It might take the ghost of Sam Ervin to get to the bottom of the scandal that has enveloped Southern Baptists. It was our own Watergate-investigating Senator Sam who made famous Walter Scott's 1808 poem when Ervin repeated this couplet before a national audience: "Oh! What a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive!"
A web has entangled Paige Patterson, a prominent Baptist leader and the former head of Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest. Patterson recently was dismissed from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Texas.
First the board at Southwestern moved Patterson, 75, to emeritus status after reports surfaced of various comments Patterson made about women, including his description in a sermon of a 16-year-old girl.
Then the board fired Patterson outright for how he handled two allegations of rape, one at Southeastern (where he was president from 1992 to 2003) and one at Southwestern. In the first incident, the board said a student record showed an allegation of rape had been made by a female student. "This information contradicts a statement previously provided by Dr. Patterson in response to a direct question by a Board member," wrote Kevin Ueckert, the board chair.
Ueckert, in a Watergate-like twist, also revealed that documents from Patterson's era were missing from Southeastern. Patterson had said he only took documents that belonged to him. But Ueckert said documents were found at Southwestern that "clearly dealt with Dr. Patterson’s tenure at Southeastern and should have been previously provided in response" to a request from a lawyer. Southeastern wants the documents back.
Patterson is out but for Southern Baptists, who hold their annual meeting Tuesday and Wednesday in Dallas, the debate might just be starting. Patterson has been a dominant force in the second largest denomination in the country. He is admired by many Baptists for his role in leading a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. His dismissal was advocated by a group of Baptist women who wrote a statement objecting to Patterson's language.
Some have called the push for Patterson's departure Southern Baptists' #MeToo movement. But it's unclear whether the movement has peaked or will transform into a broader debate about the role of women.
"The systemic problem is fostered by the theological outlook, which was at the very heart of (previous) Baptist battles and that was the submission of women," said Curtis Freeman, professor of theology at Duke and director of the Baptist House of Studies.
At issue is "complementarianism," which Freeman described as "men and women are equal but women's role is to be graciously submissive to her husband," and women play a similarly submissive role in the church.
Kathryn House, a Duke graduate and doctoral student at the Boston University School of Theology, studies evangelical culture. She admires the courage of the Southern Baptist women who are pushing for change. "They're calling for the denomination to have some hard discussions," she said. "It is significant that these stories from women are making a difference so powerfully at this time."
House says Baptists at the convention likely will speak out against abuse and say it's inconsistent with their theology. But she doesn't think the Baptists will go further and redefine a different role for women. She points out that many prominent Southern Baptists signed last year's Nashville Statement denouncing same-sex marriage and transgender identity. Southern Baptist views on gender, gender expression, and sexuality are part of the same system, she said.
Yet clearly Baptist women have raised their voices — and been heard. Patterson had been scheduled for a year to give a prominent sermon on the last day of the convention. Church leaders, concerned about the message that would send to women, urged him to withdraw. On Friday, Patterson withdrew, but not before voicing his support for "the biblical, complementary role assignments for men and women as given in Scripture."