by Elesha Coffman
Today’s post is written by Elesha Coffman, assistant professor of history at Baylor University and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (Oxford). She is a graduate of Wheaton College and Duke University.
First off, let me say that I agree with everything Emily Hunter McGowin wrote about the gas-lighting of evangelical women long before, and far beyond, what has recently been exposed about Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention. I heard all of the same messages she did as I grew up in evangelical churches, conditioning me to believe that it was my constant responsibility to manage men’s sexual temptation while deferring to their authority. The specific contours of evangelical gender ideology, especially as defined by the Religious Right from the 1970s onward, place crushing burdens on women. I ultimately had to leave evangelicalism in order not to lose my faith and my sanity.
But it’s not just evangelicalism.
As the Patterson abuses were coming to light, I couldn’t help but think back to the devastating revelations about a sexual predator from a very different theological tradition, John Howard Yoder. In early 2015 (how long ago that feels, in scandal-years!) the Mennonite Quarterly Review laid out the case against the revered pacifist theologian, who had violated more than 100 women over the course of several decades. Every part of the story was awful—the violations, the years of cover-ups, victims not heard or believed, powerful men excusing each other’s worst behavior.
As with Patterson, Yoder’s egregious acts were already known (though not to their full extent) by insiders, but the urge to protect a hero, an institution, and theological insights deemed true and critically important drowned out the cries for justice. Until the cries broke through—and even then, the defensive urges rose up.
He didn’t live up to his own theology, but that theology still stands on its merits, people said about those guys, as well as about figures as varied as Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m sticking to 20th and 21st century Protestantism because that is the field I know best, but countless other examples could be cited from other time periods and Christian traditions as well.
McGowin is absolutely right that Patterson is fruit of a poisonous tree, and cutting him down—while a good and necessary step—will accomplish little unless the rotten branches are pruned and the source of the poison located. The same warped gender ideology that supported Hybels and Savage would fall to this pruning, but what about Yoder and the others? Is patriarchy so deep-seated in Christianity that it cannot be rooted out? On the other side of this question, what good fruit might be lost if we take this particular axe to the Christian family tree? Not all of these figures, or their ideas, seem to belong on the same burn pile, even though they all abused women.
These questions defy easy answers. I do think that there are two basic approaches that Christians and scholars of Christianity can take to them, one that is not helpful and one that can be:
1. Assume that the problem is localized and the damage can be limited. For the SBC, this approach would entail removing Patterson from leadership while leaving complementarianism and the “Conservative Resurgence” intact. The first test of this strategy is not encouraging: the preacher giving the big convention sermon in Patterson’s stead covered up child abuse at his church, ignoring the testimony of multiple women over many years.
This strategy is unsound in the classroom as well. As the Yoder story was emerging, a theology professor wrote,
to the extent that the theologian’s scandalous actions did not affect his theology (or biblical scholarship) I see no reason to make much of them. They should probably be mentioned in a biography but there’s no need to reject his whole theology because of them.
Scandalous actions and theology may, in some cases, be separable. King’s adultery, for instance, does not seem to have a whole lot to do with his theology of race, poverty, and nonviolence. But this is not a wise assumption to start off with. Minimizing, sidestepping, and tortuous justifications will almost inevitably follow.
2. Assume that the problem is systemic and the damage widespread. Emily Hunter McGowin articulated this position vis-à-vis Patterson, and she’s not alone. Other men and women are similarly calling for broader and deeper investigation, believing that Patterson’s abuses of women are inseparably connected to complementarian theology and the power plays that he and his proteges used to take over their denomination.
This assumption of a systemic problem also proved necessary in Yoder’s case. Theologians who admired him were loath to shelve his insights, eager to separate the scandal from the theology. But eventually, four of them wrote, they had to ask themselves,
what do we do with the places where Yoder’s actions were consistent with his theology? We must be willing to consider the possibility that in pursuing these relationships with other Christian women, Yoder just might have been applying his radical theology, though in ways the rest of us had, to his mind, not the courage to imagine.
Feminist theologian Cynthia Garrity-Bond wrote even more forthrightly,
I believe the weight of an accused theologian’s sexual charges must be brought to the foreground before, during and after examination of their writings. Using a hermeneutics of suspicion let the student wrestle with the weight of said theologian and their sexual misconduct. Absent a full disclosure and examination, only a false exegesis is given.
I heartily concur with McGowin that “this tangled mess of misogynistic axioms … must be rooted out and disposed of—within the SBC and American evangelicalism as a whole.” I only wish we could stop there. The roots of this problem are deep, the branches are wide, and the fruit is sickening.