Paige Patterson

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson speaks at a seminary commencement. (Matthew Miller / Provided by Baptist Press)

ENID, Okla. — Southern Baptists remain split over a seminary head who’s drawn criticism for counseling women to remain in abusive marriages and for referring to a teenage girl as “built.”

The fight has drawn dissent over not just abuse and divorce but the role of women in society and the church.

Paige Patterson, a leader in the Conservative Resurgence movement in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and two-time president of the SBC, currently is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) — one of six SBC seminaries for the convention’s more than 47,000 congregations and 15 million members.

On Tuesday, SWBTS trustees will meet in a special session at Patterson’s request, according to a seminary release. Patterson’s future at the seminary, and his influence in the SBC, are widely expected to be impacted by that meeting.

The controversy

Controversy surrounding Patterson rose in late April after an audio clip surfaced of a 2000 interview on domestic abuse and divorce.

In the interview, Patterson said divorce is “always wrong counsel,” and he related an incident in which he advised an abused woman to kneel beside her bed and pray for her husband.

“‘Get ready, because he may get a little more violent when he discovers this,’” Patterson recalled telling the woman. “And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black.”

Patterson said he was happy about the incident, because the husband came to church the next day and repented. He held it up to abused women as an example of the power of prayer.

“When nobody else can help, God can,” Patterson said, “and in the meantime you have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way you can and to elevate him.”

Circulating with the audio clip was a video from a revival conference in 2014, in which Patterson joked about a teenage girl being “built,” saying “she wasn’t more than about 16, but let me just say, she was nice.”

The fallout

An online petition of Southern Baptist women began circulating May 6, stating Patterson’s comments were “unbefitting the sober, wise, and sound character required of an elder, pastor, and leader,” and are “damaging, sinful, and necessitate a decisive response.” The petition had more than 3,200 signatures, as of Friday afternoon.

Patterson initially refused to waiver from his earlier comments. In a May 4 interview reported by the Washington Post, Patterson said he couldn’t “apologize for what I didn’t do wrong.”

He offered an apology less than a week later, in a statement published May 10 by Baptist Press, “to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity.”

Patterson went on to say he rejects “any form of abuse in demeaning or threatening talk, in physical blows, or in forced sexual acts,” but he did not waiver on his previous comments regarding divorce.

A measured approach

Leaders in the SBC and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) have publicly taken a measured approach on Patterson in recent weeks, leading up to the trustee vote Tuesday and the SBC annual meeting in June, where Patterson is scheduled to deliver the sermon.

“We have been following the Paige Patterson controversy closely, with prayer,” said Brian Hobbs, BGCO communications director. “One thing is clear: Southern Baptists must stand against all forms of abuse, and we must speak clearly and strongly against it.”

Hobbs deferred further comment to SBC president Steve Gaines, who said in a May 11 statement he disagrees with Patterson’s past counsel on abuse.

Gaines said an abused woman should immediately notify police, remove herself and her children from the abusive situation and then notify the family’s pastor, and said Patterson’s remarks about the teenage girl were “improper.”

“Preachers should never refer to women in any way that could be considered demeaning,” Gaines said.

“On behalf of the SBC, I ask for the forgiveness of all women who have been hurt by these comments and the issue of ill treatment of women within churches in particular,” he said.

Calls to remove Patterson

However, not all Baptist leaders are taking such a measured approach to Patterson.

Wade Burleson, lead pastor at Emmanuel Enid, Oklahoma, and past BGCO president, has been writing on his blog about Patterson’s views on women since at least 2005.

Wade Burleson

Wade Burleson

In the wake of the most recent controversy, in an April 30 blog post, Burleson called for Patterson to “step down from every leadership position he holds in the SBC,” including his post at SWBTS.

If Patterson doesn’t step down, Burleson said the SBC will have to have the courage to remove him.

“Either too many Southern Baptists are cowards or far too many Southern Baptists believe just like Paige Patterson,” Burleson wrote in a May 4 post on his blog. “We must confront and remove leaders who propose an unbiblical, anti-Christian, inhumane, God-dishonoring view of women, and cover, hide, and excuse the sexual and physical abuse of women and not wait until society and culture shame us. Indeed, shame on us.”

Burleson said he disagrees with Patterson’s “advice that an abused woman go back to an abusive husband and submit,” and the notion that a woman should never divorce an abuser.

“If he repents, reconcile the marriage — if he doesn’t repent, divorce,” Burleson said. “The idea that the sin of a divorce is worse than the sin of a man hitting his wife is absurd.”

A bigger issue

Burleson said Patterson’s comments on abuse and divorce are symptomatic of a bigger issue facing the SBC: the way the convention views women in society and in the church.

Historically, there’s been a wide range of views among Southern Baptists on the role of women in ministry, and whether or not women can teach and lead men, Burleson said.

He said that wide range of views was constrained to “a narrow interpretation” when members of the Conservative Resurgence, led in part by Patterson, revised the Baptist Faith and Message — the SBC’s governing statement of faith.

Burleson said many of the changes promoted by Patterson in the BF&M 2000 elevated “secondary and tertiary issues” to primary concern in the denomination’s governing document.

One of those “tertiary issues,” Burleson said, is the role women play in the church.

Burleson acknowledged many congregations and Southern Baptists agree with Patterson, but said many also do not. He wants each congregation to decide where they fall on women’s roles in the church and society.

“I think that should be a local church issue,” Burleson said, “but Paige Patterson has made agreement on this issue the basis for cooperation in the church.”

Burleson said his views on women in ministry are based on a biblical standard of equality.

“We believe people — both men and women — should lead based on their gifts, their service, their character, their humility and their Kingdom worth,” Burleson said. “We see an equality in the church.”

While some claim that’s bowing to cultural pressure, Burleson said equality between men and women in ministry dates back to Mary Magdalene and several other women first teaching the disciples of Christ’s resurrection.

“If it’s good enough in the New Testament for a woman to teach a man, then it’s good enough for me,” Burleson said.

However, Burleson said not all Southern Baptists are ready to accept such a broadened role for women in ministry.

Asked if a woman could fill his position at Emmanuel, Burleson said, “Biblically, yes; culturally, no.”

He said there was no biblical basis for prohibiting women from serving as pastors, but the BF&M 2000 and culture of the SBC still hinder women from moving into that role.

That culture still holds men are made in the image of God, while women are made in the image of man, “thus a woman must always submit to a man,” Burleson said.

Moving forward, he hopes Southern Baptists will adopt a more equal view of men and women.

“You never fully comprehend the full-orbed image of God until you see both the man and the woman in God’s image,” Burleson said.

The dispute over women’s roles in church and society likely won’t be settled soon, Burleson said. But, he said, the church’s decisions on how to handle Patterson and his comments on women are an important turning point.

“Twenty-five years from now, this won’t be an issue,” Burleson said. “It’s not because the Bible makes it an issue. The New Testament doesn’t.

“I believe the Bible,” Burleson concluded. “I believe we’ve missed the message of the Bible.”

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