by William Trollinger

It appears the battle in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is just beginning. And that is not a surprise.

At the most recent SBC convention in Dallas the moderate (or, somewhat less conservative) forces seemed to have carried the day, with the election of J. D. Greear as SBC president, and – just as significant — resolutions acknowledging and repenting of the mistreatment of women.  All of this led one optimistic observer (a former Southern Baptist minister would say much too optimistic) to declare that Southern Baptists have called off the culture war.

Much of what happened in Dallas had to do with the May 2018 dismissal of Paige Patterson – architect of the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC in the 1980s – as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson was fired for – as Emily McGowin summarized – a series 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.

Patterson withdrew from the SBC convention, where he had been scheduled to speak. But his supporters proposed motions that called on the seminary to review its decision and – more drastic – that would have simply dismissed the executive committee of the seminary.

Both motions failed. But now a group of wealthy donors are taking the battle directly to the Southwestern Baptist Seminary Executive Committee, with a June 29 letter in which they threaten to punish the seminary financially:

Our past financial gifts to the Seminary total in the millions of dollars. Our future possible gifts, and bequests from our estates, we estimate could be well in excess of tens of millions of dollars. Please know that until the serious wrongs against Dr. and Mrs. Patterson are righted, we will be unable to continue our financial support of the Seminary.

Given the odd arguments, the level of vitriol, and the number of writing errors, it is easy to imagine that the letter was constructed hastily and with much emotion. See, for example, the following:

The May 30, 2018 Statement by the Executive Committee Board refers only to “new information” and “details presented” in a vague attempt to explain your indefensible actions against Dr. Patterson. We note the careful selection of your works . . . We submit you chose your words as you did because while you knew Dr. Patterson had not done anything wrong, you nonetheless wanted to create the impression that he had. Your statement, while it clearly demonstrates a callus level of injustice and dishonesty toward Dr. Patterson himself, of equally great harm is the damage it does to the integrity of Southwestern Seminary itself.

Unsurprisingly, the letter is silent about both Patterson’s suggestive statements and his advice that an abused woman should stay with her husband in order that he might be saved.

One of the themes of Adam Laats’ Fundamentalist U is that administrators and trustees at fundamentalist and evangelical schools work overtime to mollify their conservative constituents. In the case of Southwestern Baptist Seminary, the signatories to the letter make clear what they need. They call for an investigative committee consisting of five members “selected by the full Board of Trustees, from either the Trustee Board or from individuals officially associated with the Seminary, and five individuals to be selected by the signatories of this letter.”

Given that the signatories assert in their letter that “Dr. and Mrs. Patterson continue to have our absolute and unwavering support,” it is hard to imagine that the thusly selected committee would confirm the seminary’s decision to fire Patterson.

Whither Southwestern Baptist Seminary, and whither the Southern Baptist Convention?

Here is the donors’ letter to Southwestern.  Here are Elesha Coffman’s and Margaret Bendroth’s takes on the controversy re: sex and gender in the SBC, and beyond.