I grew up (and spent a lot of my adult life) in a small slice of Christianity called independent Baptists. Independent Baptists are separate from Southern Baptists and other types of Baptists. Generally speaking, independent Baptists lean toward what you might call fundamentalism and are more conservative in doctrine and practice.
Because we were always to the right of everyone else and because we were constantly told that we were the ones that had it right, I grew up thinking that we independent Baptists were unique. I carried that delusion for a long time but eventually figured out that there was nothing really unique about us. We were just on a different place on the sliding scale of what is considered acceptable practice and doctrine for Christians. We were for example a bit to the right of the average Southern Baptist church and a lot to the right of United Methodists. There were churches to the right of us as well but of course we thought they were crazy legalists, maybe snake handlers and such.
Here is another interesting thing I eventually learned: practically every church tends to be wired to resist culture changes; and almost every church is changing/adapting in culture at about the same speed. However, the more to the conservative right a church is, the more it trails behind prevalent culture. In other words, independent Baptists might still be fighting the cultural battles of the 1980’s while some Southern Baptists are still fighting the battles of the 1990’s.
My point in saying what I just said is to point out that about any denomination (or division within a denomination) will encounter the same problems where it clashes with culture and finds itself on the wrong side. The only differences will be the degree of the problem and when the problem chooses to rear its ugly head.
To give a timely illustration, almost every church is going to fight issues regarding sexual abuse because this is one of those areas where culture has improved over time rather than gotten worse. Not a one of us wants a society that deals with this issue in the way it was done a century ago –where a woman in an abusive situation had few options to protect herself. This reality creates a problem for churches that tend to resist change and puts them on the wrong side of the debate. The more change resistant they are, the worse the problem gets and the longer it lingers. That is why it is the more conservative churches that seem to be constantly under attack for their views on this issue (though all denominations have been affected).
Today, I attend a Southern Baptist church but I don’t necessarily consider myself Southern Baptist. I am not an expert on their culture and politics and this post is not about Southern Baptists really. It is just observations about how things seem to work in Christianity and probably humanity in general. The particular topic I want to discuss is one that many of you have sent me articles on: the Paige Patterson controversy.
I have talked before about Rachel Denhollander (the sex abuse victim of Larry Nassar), that has built a lot of credibility because of the way she orchestrated the campaign that eventually took him down. Shortly after she did, she wrote an article that went viral that discussed the shortcomings of the church in regards to its approach to dealing with abuse. At the time, she primarily pointed out the deficiencies in Sovereign Grace Ministries. This week, she is weighing in on the Patterson situation.
I greatly admire Denhollander and I believe in her mission as well as her belief that in general, many churches do a horrific job in the area of sex abuse and they need to change. If I were to give Rachel some advice (not that she needs it), I would tell her to pull some punches and use her influence very judiciously. In true lawyer form (she is an attorney), she has quickly moved to relentless attack mode. The institutions she is attacking don’t appreciate it, but that is to be expected. In many cases, they are entrenched in defensive protection mode and bad theology and beyond help. In fact, some of those organizations are either going to have to get new leaders or they are going to die. I don’t feel too sorry for them. However, the problem Rachel has is that if she is too aggressive, she will lose the middle. She does not want to make the people that are still persuadable think that she is a bully. I don’t for a second think she is a bully but I think she should stay conscious of the fact that people with influence can be perceived that way when they start speaking out.
I note that she is already getting pushback from some who accuse her of being angry (if not bitter) and tell her she needs to focus on her “beautiful” family (which is code for “this is none of your business and besides, you are a woman”). That is predictable. Doing what she is trying to do will make her few friends but a ton of enemies. That is OK, too. I know exactly what it feels like to have a lot of enemies because I have written extensively on spousal abuse.
In regards to Patterson, here is what I would say. Growing up, between Christian school and church, I heard an enormous amount of sheer nonsense. I heard preachers and teachers talk about women in ways that I am sure would make Patterson blush. I heard preachers call for <insert crass names for homosexuals> to be executed. I heard overt racism, other things that would be considered hate speech today, and all kinds of revisionist history. I saw brutal bullying from the pulpit; I once watched a pastor berate a small girl right out of the church, yelling at her as she cried and ran down the aisle in front of 250 people.
In my opinion, those preachers and teachers were for the most part good people who were just stuck in a time and environment that led them to say and do some stupid things. I consider many of them to be friends today. Some of them have apologized to me for things they used to say. They have adapted and changed for the better.
By the way, here is someone else that was saying stupid things during that same time: me. Not only did I believe and cheer what I heard and saw but I regurgitated it. I wince at some of the things I said to people over the years. It seems unbelievable that I could have ever believed certain things but I did.
That is why I try to extend grace to those stuck in a past regressive thinking that does not belong in the future. We all have those people in our lives. We are all those people ourselves. We are all on the same timeline but just in different places.
That includes Paige Patterson. Here is a guy that clearly has done a lot of good/great things but has some problems in his views about women. He said some dumb things back in an era where lots of his peers were saying dumber things. Even today, preachers are still saying those dumb things, though thankfully with far less frequency. I am not excusing Patterson but you have to take what he said in context of his time.
Extending grace to Patterson does not mean allowing him to continue to speak for Southern Baptists or hold leadership roles. Southern Baptists have to decide what they want to be known for, and they need to decide who is going to represent them. The problem with Patterson is that he is apparently doubling down on what he said. If he can’t bring himself to repent, he possibly either still believes what he said or is too arrogant to admit he was wrong. In either case, I would not want him to be the face of my denomination. He is like the cranky old racist uncle that you let come to Thanksgiving, not because you have anything in common but because he is family. He gets grace and even respect, but he doesn’t get to ruin the dinner with his drivel.
What a lot of people are going to find more offensive than Patterson saying stupid things in the 1990s and refusing to back down now is if the Southern Baptist leadership circles the wagons to protect him. That is what always seems to happen in these situations regardless of the denomination; and it is inexcusable. The Southern Baptists can survive this kind of thing but make no mistake about it: they are not going to survive unless they condemn the indefensible and teach something better. The “indefensible” I am talking about includes Patterson’s views on abuse.
The Patterson situation is not really my fight (since I am a fringe Southern Baptist at best), but that is how I see it. And as far as Rachel is concerned, go Rachel go! Just remember that the court of public opinion is different from the courtroom you are more used to.