Voices: Why Paige Patterson’s comments on abuse are dangerous

Portrait of Seminary President Paige Patterson alongside oil portrait of B.H. Carroll, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's first president, posing in the rotunda of the B.H. Carroll Memorial Complex. (AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Paul Moseley)

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This past weekend, a tape recording of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson surfaced.

On the tape, Dr. Patterson is asked what he recommends to women who are undergoing genuine physical abuse and whose husbands say they should be submitting.

Dr. Patterson’s first response is to say, “It depends on the level of abuse to some degree.” He continues by saying he has never counseled that anyone seek a divorce, except for a few occasions when “the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough” did he advise temporary separation, though only in the most serious situations.

He also describes a situation in which he instructed a woman to pray for her abusive husband, and she returned to church the next Sunday with two black eyes. When she asked if he was happy, he said yes because her husband had come to church and made a commitment to Christ that day.

An ‘unwise’ illustration?

In Dr. Patterson’s press release in response to the backlash that has followed the release of the tape, he wrote, “For sharing this illustration, especially in the climate of this culture, I was probably unwise.”

Before I say anything more, let me first say this: All abuse is serious, dangerous and immoral. All abuse. Period. No one should ever be happy about abuse, even if someone repents and follows Christ after committing the abuse.

Abuse should always be taken seriously as an attack against the image of God which dwells in all human beings.

If you are being abused, whether you are a woman, man, child, any person at all, you do not deserve the abuse and you should not submit to it. Find help. Report your abuser. Seek the counsel and advocacy of someone who values you completely.

Additionally, I am concerned that interpretations of the Bible have been used to promote an ideology which says women are expected to return to their abusive husbands, submit and pray.

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Many followers of Christ read New Testament passages which discuss the submission of women and limitation of women’s roles in leadership to be contextual—meaning that Paul and others were prescribing submission and limitations for a particular cultural context, or perhaps even a particular church (e.g., the church at Corinth), rather than presenting a universally normative standard.

I know Dr. Patterson does not follow this interpretation about cultural context. However, in that case I find it odd that he would think that sharing an illustration is only “unwise” in the context of a particular cultural climate like that of today’s #metoo movement.

Like the universal norms represented in the scriptural interpretation he espouses, if something is unwise in one context then it should be unwise in all contexts.

‘The effect of persistent patriarchy’

Each time I teach a New Testament survey to Hardin-Simmons University students, I devote a class session to discussing the New Testament and women.

I highlight examples of women who appear in the New Testament, as well as examine passages that specifically address women’s roles within the church and the home.

I present students with various interpretive options and allow them to discuss and consider which interpretation they might feel is most consistent with their view of how the Bible should be read and applied to life today. I do not tell them what they should think, though I share my own perspective with them.

At the end of the class, I make some general statements about how we should respond regardless of which interpretation we follow.

This is the final statement on the last slide of my presentation: “Each of us must interpret the various passages to decide what female leadership looks like in the home, church, and workplace, while acknowledging other views and the effect of persistent patriarchy on cultural conceptions of ‘womanhood’ and women leaders.”

I made this presentation to my New Testament survey class last Thursday. When explaining what I meant by this final statement, I told the students that, for example, at times persistent patriarchy has constructed a view of women as less than worthy of full humanity.

This shows up when some people think women’s submission means a husband can hit his wife if she is not being submissive to him.

My students were appalled. They acted as if they could not imagine a world in which this was the case. (I only say “they acted as if” because sometimes outward reactions are different than inward ones, especially for those students with abuse in their pasts or presents).

I am saddened that I was proven right.

I am saddened that today, yesterday or two thousand years ago, any Christian leader might have valued a man’s right to dominance over the well-being of a woman or any human being.

Fellow followers of Christ, let us commit ourselves to debunk the myth of “levels of abuse,” to advocate for the safety of all God’s beloved and to not let our scriptural interpretations devalue the humanity of any person.

Meredith Stone is director of ministry guidance and instructor of Christian ministry and Scripture at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology & Seminary. She is a member of the Baptist Standard Publishing board of directors.

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