With the May 2018 firing of Paige Patterson as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) the #MeToo movement hit the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) full force. But in response a group of wealthy donors – pledging their “absolute and unwavering support” to Patterson – has attacked the seminary’s Executive Committee while also threatening to withhold gifts and bequests worth “tens of millions of dollars.”
What does all this mean for the seminary, and for the denomination? To help us get some perspective on these questions, we have asked four rightingamerica contributors for their insights.
It seems to me that the SBTS situation is more institution-specific than denomination-wide, but I could be wrong about that. Certainly, other institutions affiliated with the SBC will be watching to see how much the dismissal of Paige Patterson costs the seminary. Even so, the costs of continuing to look the other way on sexual assault and abuse strike me as being even higher. I don’t think the #MeToo phenomenon is reversible, anywhere.
What’s especially unsettling about the donors’ letter is its attitude of deference being owed, by seminary board members and everyone else, and its insistence that the due process of law would uphold the prerogatives of the already powerful. Certainly, it’s not only conservative donors who expect deference or assert, loudly, that the law is on their side. But the expectation of deference asserted in the letter cannot but remind me of the opposition faced by Martin Luther King, Jr., and described in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
I don’t think it’s a misapplication of Dr. King’s words to see their relevance for women who also struggle to see their “dignity and worth” recognized within the SBC and evangelicalism more broadly. Neither the women who came forward nor the SBTS board created the tension they now face; Patterson and his enablers did. The board lanced a boil. Unfortunately, the donors behind the letter do not seem interested in a cure, preferring to “block the flow of social progress.” I do not think they will succeed, although they might be able to cripple the institution they claim to love.
The recent attempt by wealthy supporters of Paige Patterson to help him reeks of a nasty irony. Wealth and power, always ready to use coercive means, is now employed to restore Patterson, if not to his former job, at least to his former status. There’s a double irony because Jesus rejected the devil’s offer of wealth and power. Now, in the name of Jesus, some Southern Baptists want to use wealth and power against women. The very tools of the devil have long been used to abuse and mistreat women. One can hope that this brazen attempt to cover a multitude of sins against women with the trappings of wealth and power will be rejected by Southern Baptists.
It is absolutely right to focus on the ways institutional pressures can push these issues one way or the other. Especially when the question is as morally and emotionally wrenching as this one, it’s tempting to talk mostly about theology or ethics. But as you point out, interested parties can do much more than appeal to conscience or Biblical hermeneutics. The power of conservative alumni and trustees at evangelical colleges exerted enormous influence throughout the twentieth century. At least, that’s the argument I tried to make in Fundamentalist U. Time and time again, the combination of deep-pocketed activist alumni and obdurate trustees could push schools to take conservative positions—even fairly radical ones, as Wheaton College did in 1961.
In institutional politics, money talks. And often wins. The SBC has a rocky road ahead.
Emily Hunter McGowin
When it comes to the current situation in the SBC, I think it is important to keep in mind that classifying new denominational president JD Greear as a “moderate” is very problematic. I suppose he’s moderate in comparison to some and in certain respects (i.e., less given to the “culture war” mentality), but he is certainly not moderate compared to others (anyone outside the SBC, perhaps). For example, on the matter of women in the church, Greear is just as conservative as Patterson, Mohler, and others. His church is “unashamedly and uncompromisingly complementarian.” They “affirm without qualification the Danvers Statement on gender roles in the kingdom of God.” They forbid women to serve as elders or teach in any way that is “elder-like.” You can read their statement on women teaching in public here.
So, despite the fact that Greear seems to be a favorite of younger, less fundamentalist pastors and leaders of the SBC, he still promotes a gender ideology that is ultimately harmful to women. It is the very same gender ideology that empowered Paige Patterson to act as he has for so many years.