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It’s Not about Paige Patterson: Sex and Gender in the SBC and Beyond | Righting America

by Emily McGowin

Today’s post is from frequent rightingamerica contributor Emily Hunter McGowin, who  is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She also serves as a deacon in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). You can learn more about Emily at her website.

Last week, Dr. Paige Patterson was dismissed as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, one of five seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. He was fired due to a variety of misdeeds, including advising at least one rape victim not to report the rape to police (during his tenure at a sister institution), speaking of young women in sexually suggestive ways, and counseling a woman being physically abused by her husband to remain in her marriage and pray so that he might be saved.

Those outside the SBC probably don’t know that Paige Patterson is a hero of the so-called Conservative Resurgence—a series of events through which a conservative faction of Southern Baptists, led by Patterson and his friend, Paul Pressler, wrested control of the seminaries and national convention from a moderate faction that had been in control for some time. For his work in the takeover, Patterson has been lionized, idolized, and rendered practically untouchable—until now.

I became a Christian in a SBC church, received my B.A. in a SBC school, and served for many years in SBC churches. Even though I am no longer Southern Baptist today, I know firsthand the treatment women can endure in such environments. For this reason, many of my formerly Southern Baptist friends and I have followed the Patterson story with interest.

His firing is important for many of us because it signals that even larger-than-life figures like Patterson can be held accountable for their treatment of women. In an evangelical world that has been stubbornly resistant to dealing with its own #metoo crisis, this is one symbolic step in the right direction. And, on a smaller scale, it confirms what many of us have known in our guts about Patterson for a long time. After feeling like an entire institution was gas-lighting us for years, finally someone acknowledged the truth. And our guts were right all along.

Still, as my friend Todd Littleton has said, it is important to recognize that this isn’t really about Paige Patterson. This isn’t even about Southern Baptist seminaries. Patterson is merely a symptom of a much larger problem. And while Todd is right to call out the theology of glory at work in Southern Baptist churches, I would like to draw attention to something more specific: the sex and gender ideology that saturates the SBC and American evangelical culture more broadly.

After I became a Christian as a teenager, one of the first lessons I learned was that my body was inherently a sexual object—something for which I should feel both awe and shame. Awe for the immense power I wielded over the minds and bodies of men and shame for the times I failed to protect their fragile purity.

The other lesson I learned was closely linked to the first: because women’s bodies are sexual objects, relationships between men and women are always sexually fraught. That is, a woman’s body is always a temptation to men therefore genuine friendship between the sexes is not possible. And, because it is the woman’s body that is problematic, the majority of the responsibility for conforming to Christian sexual ethics falls on the woman.

Her role is necessarily precarious: Appear physically inviting to men (you must “take care of yourself”), but not too inviting (“you don’t advertise what’s not for sale”). Present yourself as open to sex (you don’t want to be a “prude”), but not too much (good Christian men don’t respect “loose women”). In short, you must say no, no, no to everything until your wedding night; then your job is simply to say yes, yes, yes.   

So, when, as a 17 year-old college freshman sitting in my first chapel service, an older male student placed his hand on my knee and moved it up my skirt to my thigh, the shock that froze me in place immediately turned into shame and self-loathing. What did I do to make this happen? Was it the skirt? Was it because I didn’t wear panty hose? Was I enticing this behavior without knowing it? His leering smile suggested this approach to women was not new to him and I was too terrified to tell him to stop.

Later, when I shared my story with another male student who inquired about my distressed appearance, he sympathized with my horror but implied it would be better not to go to the administration. It could hurt both of our reputations. Both of our reputations.

In the end, I said nothing. I endured classes with him every semester until he graduated. I never wore that skirt to school again. And that young man—now a middle-aged man—is still a Southern Baptist pastor today.

The way my experience played out makes sense within the culture that shaped me. Of course, the principles about gender and sex that we absorbed in SBC institutions and broader evangelical culture were not explained as principles. Instead, they made up an invisible web of discourse within which we learned to negotiate.

If the first thread of that web is that women’s bodies are sex objects and male-female relationships are always sexually fraught, then more of the threads could be summarized as follows:

A woman exists primarily for the benefit of the men in her life, typically her father or her husband. A woman who senses a calling apart from those roles needs to figure out how her calling complements and supports the calling of her husband. The husband’s calling, gifting, and agency takes priority over the wife’s. And this reality must be prepared for and practiced in the dating relationship. The man leads; the woman follows. (No mention was ever made of women who may not feel compelled to get married or who are not attracted to men at all.)

Men are inordinately preoccupied with and tempted by sex. Because this is their fundamental nature as men, it is the woman’s job to ensure she protects the men in her life from her body. This principle is in tension with the one stated above. In a dating relationship, the woman does not lead but she is primarily responsible for their sexual purity.

A woman cannot say yes to any sexual act before marriage. Thus, any sexual activity before marriage is shameful and makes the woman “used goods”. (Ask any girl who attended an evangelical youth group in the 90s and she’ll be able to tell you stories of being compared to chewed up gum, used duct tape, filthy water, and more.) There was no distinction made between sexual abuse and consensual sexual acts despite the fact that, statistically speaking, one in four women have been or will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. Any sexual activity—wanted or unwanted—outside the bonds of marriage is shameful and something for which you will suffer in the future.

A woman cannot say no to sex after marriage. A married man has the right to have his sexual desires satisfied. And a married woman’s role is to satisfy the sexual desires of her husband. Therefore, a married woman should not say no to sex except in extraordinary circumstances. The underlying assumption here is that if she submits, performs, and willingly cooperates with her husband in bed, then the sex will be enjoyable for both partners and he will not become addicted to pornography or commit adultery. In the event that either of the latter scenarios come to pass, then it might be because the wife was not fulfilling her husband sexually. (I have heard men blame the wives of celebrity pastors for their sexual indiscretions more times than I can count.)

If a man harasses, assaults, or rapes a woman, she might bear some responsibility for it. A man’s sexual desires are not easily controlled and it is a woman’s responsibility to protect the minds of the men she interacts with. Perhaps she was in a place she shouldn’t have been, wearing what she should not have worn, saying things she should not have said, or doing things she should not have done. This is born out in one of the stories in the Patterson case: A student at Patterson’s seminary who told him she’d been raped was later disciplined for being in the man’s room.

Again, these principles were and are rarely stated in the explicit way I have outlined above. Nevertheless, they were the ideological water within which many of us learned to swim.

All of these threads in the web of the evangelical sex and gender discourse would be harmful enough on their own, but they are typically paired with one overarching axiom: Men are ordained by God to be leaders in the church and the home and women are to submit graciously to their leadership.

It is this last one—divinely ordained deference to male authority—that helps explain the stories emerging from Patterson’s tenure at both Southeastern and Southwestern seminaries. When joined with overarching male headship and a “touch not the Lord’s anointed” (Ps. 105:15) view of the pastoral office (and all of its derivatives), the sex and gender discourse that exists within SBC and American evangelicalism easily leads to the perpetuation and concealment of harm against women. Certainly, I know plenty of men who hold to male headship who do not endorse the other principles outlined above. Yet, the tangled discursive web remains in place, and women and men are continuing to suffer.

I’m afraid I could tell other stories. I could tell about the time a young man I dated briefly stalked me for months after I stopped seeing him because, “God told me you’re supposed to be my wife.” I could tell about the whispered innuendo concerning my relationship with a mentor professor and the implication that my body was the reason for my apparent success. I could tell about the covert (and sometimes overt) hostility from male students when I served as a guest instructor (“Do you have your husband’s permission to teach this class?”). I could tell about the comments on my appearance when I attended conferences and delivered papers. Or, the steely, awkward silence I endured as the only woman in the room. And I could tell about countless jokes and sarcastic remarks aimed at woman’s nature, gifts, and “proper place”.

All of this I endured quietly, mindful of my place in the hierarchy and aware of the consequences if I drew attention to myself. This was just the way the system worked, and I had to learn to deal with it. I was by no means the only one. But my friends’ stories are not mine to tell.

Of course, my experience in the SBC wasn’t all bad. Not at all. I owe a lot to Southern Baptist professors and mentors and I’m grateful for them. Also, I am proud and thankful to be friends with many Southern Baptists to this day. I have been encouraged by the reaction of many Southern Baptist pastors to the #metoo wave that continues to sweep through the United States. They are speaking out and trying, slowly but surely, to change a culture where misogyny has been allowed to flourish under the guise of benevolent patriarchy.

But that leads us back to Patterson. The web of sex and gender ideology I’ve described above exists with or without Paige Patterson and with or without the SBC. It is this tangled mess of misogynistic axioms that must be rooted out and disposed of—within the SBC and American evangelicalism as a whole. This culture is harmful to men, to be sure, but it is particularly devastating to women and girls. None of the above should be the price women pay simply for being women—in the SBC or anywhere else.