#MeToo in the Pews: A Backlash to the Southern Baptist Patriarchy

Southern Baptist patriarch Paige Patterson has spurred a remarkable backlash in his conservative denomination via unrepentant sexism. Photo: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Tendrils of the #MeToo movement are reaching into unexpected corners of the patriarchal rock garden of American society. Most notably, a series of sexist and even violence-excusing remarks from Southern Baptist Convention theologian and former SBC president Paige Patterson is creating an unprecedented backlash in that famously conservative and politically incorrect faith community, the largest among American conservative evangelicals. Notably 2,500 Baptist women signed an open letter asking the overseers of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson serves as president, to “take a strong stand against [his] unbiblical teaching regarding womanhood, sexuality, and domestic violence.”

Resentment of Patterson’s attitudes toward women and general high-handedness has been percolating for a while, but exploded this last week when a recording surfaced of an anecdote he told in 2000 (as described by conservative evangelical columnist Michael Gerson):

An abused woman had come to him for counseling. Patterson recommended prayer. Later, the woman returned with two black eyes. In Patterson’s telling: “She said, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said, ‘Yes . . . I’m very happy,’ ” because the woman’s husband had heard her prayers and come to church the next day.

This, presumably, is Patterson’s version of a happy ending: A wife gets battered, but the church gets a new member. God works in misogynist ways.

That raised fresh attention to a more recent incident in 2014, as delicately summarized in a Christianity Today (the distinguished conservative Christian periodical) column:

In a conference sermon in Las Vegas, Patterson made crude and inventive comments about the physical attributes of a 16-year-old girl during his talk. These comments have been described as chauvinistic at best and creepy at worst.

Judge for yourself:

Patterson has also been accused in a lawsuit of colluding to cover up a sexual assault (against a man, as it happens) by his friend and close associate in Baptist politics, Paul Pressler.

But what seems to have spurred protests against Patterson is his reaction to questions about his past utterances and behavior, which has been far from penitent, as the Washington Post reports:

A prominent Southern Baptist leader whose comments about spousal abuse set off a firestorm last week said in an interview Friday that he couldn’t “apologize for what I didn’t do wrong….”

The seminary [headed by Patterson], which instructs women not to teach men and offers them classes in homemaking, this week fired a PhD seminary student from his $40,000-a-year job for simply tweeting about the Patterson debate, telling him that he was “indiscreet” and that his decision to speak publicly about the dispute “does not exhibit conduct becoming a follower of Jesus” and shows he was not properly deferring to “those placed in authority over you.”

Patterson is used to exercising authority. Before the so-called “conservative resurgence” which he helped lead during the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists were a traditionalist, Bible-focused denomination, but also one known for congregational (and state convention) autonomy, liberty of conscience, and an attitude toward church-state separation that was pretty close to the ACLU’s. After Patterson and company got through with their crusade (consolidated by the election of 12 consecutive arch-conservative SBC presidents), the SBC had become militantly fundamentalist, rigidly doctrinaire (via widespread firings of seminary faculty, denomination and state-convention staff, and even missionaries who failed litmus tests), and politically committed, as predictable in its alliances with the conservative movement and the GOP as in its intolerance for “liberalism” in any form.

One of the “conservative resurgence’s” big accomplishments was formally banning women from service as congregational pastors, as part of a broader mission of instructing women to “submit graciously” to the “leadership” of husbands. As in other Protestant denominations, there weren’t a lot of women in Southern Baptist pulpits in the past, but the conservatives made sure to shut the door and lock it:

“It’s just taking us absolutely backwards,” said the Rev. Martha Phillips, interim pastor at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Crystal City and one of about 40 female pastors in the 15.8 million-member denomination.

Before the conservative takeover, Southern Baptists were “making a little headway with women in ministry,” said Phillips, whose church counts Vice President Gore and Tipper Gore among its 180 members. “Now they’re saying, ‘We don’t want any women [as pastors].’ They’re saying it’s wrong, that the Bible is against it.”

The formal ban on women as pastors occurred in 2000, the same year Paige Patterson was celebrating the wifely submission that led to a salvific beating from a woman’s servant-leader.

The 2,500 Baptist women who signed the protest against Patterson’s proudly sexist posture made it clear they are not challenging their denomination’s policies toward gender roles in the church. But you get the sense the resentment of the patriarchy is growing. Before the more general letter about Patterson was circulated, Beth Moore, a well-known evangelist and “Bible teacher” (she does not call herself “pastor”) long associated with Southern Baptists, sent out her own “Letter to My Brothers” asking them to repent, and refusing to accept ill treatment as divinely ordained:

Then [in] early October 2016 surfaced attitudes among some key Christian leaders that smacked of misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women and it spread like wildfire. It was just the beginning. I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.

“Early October 2016,” of course, was when so many conservative evangelical leaders made light of evidence that their candidate for president was guilty of “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women.”

Whatever Baptist women think about the political views of their leaders or their president, the protests against Patterson seem to represent a watershed moment, as Tara Isabella Burton notes:

The controversy over Patterson reflects a wider shift in the evangelical church. As more and more evangelical women are rising to prominent leadership roles — and using social media to connect with one another — traditional evangelical attitudes about gender roles and sexuality are shifting. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, female evangelicals’ voices are now being heard too.

It’s unclear whether “#MeToo in the pews” will change the trajectory of the Southern Baptist Convention, much less lead to reevaluation of conservative evangelical comfort levels with piggishness in the White House and Congress, or with the entire notion that God wants a return to old-school gender roles. But Patterson’s arrogance is leading his long career to a bad end.

#MeToo in the Pews: Backlash Against the Baptist Patriarchy