#ChurchToo: How Sexual Abuse Caused A Culture Shift Within The Southern Baptist Convention

Jul 10 2018
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#ChurchToo: How Sexual Abuse Caused A Culture Shift Within The Southern Baptist Convention

By: Amanda Haggard

For a long time, in a variety of Christian churches, women have often been told, or made to feel, that suffering abuse was just to be endured — that forgiveness should be doled out under any and all circumstances and for any and all transgressions. And that maybe they're not as important as their male counterparts. But that tide might be turning, even in one of the most conservative denominations.



The Southern Baptists have never been known for progressivism — in fact, you might say the opposite is true. And this year, Paige Patterson, who had been the president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for about 15 years and was the previous president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said a few things that he lived to regret. Audio was released of Patterson saying in the early aughts that women in abusive marriages should pray more and try to be as submissive as possible to avoid abuse and divorce. 

“It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree,” Patterson said in the audio. “I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel.”

A ripple through the seminary that would cause Patterson to lose his position happened fairly quickly. The SWBTS board of trustees, which is closely affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, decided at a special-called May 22 meeting that Patterson would not keep his job as president of the seminary. 

A statement from the board said: “After much prayer and a more than 13-hour discussion regarding challenges facing the Institution, including those of enrollment, financial, leadership and institutional identity, the Board determined to move in the direction of new leadership for the benefit of the future mission of the Seminary.” 

Jeffrey Bingham, dean of the School of Theology at SWBTS, was voted in as the interim president.

But that wasn't the end of Patterson. In fact, the board gave him an emeritus role — with compensation. Patterson and his wife will also live in a house on campus as the seminary’s first “theologians in residence.” 

It wasn’t just his backward mentality about domestic violence that caused the board to get rid of Patterson, though. He’d also recently made comments during a sermon referring to a 16-year-old girl as “fine”  and “built.” 

A student also came out and said that she told Patterson that she had been sexually assaulted. She said that Patterson told her to forgive her assailant and not to take the case to the police.

While the board said Patterson followed the legal requirements for reporting sexual abuse in that case, they said the decision was based on "new information … regarding the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during Dr. Paige Patterson’s presidency at another institution and resulting issues connected with statements to the Board of Trustees that are inconsistent with SWBTS’s biblically informed core values."

Patterson may have caused this shake up, but he only represents a larger change that may have been necessary within the Southern Baptist Convention.

Following the breakout #MeToo moment in late 2017 when Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein faced allegations of sexual assault, rape and abuse, women around the world began sharing their stories of assault and abuse. 

It didn’t take long to see through the #MeToo hashtag that women have suffered too much abuse. Many circles saw women raising their hands, saying: “Yes. Me too. This has happened to me.” And while women have long known the scope of abuse, it seemed to shock some men to see just how many women were raising their hands. Not long after, those who’ve endured abuse in church settings began taking to social media using the hashtag #ChurchToo to talk about their experiences.

And although the 61st Southern Baptist Convention President Steven Gaines seemed to ultimately say the right things in light of the Patterson allegations, he too was replaced, by megachurch pastor J.D. Greear at the June SBC convention in Texas.

Gaines said of Patterson’s remarks on domestic violence: “I personally believe that if a husband abuses his wife physically, the wife should immediately: 1) notify the police and follow their instructions, 2) remove herself and her children physically from the abusive husband under the protection of police for her safety, and 3) notify the family’s pastor so the church can engage in church discipline toward the abuser,” Gaines said. “The church should also seek to come alongside the woman and help her in any way possible to ensure her protection and care.”

Greear, the pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, has said he plans to give the Southern Baptist Convention a complete makeover. Greear, 45, grew The Summit Church from around 300 or so members to more than 10,000 weekend churchgoers. It could be his ability to grow a small church into a large congregation that made him so appealing as a leader of the SBC.

“It's broken my heart what's happened with Dr. Patterson and just the way that that's happened,” Greear told NPR. “But I do think that the #MeToo movement has helped raise awareness that sometimes there's been hesitancy to listen to the victim when you should have listened to the victim. Some things are not just immoral. They're also illegal. And what we've learned and I think needed to learn is that abuse is the kind of thing that can never be handled internally. It can never be minimized or brushed to the side. And so if nothing else I'm grateful that this has helped raise the awareness of the conversation.”

Changing culture is tough work for any organization, but it can be daunting for one as large as the SBC — it has more than 15 million members as of 2015. And not just the size, but the deep history, could make that even more difficult. The SBC has been around just more than 170 years. According to a history written by Robert A. Baker of the SWBTS, the denomination has tension in its roots and was born from different on ideologies around slavery. 

Baker writes: “The meetings of the three Baptist national societies in the 1840s brought angry debates between Northerners and Southerners. These debates concerned the interpretation of the constitutions of the societies on slavery, the right of Southerners to receive missionary appointments, the authority of a denominational society to discipline church members, and the neglect of the South in the appointment of missionaries. The stage was set for separation.

In 1844, Georgia Baptists asked the Home Mission Society to appoint a slaveholder to be a missionary in Georgia. After much discussion, the appointment was declined. A few months later, the Alabama Baptist Convention asked the Foreign Mission Society if they would appoint a slaveholder as a missionary. When the society said no, Virginia Baptists called for Baptists of the South to meet at Augusta, Georgia, in early May, 1845, for the purpose of consulting “on the best means of promoting the Foreign Mission cause, and other interests of the Baptist denomination in the South.”

As Baker points out, and as many know with the plight of slavery, a moral cause became political, and vice versa. But even after the issue of slavery was resolved, the organization differed on structural matters and wanted denominational unity. The basic idea of this unity is that all churches under the convention would adopt the same views (and in some ways would create similar voting bloc) and follow the same biblical ideologies. 

In many ways, the SBC’s history of change and debate created the giant group it is now, a group familiar with the scope of change it’s currently undergoing. Baker also says in his history that after infighting, the SBC created it's Sunday School Board (now known as LifeWay) in 1891 in Nashville.

Baker writes: “The formation of this board marked a new era for Southern Baptists. It signaled the move of the Convention toward becoming a truly denominational body. Through its promotion and financing of many ministries, its development of effective methods for church growth and training, and its unifying effect by providing a common literature for all Southern Baptists, the Sunday School Board rapidly fostered a strong denominational unity that became an important factor in the geographical expansion of Southern Baptists in the [20th Century].”

 While they’ve faced differences structurally and politically all along, the most recent differences seem more fundamental. For example, the recent #ChurchToo accusations have brought about questions about the convention's adverse opinions on women in the ministry, something Greear has talked about in recent weeks.

In an interview with The Gospel Coalition, “a Christian organization that seeks to serve the local church by providing gospel-centered and Christ-focused content,” Greear says taking a look male and female roles in the church is needed. He doesn’t say the church was wrong to put women and men in separate camps is wrong, only that the “gifts” women bring to the church should be examined.

In the interview he says: “I affirm, without reservation, the complementarian view of gender found in Scripture — that women are equal in essence, equal in value, and equal in spiritual giftings, while not being equivalent to men. Women and men are created differently and serve distinct roles in the family and in the church, where (for instance) only men can serve in the office of pastor. Complementarianism is not a box to be checked, but a beautiful truth to be celebrated.”

Perhaps more controversial, Greear asserted that scripture never said that “all women everywhere should submit to men everywhere” — a statement that might make some old-school Southern Baptists fall over in their chair.

“Sometimes, in our rightful espousal of complementarianism, we in the SBC have failed to create the same pathways into ministry for women that we have for men,” Greear says. “This was true at the church that I pastor: it was easy for men to get trained and step into leadership, but not women. Our ministry team was very, very male-heavy, as we tended to consider only men even for positions of leadership that really did not require occupation by an ordained pastor/elder.”  This might seem like a small change, maybe not much different than the church’s original stance. But with the Southern Baptists, Greear may have to take that approach, small bites rather than the forceful clean-your-plate approach.

There’s already been some backlash against Greear — and even a concerted effort to keep him from being the president of the SBC.  There’s an old saying when changing culture in an organization, one must create a movement rather than a mandate. Therein lies Greears largest potential roadblock moving forward: Can an organization steeped in tradition and founded and sustained by harsh mandates be moved?


If Greear harnesses the power of the women in his congregation as he says he will, it just might be possible. And at the very least, maybe the scope of abuse against those women will narrow.


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