that plan. He continued to behave in a godly way. He forgave his abusers, even though it must have been extraordinarily difficult. Remember what He said on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

You don’t have to suffer alone. If you are a Believer, the Holy Spirit dwells within you. He will enable you and empower you to suffer well. You are never alone.

“Pray without ceasing,” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” God says in 2 Corinthians 12:9. Ask God to carry you through the difficult times. Ask God to heal you, to help you forgive, to give you strength. Whatever you need, ask Him for it.

God has a purpose for your pain. The abuse you suffered was horrific, but in God’s economy, it wasn’t random and senseless. God can take what that abuser meant for evil and turn it around and use it for your good– to grow you and strengthen you. There are so many passages of Scripture that talk about this. One of my favorites is Romans 5:3-5:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Jesus didn’t save you for you to live in self-pity, bitterness, unforgiveness, and victimhood. That is not the abundant life He promised you in John 10:10. It’s no life at all. Christians are not weak, helpless victims. Jesus makes us victors. Yes, what happened to you was unspeakably evil and hurtful. But in Christ, that’s not where your story ends!

Jesus makes us victors.

As you walk with Christ – trusting Him, obeying Him, loving Him – day by day, He will bring you that peace that passes understanding. He will reveal Himself to you as hope of the hopeless. He will heal your broken heart and bind up your wounds. If you refuse to handle your pain biblically, you’re missing out on all of the good things God wants to use that pain for – the godly character He wants to build in you, the healing He wants to give you. If you refuse to handle your pain biblically, you’re choosing to give that abuser the power to continue to stand in the way of all those good gifts God wants to give you.

Your pain and suffering won’t last forever. Once Christ begins healing you, your pain will fade over time, and eventually He will wipe it out all together in Heaven. Consider these two wonderfully comforting and hope-giving passages:

2 Corinthians 4:17-18: For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Revelation 21:1,3-4: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Your suffering has a time limit.

Your suffering has a time limit, and one day God is going to take it away forever. Rest in that hope.


How can we biblically help abuse victims move from victimhood to victory? We continually take them back to the truth of God’s Word and remind them of His goodness and grace, and the hope and healing He wants to bring them through Christ.

Additional Resources:

This article is excerpted from the A Word Fitly Spoken Podcast episode It’s Time for Sound Leaders to Talk About Abuse

Band-Aids vs. Chemotherapy: Why Suffering Women are Drawn to False Doctrine and 7 Things We Can do to Help 

Weeping with Those Who Weep 

Christ- the Suffering Servant 

Six Reasons to Rejoice that Christ is Enough in Our Suffering 

True or False: Is Your Theology of Suffering Biblical? 

God’s Good Purposes in Suffering

Celebrity Pastors, Church, Ministry, Women

The Patterson Pandemonium: What He Got Wrong, What He Got Right, and What We Can Learn About Handling Spousal Abuse Biblically in the Church

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