Prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson was removed from his job as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the organization announced early Wednesday.
Patterson’s removal comes amid massive backlash from women upset over comments he made in the past that are being newly perceived as sexist and demeaning. More than 3,200 women — most conservative evangelicals — signed a petition, a rare public display against a man in power, calling for Patterson’s ouster.
Seminary leaders were unspecific about why they made the dramatic move, issuing a statement that didn’t mention the controversial comments and saying they were moving “in the direction of new leadership” due to challenges related to “enrollment, financial, leadership and institutional identity.” The announcement came the day after the seminary’s board met for 13 hours of closed-door sessions.
In recent weeks, Patterson, 75, has come under fire for taped comments he made between 2000 and 2014 about women, including those remarking on a teenage girl’s figure and saying female seminarians need to work harder to look attractive. He also said women who are abused almost always should stay with their husbands. After Southern Baptist women called for the seminary’s board of trustees to oust him from his position, he apologized for making comments about the teenager, but he did not apologize for his comments about abused women. The comments had resurfaced on a blog this year.
The Washington Post also reported Tuesday that Patterson allegedly told a woman who said she had been raped that she should not report her allegations to the police and encouraged her to forgive her alleged assailant. The story was published as the seminary’s board was meeting.
The brief statement released by the seminary Wednesday said Patterson will be president emeritus. He will receive compensation and may live on campus as “theologian-in-residence” at a brand new Baptist Heritage Center, the statement read.
The seminary’s trustees appointed D. Jeffrey Bingham, the seminary’s dean of the school of theology, as interim president. Bingham has worked for numerous evangelical institutions, including Criswell College, Dallas Theological Seminary and Wheaton College.
A quorum of about 30 male trustees and three female trustees of the 1,200-student Texas seminary were present for a meeting that began Tuesday afternoon to discuss the fate of Patterson, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The seminary board’s decision, announced by its chairman, Kevin Ueckert, is likely to come as a relief to the thousands of women who had called for Patterson’s removal, said Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University who attends a Southern Baptist church.
In the board’s statement, Ueckert said the seminary “stands against all forms of abuse.”
“The board also affirmed a motion stating evidence exists that Dr. Patterson has complied with reporting laws regarding assault and abuse,” Ueckert said.
Patterson and his wife had planned to retire on the grounds of the “Baptist Heritage Library,” which the seminary plans to open this summer and which will house Patterson’s collections. The board passed a motion that would allow the Pattersons to retire there.
Patterson has been widely revered for his role starting in the 1970s in a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, which claims 15 million members. During that time, he and other leaders passed resolutions that tied Southern Baptists’ belief in the Bible’s inerrancy directly to a ban on female pastors and the teaching that women should be submissive to their husbands.
R. Marie Griffith, director of the John Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University, who writes and teaches about gender and religion, said Patterson’s exit reflects a “turning point moment,” a time when a national outside movement — #MeToo, specifically — must be addressed within the huge Southern Baptist Convention. At any other time in recent decades, she said, Patterson and his wife, Dorothy, who Griffith said is her husband’s partner in crafting his ideas on gender, could have avoided repercussions for statements like the ones recently circulated.
“The tide has shifted so strongly on these issues of sexual harassment and assault, all I can think is: Enough leaders knew they’d really be condemned and look terrible if they stood up for him at this point,” she said.
Griffith said Patterson’s leaving doesn’t reflect less commitment among the younger generation of conservative male evangelicals to female submission — but it does show they have a limit as to what that means. “There are an awful lot of people who believe in female submission but don’t counsel people to stay with abusive husbands. His view will turn out to appear extreme. I don’t think this [Patterson leaving] questions female submission to male authority but maybe it does the extreme to which Patterson and others are willing to go. That’s fallen out of favor.”
Younger male evangelical leaders, she said, “are ready to say: Enough with excusing these critical issues.” They feel, she said: “If the denomination is going to thrive, it really needs to start afresh.”
Sarah Reiter, 20, a sophomore music major at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said she is torn over what Patterson said.
On the one hand, she was in an emotionally abusive relationship that ended about a year ago, she said. On the other hand, her current boyfriend’s father was “doing awful things” at one time, such as using drugs, but his story wound up having a happy ending, she said.
“His mother stuck around and loved his father through that,” Reiter said. “He became a Christian and was saved, and now their relationship is wonderful.”
Reiter, who said she hadn’t heard much discussion among her seminary friends about the controversy, said she was willing to give Patterson the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t feel like he’s promoting abuse,” she said. “He’s not saying, ‘Men, beat your wives so they know how to trust God.’ That’s not what he’s saying.”
Another student, Sharayah Colter, who is pursuing a master’s degree in theological studies, came to the board meeting — part of which was open before the closed session began — to show support for Patterson. Her husband, Scott, a fellow student and assistant pastor at Birchman Baptist Church in Fort Worth, serves as chief of staff for Patterson.
“I think people have mischaracterized him and misconstrued what he has said in the past,” Colter said. “And he’s clarified comments. So just like anybody likes to be taken at their word when they clarify what they really mean, I take him at his word when he explains what he means.”