Controversy at SWBTS and the SBC and Moving Forward

I haven’t updated this blog for a while, a combination of being busy and… watching too much basketball.  In any case, there’s a situation that I do want to briefly address, but I’ve held off due to the fact that I am a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and didn’t want my words to be twisted to target anyone else that has nothing to do with me voicing my opinion.  It’s probably a good time to state something obvious but often needed: What follows are my thoughts alone and nobody asked me to write them down.

The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was recently held in Dallas, and it occurred during a time of controversy.  One of the stalwarts of the Baptist faith, Dr. Paige Patterson, was supposed to preach at the meeting but removed himself due to first being pushed into early retirement and then being fired outright from being the president at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  If he didn’t remove himself, there was probably a good chance that they would have changed to someone else anyway.  From what I hear, it didn’t get prettier at the meeting because someone put up a motion to immediately remove the executive committee of the trustees for the school due to them firing Patterson while he was overseas in Germany.  The motion overwhelmingly failed (though evidently an internal report on the actions of SWBTS’ executive committee will be given next year), but it illustrated the fact that Patterson’s firing was polarizing, just as the man himself often was.

Here’s the gist of what happened: There are numerous accusations against Dr. Patterson, mostly centered around his advice to an abused woman to stay in the home and pray for her husband, resulting in his salvation (a story he had used many times over the years), a story about a teenage boy’s description of a teenage girl that people interpreted as Patterson objectifying the girl, and, most seriously, mismanaged rape cases at Southeastern Seminary when he was president there and more recently at Southwestern.  There were other criticisms, ranging from legitimate to petty to almost silly.  Increased scrutiny was precipitated by him being accused in Judge Paul Pressler’s child sex abuse case as someone who knew about it but did nothing (no results from that case yet).  After an investigation, Patterson was pushed into early retirement during a trustee meeting in late May, which he accepted.  Just a week later, the executive committee fired him without another trustee meeting, citing ethical failures on his part regarding the aforementioned rape case at Southeastern.  Patterson was in Germany at the time on a preaching engagement.

As one can imagine, the situation is pretty messy.  The executive committee claimed new evidence led them to terminate Patterson.  However, Patterson’s assistant’s wife then uploaded documents that seemed to clear Patterson or, at least, cast significant doubt on the woman’s story of a mishandled rape case.  A document suggests that Patterson never met the girl and that another faculty member handled her case, though I’ve heard an investigation at Southeastern disputes this.  Patterson also has in his possession a couple of thank you letters from the woman, thanking his administration for disciplining her but also allowing her to remain in school.  The executive committee fired back that the uploading of these documents was unethical and that none of the documents impacted their decision.

One of the members of the 12-person executive committee is Bart Barber, a Patterson admirer who recently wrote on how tough it was for him to vote to fire Patterson.  He cited numerous instances of Patterson being insubordinate towards the trustees and challenging their authority.  Much of what he said made sense and was believable, especially given Patterson’s track record of being somewhat of a headstrong guy.  Here was the problem: Almost none of what he wrote paralleled with the letter Kevin Ueckert, chairman of the trustees, sent to every student at the school.  In Ueckhert’s letter, the reason for Patterson’s termination was that he acted unethically regarding the rape case.  Barber defended none of those claims but gave brand new ones.  Add the fact that the timing of all of it seemed borderline petty, done when Patterson was away and unable to defend himself (and apparently stripping him of electronic access to much needed resources like his own plane ticket), and it raised eyebrows.  This is why one of the normal trustees supported the motion to ax the executive committee because they went beyond what the full board decided just a week earlier.  Even if the decision to fire Patterson was correct, the critics of the executive committee kind of have a point: There was something off about the process that left the committee vulnerable to significant criticism.

So ends an unfortunate episode for the SBC, an episode that has given nonbelievers or liberal Christians ammunition to attack inerrancy, complementarianism, and other conservative theological positions.  I have no intention of defending Patterson or tarring and feathering him; I respect what he has done in the past, but I’ve always had disagreements with some of the administration’s decisions here.  I also have no idea what to believe after this circus of differing information, other than that all the players involved are imperfect humans who handled this situation imperfectly.  What I will say is that I hope that Southwestern will move forward and grow from this and that the SBC will seek to have unity under Christ despite disagreement.  What happened was damaging to the reputation of the denomination and our witness, and it’s something that will have to be slowly built back up.

There is a common joke that if you have five Baptists in a room, you’ll have six different opinions.  This points to the fact that Baptist ecclesiology stresses local church authority and congregationalism, not a top-down structure where a high ecclesial body dictates both theology and practice to all the churches.  This allows for A LOT of disagreements and arguments.  Even some Baptists have complained about this (I’ve personally heard many Reformed Baptist bemoan the fact that people other than Calvinists are in the SBC, and their childish attitude was answered in kind by a few other Baptists wanting to kick Calvinists out of the convention).  However, I’ve always tended to believe that this is generally a strength: Disagreement often leads to serious discussion that is often needed, and it keeps people sharpened and accountable.  It, theoretically, should encourage the average churchgoer to be biblically literate and invested in his church because his voice matters.  Especially as a philosopher, disagreeing with stuff is pretty common in my field, and I learn a lot when my own papers are critiqued by others.

The danger to this is that human pride and emotion gets all tangled up in disagreements.  Disagreement then leads to disunity, suspicion, anger, and pettiness.  This is why another common joke is that Baptists are always ready for a fight, and the annual meetings have a reputation of not always being very congenial (though I wouldn’t know, I haven’t bothered to go to one yet).  Everyone needs grace here: Dr. Patterson, the executive committee, the trustees, etc.  That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any consequences, but I’m sure most of these people are trying their best, not secretly trying to be shady.

This is why it’s important to always remember our unity in Christ and the gospel.  We can argue, bicker, and dispute over all sorts of things, and many of those things deserve serious discussion (some probably don’t…).  When done well, such disputes sharpen how we think and hold us accountable to each other.  However, what should be the reputation of the SBC, both in speech and act, is that we can all eventually join hands to preach the gospel, send missionaries, and teach Scripture.  Hopefully, we can live that out, and that’s something I’m sure Dr. Patterson, the trustees, and the average Southern Baptist can agree on.

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