NOTE: Originally published on June 4, this updated version reflects information since provided by Shelby Sharpe, legal counsel for Paige Patterson.
All of us have been besieged by the floodtide of news that is circulating around the country about the crisis at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary related to the termination of President Paige Patterson.
This editorial is not designed to question the decision of the Executive Committee of the Trustees of the institution, because I do not know what news they had that the rest of us do not have that prompted their decision. However, I think there are some unintended consequences to their decision that are worth considering.
First, since some of the charges against Patterson are 15 years old, what motivated the investigation that led to the decision to remove him from his role at Southwestern? One complaint against Dr. Patterson charged him with failure to report a rape at SEBTS during the last year of his presidency there. Social media has had a heyday with this accusation.
Shelby Sharpe, Dr. Patterson’s legal counsel, released a response to the accusations leveled against Dr. Patterson on June 4 and stated, “Dr. Patterson first learned of the charges that he allegedly did not report a rape as SEBTS during the May 22 board meeting.
“Dr. Patterson’s response was that he had no recollection of a rape being reported to him. To date, as far as we are aware, all parties with direct involvement and knowledge of the situation have stated rape was not mentioned. Thus, when Dr. Patterson was asked about this charge during the May 22 meeting, he did not have a recollection of any such accusation
Sharpe continued, “Significantly, one of the trustees sent a communication during the May 22 meeting to the SEBTS woman assigned to counsel the young woman, and this former SEBTS staff member further confirmed what Dr. Patterson shared.”
The social media frenzy and emails I have received since the Executive Committee made their decision has some requesting for the removal of the EC and the exoneration of Patterson while others are praising the EC and calling for Patterson to be banished to some forsaken isle. Via social media, both are being judged in the court of public opinion.
Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but the day after the Executive Committee rendered what amounts to “the death penalty” Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer, recently retired pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, wrote a blog entitled “Social Media: Where Anger is Disguised as Justice.”
He wrote: “I am grieved at the way in which social media is being used (or rather misused) in today’s overheated and angry culture. Christians are falling into the snare of sniping at each other in ungodly ways, all ‘for the sake of truth.’ I am reminded of Paul’s words in Galatians, “… through love serve one another … But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another’ (Galatians 5:13b, 15). Yes, we now have a platform where we can, if we wish, bite and devour others.
“The self-righteousness on the part of some on social media should drive us to our knees, pleading with God on their behalf even as we warn ourselves about falling into the same trap. Many online tend to pontificate with an air of self-assurance as if they have a privileged position to know all the facts about a person or a situation and are called by God to make the crooked paths straight. These self-appointed judges want ‘those in the wrong’ to confess that they (and their judgments) are completely right. This is a long way from Paul’s admonition, ‘Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted’” (Galatians 6:1).
Second, the termination of Patterson over what has been called “inappropriate” comments about a teenage girl, his views on domestic violence, and his failure to report a rape while president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary have given some people reason to believe that an egalitarian view of scripture may eventually weave its way into Southern Baptist life.
Egalitarianism is a system of belief that denies any intrinsic difference between men and women aside from the obvious biological distinctions. Although there are varying degrees of this philosophy, most egalitarians believe that men and women are equal and carry responsibilities in both the home and church, which are mutual or interchangeable between the sexes. Many of the people in this camp would support the ordination of women as pastors.
Third, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) is watching with interest as Southern Baptists flounder in the midst of the current turmoil. The CBF split from Southern Baptists in 1991 and one of the reasons for that split was over the role of women in the church.
One of the Dallas television stations, WFAA – Channel 8, interviewed Pastor George Mason of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, a church affiliated with the CBF. Mason stated, “I hope that something deeper happens and that is the structure of their whole thought and theology changes. I hope Southern Baptists will not see Paige Patterson as the problem himself, but a symptom of the problem.
Norman Geisler, author and professor of theology, apologetics, and ethics, wrote a commentary about the termination of Patterson and explained, “Patterson is one of the great evangelical leaders of our day. His departure in this manner will send a strong and wrong signal, namely, one of encouragement to the less-conservative movement in the country.”
Fourth, those given primarily to conspiracy theories seem to think Patterson’s termination is part of a larger plan to change the course of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some believe that the Executive Committee of the trustees of Southwestern Seminary properly adjudicated their fiduciary responsibilities regarding Patterson on the basis of the information provided them, but apparently to some, the Executive Committee’s decision was a step toward a much larger strategy – fundamentally changing the leadership and direction of the Southern Baptist Convention.
If that speculation has any validity at all, one can only guess what a revised Southern Baptist Convention would look like. Will it be more reformed in its theology? Will it more effectively capture the interest and participation of Millennials and provide more opportunities for them to lead? Will it open the door for a more egalitarian view of Scripture? Will it order a new restructuring of our agencies and institutions? Will it become more hierarchical in its structure? Will it be more evangelistic? Will it still have Baptist associations, state conventions, and a national convention? Believe it or not, these are questions sometimes asked in the hinterland of Southern Baptists.
Fifth, what will become of Paige Patterson? Obviously this revelation has been devastating to the Pattersons and the healing process will not come easily, but his resilience will likely win out in time and this could open up a whole new ministry for both Paige and Dorothy Patterson.
God’s forgiveness and grace are amazing and restorative realities; and like the Phoenix from Greek mythology one could well believe that the Pattersons will arise anew from the smoldering ashes of this experience and significantly glorify God with a vital ministry in the years they have left.