Leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) are speaking out on recently quoted comments made 18 years ago by Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, that seem to encourage women to stay in abusive marriages.
But Patterson disagrees, stating in a press release issued April 29 that he has “no sympathies at all for cowardly acts of abuse toward women.”
“To all who love me and have supported me across the years and to those who have been wounded by these accusations, I express my deepest regret,” Patterson said. “I do not apologize for my stand for the family and for seeking to mend a marriage through forgiveness rather than divorce. But I do greatly regret that the way I expressed that conviction has brought hurt. I also regret for my own family this deliberate misrepresentation of my position as well as the hatred that lies behind much of it.”
An article in The Washington Post on April 29 by Jonathan Merritt and tweets by Merritt with audio recordings of the comments brought Patterson’s words to prominence, though they have been shared by other journalists and bloggers in the past. Patterson’s comments were made in March 2000 at a Southern Baptist Convention conference co-sponsored by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. (Patterson’s wife Dorothy is a founding member of that council.)
In response to a question about women who are abused by their husbands, Patterson said:
“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree. I have never in my ministry counseled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that’s always wrong counsel. There have been, however, an occasion or two when the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough that I have counseled temporary separation and the seeking of help. I would urge you to understand that that should happen only in the most serious of cases. I would cite examples of it but the examples that I have had in my ministry are so awful that I will not cite them in public. That’s enough to say, however, that there’s a severe physical and/or moral danger that’s involved before you come to that. More often, when you face abuse, it is of a less serious variety but all abuse is serious.”
Patterson went on to say that he would say to women who are in “those kinds of situations” that they “must not forget the power of prayer” and told the story of a woman in a church where he served who was being subjected to “some abuse,” according to Patterson. Patterson said he advised the woman to pray by the bed as her husband went to sleep.
“And I said, ‘Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.’ And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I am.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.’”
Two black eyes
Patterson said in the April 29 statement that the couple he was speaking of during that discussion had reconciled after the husband made a public decision for Christ the same day she showed up with two black eyes.
“They lived happily together from that time on in commitment to Christ. There was no further abuse. In fact, their love for one another and commitment to their home was evident to all,” Patterson said.
Patterson called sharing the story “probably unwise” and added that “my suggestion was never that women should stay in the midst of abuse, hoping their husbands would eventually come to Christ. Rather, I was making the application that God often uses difficult things that happen to us to produce ultimate good. And I will preach that truth until I die.”
Beth Moore reacts
Bible teacher and author Beth Moore was one of the first prominent Southern Baptists to respond on social media. In an April 28 tweet, she wrote: “I’m pro marriage. Nearly 40 years of ups and downs to back that up. But when we as a church culture demonize divorce as the worst possible outcome — the sin of all sins — we truly have no clue on this ever-loving earth what some people are enduring. We do not submit to abuse. NO.” She added on April 30 that “abusers are powerful manipulators. I’ve seen the come-to-church-&-cry thing 1000X. Thank God sometimes it’s real. Other times it’s to get people to talk her into staying with him.”
She later tweeted: “It’s grossly naïve to assume every man who bruises up his wife, realizes he’s been outed, shows up at church & cries over how sorry he is, really has repented. REPENTANCE BEARS FRUIT.”
Bruce Ashford, provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, wrote on April 28: “Let me be clear: a physically abused woman should separate from her husband and have him put in jail.”
Ed Stetzer on April 29 tweeted, “To be clear, there are not acceptable or unacceptable levels of spousal (or sexual) abuse. And, here is how to respond: 1. Get victims away from perpetrator. 2. Call the police. 3. Work with the police.”
Also on Twitter, Trillia Newbell, author and director of community outreach for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) for the Southern Baptist Convention, on April 30 wrote: “It’s terrible to tell a victim of abuse to stay as a sort of evangelism (to win him to Christ).”
Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, issued a statement April 30 on Twitter, stating he “cannot be silent on the issue of abuse of women.”
“My silence becomes a reverberating echo of indifference at best. There is no level or type of abuse of women that is acceptable. We have been called by God to show honor and respect to all women and girls. They are out mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our granddaughters and our wives. We thank God for them. And I stand with all who say ‘no’ to any type of abuse of women at any time and under any circumstance,” Rainer wrote.
Eric Geiger, senior vice president at LifeWay, also tweeted on April 30: “I beg God that my daughters will never be in an abusive relationship. But if they find themselves there, I pray friends and pastors would tell them to ‘run.’ I certainly will.”
ERLC President Russell Moore tweeted on May 1 that “the church should, and must, be clear on this” referring to the issue of spousal abuse.
He went on to say that “the Bible teaches, in my view, that divorce is ethical in cases of sexual immorality (Matt. 5:32) or abandonment (1 Cor. 7:25). Abuse makes a home unsafe and constitutes abandonment” and that a “woman being abused should leave the house and call the police. The state should prosecute the abuser and the church should discipline him.”
“Marriage as a picture of the Christ/church mystery (Eph. 5:32) means that spousal abuse is not only cruel and unlawful but is all that and also blasphemous against a Christ who loves and sacrificed Himself for His Bride,” Moore tweeted.
‘Never been abusive’
In his statement, Patterson said he had “never been abusive to any woman. I have never counseled or condoned abuse of any kind. I will never be a party to any position other than that of the defense of any weaker party when subjected to the threat of a stronger party. This certainly includes women and children. Any physical or sexual abuse of anyone should be reported immediately to the appropriate authorities, as I have always done.”
He went on to say that he has “never recommended or prescribed divorce. How could I as a minister of the gospel? The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce. I have on more than one occasion counseled and aided women in leaving an abusive husband. So much is this the case that on an occasion during my New Orleans pastorate, my own life was threatened by an abusive husband because I counseled his wife, and assisted her, in departing their home to seek protection.”
Patterson is scheduled to deliver the convention sermon on June 13 at the SBC annual meeting in Dallas.