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Always the Wrong Choice

The United States' largest Protestant denomination has become a slow-motion train wreck. Following the denomination's near-failure last summer to condemn white supremacy, and reeling from a decade of membership decline, the one bright light for the Southern Baptists in the era of #MeToo was that no prominent leaders had been named as sexual predators. Well, except for Paul Pressler, co-architect of the fundamentalist takeover of the denomination in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pressler's co-conspirator, current Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) President Paige Patterson, had remained scandal-free.

Until this spring, with the resurfacing in April of an old audio clip from circa 2000 wherein Patterson told a questioner that divorce was always the wrong choice, even if the woman was being abused. Elaborating, Patterson told a story about an abused woman in his congregation who sought his advice. Patterson recommended she not leave her husband but simply "pray quietly".

What happened next was predictable. In Patterson's own words:

She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, "I hope you're happy." And I said, "Yes ma'am, I am." And I said, "I'm sorry about that, but I'm very happy."

And what she didn't know when we sat down in church that morning was that her husband had come in and was standing at the back, first time he ever came.

There's more to the story, but I'm going to pause here for a moment. Because at this point, there's no reason for Patterson to be happy. He could not have known the man's intentions at this stage. In fact, from what has transpired up to this point, Patterson had no indication the man at the back of the church was this woman's husband. At this point, the only thing that could have made Patterson happy is knowing the woman had followed his instructions.

It's theoretically possible that the story was told out of order, that Patterson's conversation with the wife occurred after the events related next. But that would contradict the claim that she didn't know her husband was there. Because what the man did next happened at the front of the church, in full view of the congregation (including his wife, presumably).

And when I gave the invitation that morning, he was the first one down to the front. And his heart was broken, he said, "My wife's praying for me, and I can't believe what I did to her." And he said, "Do you think God can forgive somebody like me?" And he's a great husband today.

Maybe we're supposed to gloss over the chronology, excuse the abuse, and just enjoy the Hollywood ending. But if Patterson really believes the end justifies the means, he should not be the president of a theological seminary.

The leadership of SWBTS, after a month of hand-wringing—and further allegations—reluctantly reached the same conclusion. In late May, the school's board of trustees fired Patterson and began a search for a new president. In doing so, they finally made the right choice.

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