Conservative evangelical women are calling out a leader’s sexism. It’s a huge moment for #MeToo.

By Tara Isabella Burton
May 9, 2018

Paige Patterson

More than 2,500 Southern Baptist women have signed a petition denouncing denomination leader Paige Patterson.

In 2014, Paige Patterson tells a joke.

The former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is giving a speech at an evangelical conference in Las Vegas. With a broad Texas drawl and a folksy glint in his eye, he tells the story of an irate woman he encountered during a church service.

“She was really unhappy with me,” he says, with exaggerated self-deprecation. “And giving me what for.”

Meanwhile, her sons are standing nearby. While the woman is yelling at Patterson, “a very attractive coed” walks by.

“She couldn’t have been more than 16,” Patterson continues. “But let me say — she was nice.

One of the sons commented to the other, “Man, is she built.”

The mother in this story is appalled. “She stopped, wheeled around, slapped a hand over his mouth, loosed his teeth, and said, ‘Young man, if you ever say anything like that again; if you do, I’ll mop up the face of the earth with you.’”

“I saw my opportunity,” Patterson says. He tells the mother: “He’s just being biblical.”

His audience laughs and applauds.

After all, Patterson implies, the biblical Eve is beautiful too, artistically formed. What’s the harm in a young man following Adam’s example?

Two years later, video of that joke — along with other recordings of controversial, gender-specific comments Patterson has made over the years, including suggesting that abuse victims should stay married to their abusers and disbelieving claims of assault victims — is at the heart over a debate about evangelicals and #MeToo.

Were Patterson’s words an innocent joke, playing with familiar stock characters: the horny teenager, the shrewish maternal harridan, the busty “coed”?

Or were they a sign of something darker — a willingness to sexualize underage girls, to promote the same “boys will be boys” attitude that also led Patterson to encourage women to stay with abusive spouses in the hope of bringing them to church?

For at least 2,500 Southern Baptist women, Patterson’s attitudes are an example of a toxic sexism that the evangelical community needs to eradicate. They have signed an open letter demanding Patterson’s resignation from his seminary position.

The sheer number of women who have spoken out against Patterson suggests a wider cultural change in the evangelical community, as more and more women — including self-described conservatives — see comments like the ones Patterson made as not just inappropriate but incompatible with their Christian values.

Paterson had been making troubling gender-specific comments for years

According to Karen Swallow Prior, a Liberty University professor who signed the letter, general knowledge of Patterson’s comments was “floating” within the evangelical community. However, concern over Patterson’s attitudes mounted after audio and video recordings of some of the controversial comments, which date back as early as 2000, went public on social media in late April and early May.

The controversy seems to have begun with a series of posts about Patterson on a blog called the Baptist Blogger, run by Benjamin S. Cole, a former mentee of Patterson who has since been critical of Patterson’s right-wing stances. On May 6, Cole posted the 2014 video segment from the Awaken conference to YouTube.

The change in reception of Patterson’s words is a sign of a wider cultural shift in how we talk about gender relations. In 2000, when Patterson made comments about how a woman with “two black eyes” is nevertheless happy she’s able to convince her physically abusive husband to go to church, his remarks were received without controversy. And in 2014, when he made his joke in Vegas, his words were greeted with laughter and applause.

But this is 2018. And in the wake of #MeToo, the cultural ground has shifted, and more and more Southern Baptist women are speaking out about a church leader who they feel does not reflect their values.

The open letter, which was dated May 6 and whose drafters have not been made public, directly referred to Patterson’s 2014 joke:

The world is watching us all, brothers. They wonder how we could possibly be part of a denomination that counts Dr. Patterson as a leader. They wonder if all Southern Baptist men believe that the biblical view of a sixteen-year-old girl is that she is “built” and “fine” — an object to be viewed sexually. They wonder if all Southern Baptist pastors believe it is acceptable to counsel an abused woman in the way that Dr. Patterson has done in the past. They wonder if the Jesus of the Bible is like such men. We declare that Jesus is nothing like this and that our first duty as Southern Baptists is to present a true picture of Jesus to the world.

The open letter directly follows a more personal letter written by Christian blogger Beth Moore and posted to her website on May 3, in which she calls out more general sexism in the Southern Baptist community.

Patterson has consistently denied the gravity of the accusations against him. During an initial statement on April 29, preceding the drafting of the open letter but following some initial controversy on social media, 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.”

A few days later, he clarified his stance. On May 1, he released a second statement, affirming “that law enforcement officials and civil authorities have a vital and God-ordained role in addressing abusive relationships” but also that “Alongside every church’s responsibility to report abusers to civil authorities stands the church’s responsibility to seek that the abuser confess to, denounce, and repent of the sin of abuse.” Since the open letter’s publication, he has refused to comment further.

The controversy over Patterson reflects a wider shift in the evangelical church. As more and more evangelical women are rising to prominent leadership roles — and using social media to connect with one another — traditional evangelical attitudes about gender roles and sexuality are shifting. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, female evangelicals’ voices are now being heard too.

This isn’t the first example of #MeToo making inroads in evangelical communities

The Patterson scandal is one of many that have rocked the evangelical church in the wake of #MeToo. Last winter, pastor Andy Savage stepped down from his post after it was revealed that he had sexually assaulted a former underage parishioner while working as a youth pastor two decades prior. Last month, prominent Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels stepped down following accusations of continued sexual misconduct spanning decades.

In each case, a number of factors have made the proliferation of #MeToo-type reckonings in evangelical circles more complicated.

For one thing, as I’ve previously written, evangelical culture is often so concerned with sexual purity that it collapses the distinction between, say, consensual premarital (and thus “sinful”) sex and nonconsensual sexual encounters. Because both are equally judged to be “sinful,” the reaction to the latter can take the form of demanding that the abuser repent without taking into account the seriousness of the crime. (Thus, for example, Patterson seemingly condoned the ogling of a teenage girl on the grounds that feeling sexual desire was normal and “biblical” — a mirror of Adam and Eve’s relationship — without acknowledging how a girl might feel about being ogled.)

In addition, as I have also written, the evangelical focus on the dynamic of sin and repentance leads to an emphasis on forgiveness that puts the onus on victims to forgive their abusers, many of whom do not face formal or legal consequences for their actions on the grounds that they have “repented.” (Thus, for example, Patterson’s exhortation for abuse victims to stay with and forgive their abusive partners.)

Finally, the principle of biblical complementarianism — the idea that men and women are essentially different and have different, God-ordained strengths and weaknesses — popular with evangelicals can lend itself to an attitude that minimizes male misbehavior as, well, a function of inherent maleness.

As Southern Baptist Convention member Bekah Mason, who signed the petition, put it in an email to Vox, “When a culture teaches that ‘boys will be boys’ regarding bullying or sexualizing women, often those within the culture don’t even recognize that it’s wrong; when abuse is all you’ve known, abuse survivors don’t know to call it abuse. It takes outside voices often to say, ‘We see what’s happening, and it’s not okay.’”

It’s time, too, she said, to recognize previously silenced female voices and perspectives in the evangelical community, particularly in the wake of #MeToo (and its attendant church-specific movement, #ChurchToo).

“We can read the Bible too,” Mason said. “We are as literate and learned and created in the image of God to be respected and loved and empowered, as equal image-bearers.”

Another signatory of the letter, Kelsey Hency, echoed Mason’s comments, saying, “The eyes of evangelical culture in 2014 were dim to many of the realities of women and the abuse and misogyny they endured. Part of that, as far as I know, stemmed from the lack of female voices allowed to speak into the lives of powerful people and the systems of powerful structures. Part of that comes from biblical assumptions that many scholars no longer support. Part of that comes from the separation of genders in all circumstances. Dr. Patterson’s comments seem to evidence all of those aspects.”

The reaction to Paige Patterson suggests that conservative as well as progressive Christians are embracing elements of #MeToo

What’s distinctive about the open letter, and the reaction to Patterson’s comments, is that it’s not coming from “progressive” or “liberal” wings of the Southern Baptist Convention. Rather, many of the women who signed the document consider themselves conservative and/or complementarian, even as they actively seek to reform elements of their church from within.

For example, Karen Swallow Prior noted in an interview with Vox that “as a conservative, as a Southern Baptist, I understand and generally believe in complementary roles. I’m [also] against divorce except in the most extreme cases, and I understand there are nuances and ambiguities around how to counsel.”

Still, she said, “abuse is more black and white,” and comments like Patterson’s are thus profoundly troubling. It’s not just that she’s concerned about Patterson as an individual, she added. Rather, she noted she’s concerned about the people around him who allowed his ideas to flourish unchallenged. After all, she said, Patterson’s comments about ogling a teenage girl being “biblical” were met with laughter and applause.

Prior said she is less concerned with the comments themselves — which happened two to almost 20 years ago — than she is with Patterson’s continued refusal to acknowledge what is wrong with his remarks. “I’m not concerned with past behavior but with present repentance,” she said, adding that she would like to see Patterson display a “godly sorrow” for his ways and his teachings, and to recognize the ways the power dynamics for which he advocates in fact hurt women.

Still, she notes, with optimism, times are changing. “Men like Patterson lived in a time when the only women he knew [in a professional setting] were his secretaries,” she said. Female voices “demanding more” can now be heard.

However, not everyone in the denomination is willing to denounce Patterson. Steve Gaines, the current Southern Baptist Convention president, and his wife, Donna, have tweeted veiled support of Patterson, who is still scheduled to speak at next month’s annual Southern Baptist Convention conference in Dallas:

Once again, my sweet & wise wife, @donnadgaines, has nailed it with this post!! Southern Baptists are biting and fussing when we should be praying and weeping. Start talking directly to people, not about them. Turn down the rhetoric and turn up the prayers!

But many of the letter’s signatories remain optimistic. “More and more women are making their way into rooms where their voices aren’t just heard but are welcomed,” said Hency. “The term ‘Bible scholar’ has historically been reserved for men, but throngs of impressive female exegetes and seminary-trained women have entered the scene in ways that make denying them a voice and recognizing their knowledge impossible. And these women aren’t blind to the Paige Pattersons, the Bill Hybels, and the Andy Savages. They’ve endured them, and they know better as people and as Bible scholars.”

These women, Hency notes, also know the “opposite”: men who “believe in partnership over power” and can model a positive form of masculinity. “It’s those relationships that will change the culture, and I believe they will multiply in the future.”




Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.