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Southern Baptist Church Grapples With #MeToo After Fort Worth Leader's Fall

Joyce Marshall
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Paige Patterson, preaching, was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth on May 30.

America’s more than 46,000 Southern Baptist churches are grappling with their own #MeToo moment after a leader from Fort Worth fell from prominence after weeks of scandal around past statements he’d made about women. It follows after other recent scandals in which Southern Baptist leaders have been accused of or admitted to inappropriate behavior toward women.

These issues have drawn a rising chorus of frustration from many in the church. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a longtime leader in the denomination, wrote in a blog post that the Southern Baptist Convention "is in the midst of its own horrifying #MeToo moment."

"Many women have experienced horrific abuses within the power structures of our Christian world," wrote Beth Moore, a popular Southern Baptist writer based in Houston, in an open letter to the men in her denomination.

'Fall from this high and mighty place'

The thousands of Southern Baptists gathering Tuesday in Dallas for their annual meeting won’t hear from Paige Patterson, once a giant of the church and a fixture at convention gatherings, after he announced last week he’d no longer deliver the event’s keynote sermon.  

Patterson’s troubles began in April, when an old interview he gave was reposted on a Baptist blog. In it, he tells the story a woman at his church who asked for help because her husband was abusing her.

“I said, ‘All right, I want you to every evening I want you to get down by your bed, just as he goes to sleep, get down by your bed and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray for God to intervene,” he said in the recording.

Patterson says, next time he saw the woman, she had two black eyes.

“And she said, 'I hope you’re happy.' And I said, 'Yes, ma’am, I am.' I said, 'I’m sorry about but I’m very happy.' And what she didn’t know when we sat down in church that morning is that her husband was standing in the back, was the first time he ever came,” Patterson said.

Thousands of Southern Baptist women signed a letter calling for Patterson to resign as president of the Southwest Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth.

Then, allegations came out that Patterson told a woman who’d been raped not to go to the police.

"His fall from this high and mighty place in the last few weeks has been a really stunning turn of events."

The seminary fired him on May 30.

“His fall from this high and mighty place in the last few weeks has been a really stunning turn of events,” said Karen Seat, a religion professor who researches American evangelicalism and gender at the University of Arizona.

Seat says it’s impossible to understate Patterson’s power among Southern Baptists. A one-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention, he was a major architect of the denomination’s right-ward shift starting in the 1970s.

“Women’s issues were a central issue to the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention and was a major point of division,” Seat said.

The role and value of women in the Baptist church

Southern Baptists have taken a view of gender relations called "complementarianism." It is a counter, in many ways, to feminism, that says God created men and women differently, and therefore, they have different roles and obligations in the church and in the family.

“Its focus is on the importance of women’s submission to men’s leadership and spiritual headship in both the home and the church,” Seat said.

That means women can’t lead a church. But proponents of complementarianism say God didn’t assign women inferior status. And Jim Richards from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention says it is absolutely not meant to excuse or give license to abuse.

"The younger generations are wanting to address life in its messiness."

“Obviously, God’s word would tell us to protect the innocent and would call for that woman to be somehow rescued from whatever situation she would be in that would be dangerous physically, emotionally or otherwise,” Richards said.

Richards has signed on to a resolution affirming the value of women and calling on church leaders to do better by them. It’ll be voted on at the annual meeting this week.

“It is a teaching moment and I do believe that definitely Southern Baptist churches are going to be different because of what we are experiencing right now,” he said.

The complicated question of divorce

The convention’s research arm has surveyed Protestant pastors about domestic violence. Scott McConnell of LifeWay Research says pastors across the board see their churches as safe havens for victims of domestic violence, “but when we ask that practical question about having a plan in place… to actually help them and step in and intervene, the answer is only half of the churches have a plan.”

McConnell’s research shows a lot of pastors also don’t often preach about these issues. 

Disapproval of divorce complicates the conversation. More than a quarter of Protestant pastors say that divorce is sinful, even if it’s ending an abusive relationship. That view is held more widely by evangelicals than mainline Protestants. Despite that, McConnell says the majority of pastors his group surveyed said they’d seek outside resources to help abuse victims, even if it led to divorce.

McConnell says things in the church have been changing, and there’s more room for complicated conversations.

“Those who are retirement age or close to it, they tend to see the church as a place where everything has to be nice and neat. And I think the younger generations are wanting to address life in its messiness,” he said.

Now, in this #MeToo moment, McConnell says many millennials expect churches take on previously taboo issues like violence against women.

Photo credit: Joyce Marshall, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.