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From the Pews: The Danger of Power and Prestige

Paige Patterson, former head of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), is receiving criticism and being challenged on multiple situations.

His comments counseling a woman who was being abused by her husband to stay in the marriage in 2004 have resurfaced.

It has also been revealed that while president of a previous seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Patterson advised a female seminarian not to report an incident of rape to the police.

Patterson has also been cited as sexualizing a 16-year-old girl and defending this as biblical.

Another disturbing report has surfaced that Patterson made exceptions to the admission policies at Southwestern, and allegations have been made that Patterson explained that anyone who opposed his decisions would be terminated.

More than 1,000 Southern Baptist women denounced Patterson and called for him to resign.

Patterson did not resign, but Southwestern’s board of trustees voted early on the morning of May 23 that, effective immediately, Patterson would no longer be the seminary’s president.

Initially, it was announced that he would move to the position of president emeritus with compensation and optional housing on campus.

On May 30, the executive committee of the board of trustees reversed this decision, announcing that they had “unanimously resolved to terminate Dr. Paige Patterson, effective immediately, removing all the benefits, rights and privileges provided by the May 22-23 board meeting, including the title of President Emeritus, the invitation to reside at the Baptist Heritage Center as theologian-in-residence and ongoing compensation.”

This decision was the result of “new information confirmed this morning … regarding the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a student during Dr. Paige Patterson’s presidency at another institution and resulting issues connected with statements to the Board of Trustees that are inconsistent with SWBTS’s biblically informed core values.”

Many are crediting the #metoo movement for challenging Southwestern’s trustees to make a decision and remove Patterson from leadership.

At the time of publication, he is slated to preach to thousands at the Southern Baptist Convention gathering on June 12. Patterson still has a ready audience of followers who credit him with the return of the Southern Baptist Convention to more conservative ideals and theologies.

The picture that is coming into focus is a religious leader with unchecked and unquestioned power. Even clearer is Patterson’s determination to uphold that power even in the face of moral and ethical quandaries.

When a religious leader believes himself to be above the regulations of a seminary, above the laws of our country about mandatory reporting and above the moral laws of being a Christian, his motives and intent are questioned.

The #metoo movement has catalyzed a #churchtoo movement, and amid these allegations a new movement has begun: #sbctoo.

As more and more people share their stories of abuse, victimization and silencing, the Southern Baptist Convention will have to account for its patterns of abuse, silencing and oppression as well as its choices of leadership.

Power and prestige are dangerous elixirs. When religious leaders drink from the fount of power and prestige, it is difficult to remain a voice of moral and ethical authority.

Power and prestige always demand that lines are crossed, and rules are changed in order to preserve their status.

Many people are watching and waiting to see whether this moment will serve as a catalyst for the Southern Baptist Convention to unite and demand a new voice: a voice of the oppressed, the victimized and the forgotten, a voice that sounds a bit more like Jesus and a bit less like the voice of power and prestige.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing, monthly column series, “From the Pews,” in which Harrelson will discuss local church ministry trends and challenges. Previous articles in the series are available here. Her writings also appear on her website, and you can follow her on Twitter @MeriannaNeely.

Merianna Harrelson

Merianna Harrelson is pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in West Columbia, South Carolina, editor-in-chief of Harrelson Press Publishing, and an EthicsDaily.com / Baptist Center for Ethics board member.