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Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson removed as seminary president amidst controversial comments

Paige Patterson Baptist removed as head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Paige Patterson, then-president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke inappropriately about a 16-year-old "coed" at the AWAKEN Conference in Las Vegas on Jan. 2014.
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Paige Patterson, then-president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke inappropriately about a 16-year-old "coed" at the AWAKEN Conference in Las Vegas on Jan. 2014.

Paige Patterson, the embattled Baptist leader whose comments on women and spousal abuse have drawn nationwide rebuke, has been removed as president of the Texas seminary he has led since 2003.

The board of trustees for the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary announced Wednesday, after a 13-hour discussion and prayer, that it has decided to "move in a direction of new leadership." By a majority vote, the board chose to appoint Patterson as president emeritus.

Patterson, 75, who led the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest from 1992 to 2003, is credited for wresting control of the Southern Baptist Convention from more centrist leaders and steering it in a more conservative direction. He was the convention's president in 1998 and '99.

He will continue to be paid and live on the Fort Worth campus with his wife as the first "theologians-in-residence" at the Baptist Heritage Center, scheduled to be completed in July 2018, a seminary statement said.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported new revelations Tuesday from a woman who said she reported a rape while she was studying at the Southeastern seminary in Wake Forest but was told not to report it police. George H. Harvey, an attorney for Southeastern, told the Post that an administrator "handled the matter in an appropriate manner.”

Tuesday afternoon, Southeastern President Danny Akin sent an email to students in response to the Post's allegations, which has been circulated on social media. The statement, as published on the unofficial Southern Baptist blog, SBC Voices, reads in part:

"The event took place under a previous administration. I was only recently made aware of this event. Since being made aware of the event, I have asked our General Counsel to review the actions taken by the previous administration, and we have consulted with law enforcement. I have also spoken with the former student who has brought the accusation to make sure I have an understanding of the events, and to let her know of our love for her.

"While this happened 15 years ago under a previous administration, I want to make sure the campus knows that we have a zero-tolerance policy on campus regarding rape, sexual harassment, abuse, etc.," the statement said. "If you ever are the victim of any of these, I want to encourage you to immediately report what has happened to the authorities in addition to working with our Student Life division to receive care and counseling."

A history of controversy

Patterson's removal comes after more than 3,000 women, including more than 100 from North Carolina, signed an online letter May 6 asking the Southwestern board to take action, calling Patterson's comments contrary to biblical teaching about women, sexuality and authority. It suggests his comments might hurt the Southern Baptist Convention, to which the Texas seminary belongs. Patterson is scheduled to speak at the upcoming Dallas convention.

The protestor's letter cites a video from a 2014 in which Patterson refers to a 16-year-old girl as "nice" and quotes a teenager describing her as "built." The letter also references Patterson's refusal to retract comment from a recording made 18 years ago, in which he said he would counsel most women in abusive marriages to remain wed and pray for their husbands.

Patterson said he had never endorsed divorce, calling it "wrong counsel," and while "all abuse is serious," he would advise temporary separation in the most dangerous and immoral cases.

Patterson's remarks on women have generated controversy before.

In a 1997 article published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Wake Forest University's plan to open a divinity school, the former dean said women should be ordained as ministers because the Christian act of baptism means "everybody is free," including those who want to preach. Asked about women, Patterson is quoted in the article, "I think everybody should own at least one."

In 2010, Patterson said some female seminary students had not done enough to make themselves attractive, saying, "It shouldn't be any wonder why some of you don't get a second look."

He drew further attention when audio from 2000 surfaced in which Patterson told the story of a woman who described being beaten by her husband. He told her to pray, and she came back with two black eyes. She said, 'I hope you're happy,' " Patterson recalled in the sermon. "And I said, 'Yes ... I'm very happy,' " because her husband came to church for the first time.

Faith community reaction

Molly Worthen, a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who has written an account of American evangelicals and the culture wars, cautioned against interpreting Patterson's removal as an overnight sea change within the Southern Baptist Convention.

When the #MeToo movement began, she said, many evangelical women considered it an overreaction from left-leaning thinkers, and that in general, they would have supported the idea that God created men and women with separate but equal roles.

But the steady news of abuse from powerful men planted seeds of doubt, she said, that will require a new level of sensitivity for Patterson's successors.

"There's been a slow boil of evangelical women coming forward and disclosing these ugly things that men in their subculture have done or said," Worthen said. "They seem to have reached a critical mass."

J.D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh who is a candidate for Southern Baptist Convention president, tweeted his reaction, calling the news "heartbreaking" because Patterson had been an early influence in his career.

But he added in his tweet, "There can be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. Abuse can never be tolerated, minimized, hidden, or 'handled internally.' Those who turn a blind eye toward abuse are complicit with it and must be held accountable"

In the Southwestern seminary statement, the board said Patterson has complied with any reporting laws regarding abuse and assault and that the seminary "stands against all forms of abuse."

Others in the Triangle faith community decried the board's decision as lax.

"Why are young people leaving the church?" asked Raleigh Mennonite Church pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler in a tweet. "When a prominent church leader is fired for aiding abuse in word and deed they get a retirement package, a mansion and residency."

The Southwestern seminary also concluded that a seminary doctoral student named Nathan Montgomery didn't commit any misconduct when he retweeted a blog post that called for Patterson to step down. While he received online praise, he lost his job as a result.

"The world is watching us all, brothers," said the letter from the women protesting Patterson. "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 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 Southwestern board said Jeffrey Bingham, dean of the school of theology, would be offered the position of interim president.

"The ... board of trustees is grateful for the contributions Dr. and Mrs. Paige Patterson have made since his presidency began in 2003," the statement said.

Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08
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