Here is what is happening to Paige Patterson, the now-former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This 75-year-old man is being removed from his current position and will take on the title of president emeritus. He will be moving into on-campus housing and will be compensated as one of the school’s “theologians-in-residence.”
In a statement they released early this morning, the school’s board of trustees went out of their way to thank Patterson, saying they were “grateful for the contributions Dr. and Mrs. Paige Patterson have made since his presidency began in 2003.”
This was all essentially the plan even before Patterson’s remarks about women and domestic abuse surfaced, leading to a tidal wave of criticism that culminated in an open letter calling for his removal that garnered over 3,200 signatures.
Those cries only grew more acute on Tuesday, when the Washington Post reported that a woman accused Patterson of telling her not to report her rape to police and forgive her assailant instead. The report added, “Patterson wanted to know every detail of the rape.”
The Southwestern Board of Trustees met for 13 hours before releasing a statement that did not reference the allegations and specifically honored “his longstanding dedication and commitment to serving the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in its mission to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in the world and to make disciples of all the nations by leading the way for the conservative resurgence.”
The Southwestern Board of Trustees was faced with two scenarios. The first was to stand by Patterson and deny that he’d done anything wrong, and say the comments were blown out of proportion and they had full confidence in his leadership. The second was to confess that Patterson needed to be removed for preaching toxic principles that have been used harm and marginalize women for centuries.
But by updating Patterson’s retirement timeline and giving him a paid gig in a cozy campus setup, the SWBTS Board of Trustees found a third option.
Yes, these actions seem to communicate that what he said wasn’t good. But it wasn’t that bad. Removing him feels like admitting fault, but doing so in this manner looks like sulking to the corner. It looks like prioritizing (a tainted) legacy over righteousness and appearances over justice. At best, it looks like the Board of Trustees was too frightened of Patterson’s immense, living legend-y status among Southern Baptists to take a stand against him. At worst, it looks like complicity.
Throughout this entire sad saga, one repeated, consistent message has emerged from Patterson and the leaders at the school: It’s not a big deal. It’s not a big deal that your husband hit you. It’s not a big deal to praise the physical attributes of a 16-year-old girl in a completely inappropriate way. It’s not a big deal that you got raped. And finally, it’s not a big deal to say any of these things. It feels apiece of the very first temptation, the one the serpent leveled at Eve in the Garden: “Does the Bible really say …” Except in this case, the question is not whether or not something is actually wrong, but over the degree of wrongness. Was the rape really bad? (They were already kissing, the leaders allegedly implied). Is sexualizing minors really wrong? (It was a joke, he tried to claim.) Is abuse really harmful, his twisted advice seemed to suggest. (He ended up coming to church, Patterson said to justify telling a women with two black eyes to stay with her abusive husband.)
You can see this hedging of wrongness in Patterson’s defenders. You can see it in Baptist Press, which surreptitiously edited Patterson’s statements to soften their original meaning. You can see it in Patterson’s own muddled apology, which fell into the old “I’m sorry if you were offended” line of half measures. You can see it in the actions of Southern Baptist Convention President Pastor Steve Gaines, who wrote that he disapproved of Patterson’s words, but retweeted praise and affirming words about Patterson’s life in the wake of the apology.
Taken on their own, none of these things amount to a cover-up. But the cumulative affect is one of minimizing, distancing and circling the wagons to protect a cherished legacy from being too tarnished. Over the past few months, the American Church has been confronted again and again with signs that it is not immune from the cultural reckoning sparked by the #metoo movement.
There was the case of Andy Savage in Memphis, who was applauded by his congregation after it was revealed that he’d had sexual contact with a minor. There’s the case of Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago, which has admitted to an inadequate investigation after allegations surfaced against Pastor Bill Hybels. In all these cases, and God alone knows how many more, the Church has been resistant, defensive and furtive in its dealings with plain abuses of power, instances of sexual misconduct and toxic leadership.
In all of these cases, instead of setting a high standard for personal righteousness and pure conduct, these institutions chose to scramble, deflect and burnish their own gilded reputations. And in all these cases, the people accused only caved when bad publicity became an issue.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church in Corinth, expressing his pride in them for their deeply felt repentance. “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” he writes in chapter 7. “But worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.”
It seems the American Church could use a bit more godly sorrow. Not sorrow over getting caught but sorrow over the sin itself. Not sorrow that strives to control the narrative, but sorrow that produces earnestness and indignation. Not sorrow that seeks to minimize damage to cherished systems, but sorrow that brings a readiness to see justice done.
So what is this saying? That Patterson should not have been asked to resign, but should instead have been publicly mocked, imprisoned, perhaps deported? Hardly. The easiest mistake would be to view what happened as an isolated incident. The narrative that emerges is a broader, systemic issue with the way the American Church deals with accusations against its leaders. Punitive measures against one person, no matter how harsh, are far from adequate. The real goal should be communal repentance “that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”
What happened to Dr. Paige Patterson was not the reckoning that the American Church is due, but if history is any indicator, reckonings are rarely denied, only delayed. We can invite this reckoning with godly sorrow or we can wait for it to come of it own accord. If the Church can muster in its heart the earnest sorrow to choose the former, then Paul’s words to the Corinthians may well be echoed by God to our own hearts, “I am glad I can have complete confidence in you.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's executive editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.