Reading up on the recent Paige Patterson roil in the Southern Baptist Convention, I saw a curious discrepancy. His two versions of the same story don’t add up.
It’s hard to miss hearing about it: Washington Post covered it twice, Atlantic did a spot, Baptist Press ran damage control, Patterson on the Southwestern Seminary website posted an official statement, Christianity Today weighed in, and more.
As Ed Stetzer outlines, the problem all began because a prominent Southern Baptist Judge, Paul Pressler, is being sued over alleged sexual assault and coverup, and Paige Patterson has been named in the coverup as well. The assault allegedly involved a 14-year-old boy, and Patterson allegedly knew about it but failed to report it.
It was as part of all this, apparently, that an audio clip surfaced, in which Patterson makes some troubling comments about tolerating spousal abuse. It has now been widely circulated and condemned. In it, when asked what women should do if they are experiencing “genuine physical abuse from their husbands and their husbands say they should be submitting,” Patterson answers that, “It depends on the level of abuse to some degree.”
He goes on to state that divorce is never an option in such cases, and that even temporary separation is only recommended “when the level of abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough. . . .” He emphasized this point: “I would urge you to understand that that should happen only in the most serious of cases.” In his own ministry, he has only done so on “an occasion or two.”
Between the question itself including the phrase “genuine physical violence,” and Patterson himself stating he only counseled even temporary separation in the utmost extreme cases, only on very rare occasion, it was pretty clear to me we are speaking of cases of actual physical violence. If it were not clear enough already, he added,
I would cite examples of it [where he had counseled separation], but the examples I have had in my ministry are so awful that I will not cite them in public. That’s enough to say, however, that there is a severe physical and or moral danger that’s involved before you come to that.
From this, one is easily left with the impression that in more “routine” (please forgive the thought) cases of physical abuse, not the few most extreme ones, he would not counsel separation, let alone divorce.
The public outcry arose even harder over the one example he did give. He clearly said it was a woman who “was being subject to some abuse.” He counseled her to kneel by the bed every night, just before her husband goes to sleep, and pray quietly for God to intervene. He then warned her this could provoke the husband to be “more violent”:
And I said, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.”
In my understanding, when someone says an act could make someone “more” of something, it means they were to some degree doing it already. Thus, “more violent” would suggest prior violence.
Patterson then continues:
And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry with me, and with God and the world for that matter. And she said, “I hope you’re happy.” And I said, “Yes ma’am I am.”
He was happy, despite the abuse, because the man actually did come to church that day.
There is more to say about this episode and what it all means—and indeed much has been rightly said about it—but something stuck out to me when I read the more recent press release from Patterson. It almost completely whitewashes the narrative. It says,
Many years ago in West Texas, a woman approached me about the desire of her husband to prevent her attendance in church. He was neither harsh nor physical with her, but she felt abused. I suggested to her that she kneel by the bed at night and pray for him. Because he might hear her prayer, I warned her that he could become angry over this and seek to retaliate. Subsequently, on a Sunday morning, she arrived at church with some evidence of physical abuse. She was very surprised that this had happened. But I had seen her husband come into the church and sit down at the back. I knew that God had changed this man’s heart. What he had done to his wife had brought conviction to his heart. I was happy—not that she had suffered from his anger, but that God had used her to move her husband to conviction of his sin.
Gone from this account is any knowledge on Patterson’s part of previous physical abuse. Before, he was speaking in a context of genuine physical abuse, and referring to a case in which a woman was actually “subject to some abuse” and the husband could possibly progress further in violence. Now, suddenly, the man was not only not physical, but not even harsh; and the woman was not “subject” to abuse, but only “felt” she was being abused.
The new version also does not make sense. Why would the woman be “surprised” by the husband’s violence if Patterson had just warned her he may get more violent? It seems to me she would simply be angry and would feel betrayed—by both her husband and her pastor at that point.
But then it gets weirder yet. When Baptist Press provided Patterson an opportunity to clarify, he only confirmed everyone’s fears by saying that in cases of “non-injurious abuse” women should deal with it through prayer (not separation). The weirdness arises in that Baptist Press felt the need after the fact to revise the quotation to say cases of “minor non-injurious abuse” [emphasis added], claiming that was what Patterson really meant.
The article then went on to say about the woman’s case, “Any hint in the audio clip that he [Patterson] did suspect prior physical abuse was an error in the recounting.”
I don’t know entirely what to make of all of this, but I am certain I am not buying it. On the one hand, it is possible that Patterson retold the story wrongly back in 2000 when the audio clip was recorded. It is also possibly he really meant only “minor” abuse cases after all. But it all seems very convenient for a guy in damage control mode. The context of that earlier telling of the story seemed fairly clear; what he said seemed pretty straightforward; and the edited version(s) doesn’t make sense.
It seems to me that Patterson has changed the story a bit for PR purposes. I could obviously be wrong here, but if that’s the case, why would he have misremembered the story so poorly (strongly suggesting prior physical abuse, etc.) in the older account? Or was he exaggerating the first time he told it?
Whichever version is the true version, why did Paige Patterson change his story?
Whichever version is true, it seems that the proper thing to do here would be to resign and let another staunch conservative take his spot. That way, Patterson does the right thing, but the liberals don’t win either.
There is also a bit more to say about the case itself. In particular, I think it presents a great case of just how pietism has ruined so many conservative churches in America. The appeal to prayer alone or the evangelistic import of saving a soul to the virtual exclusion of many ethical and social considerations has essentially neutered the churches’ witness in society. That point will have to wait until later.