Van Ens: Separating what carries eternal validity compared to archaic social norms in the Bible (column)
A top-ranking “father” of the Southern Baptist Convention advocated a paternalistic ideology at the center of his conservative Christian faith. Paige Patterson, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, has been fired because he advised women to stay in dysfunctional, degrading relationships to preserve marriages.
Patterson believes both sexes are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). Yet, men and women, born with physical and emotional differences, exercise distinctive societal roles. That’s because God conferred complementary, different characteristics on males and female, Patterson says, echoing the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention. These Christians believe the Bible teaches that women can’t be ordained pastors and wives must submit to their husbands’ convictions.
During the 1970s, Patterson led a fight to defend the Southern Baptist Convention from supposed liberal tendencies seeping like theological sewage into churches. He won.
Ruling as president over the Southern Baptist Convention, he enforced a “separate but equal” doctrine of a male/female pecking order. Patterson decreed that every word in the Bible is without error, clearly teaching the principle of male headship in families.
Such paternalistic theology shaped how he counseled. Taped comments surfaced from 2000 through 2014 of Patterson giving abused women no-nonsense advice that they must stand by their men.
A wife assaulted by her husband visited Patterson for counsel. He told her to pray for God to intervene and save the marriage. She returned with two black eyes, sneering at Patterson, “I hope you’re happy.”
“Yes,” he responded. “I’m very happy” because this distraught woman’s husband appeared in church for the first time the next day.
When such advice went public, alongside other sexist quips and counseling tips, thousands of Southern Baptist women protested. The seminary’s governing board made Patterson “president emeritus” with a retirement package full of campus perks.
Soon after Southern Baptist women protested more vigorously, the board fired Patterson. They learned he lied about another scandal that occurred in 2003, when he headed Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary. A graduate student reported she had been raped. Patterson advised her to forgive the rapist and failed to notify authorities about this crime.
Where did Patterson go wrong?
He failed to realize that God works through history. The past around which God winds the divine will is conditioned by time-dated customs. Wise biblical readers separate “wheat from chaff” in scripture, what carries eternal validity compared to archaic social norms.
Professor Amanda Benckhuysen, a conservative biblical scholar at Calvin Theological Seminary, corrects faulty theology about fathers knowing what’s best. “… It seems doubtful that in I Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:34-26; and I Timothy 2:8-15, Paul intended to impose a universal prohibition on women’s preaching and leadership,” she writes, because the author is addressing ancient local controversies (The Banner, “Faith and Feminism” June 2018, pp. 10-11).
Those who honor biblical teachings guiding wise interaction between women and men act like prospectors who pan for spiritual gold. Using sieves in streams, Colorado miners filtered gold embedded in sediment.
Similarly, some biblical truths glisten like gold and are eternal; others are tarnished by ancient cultural norms that lack eternal validity, such as wives submitting to their husbands’ authority.
Patterson would be a wiser, more empathetic Christian if he heeded counsel from President Woodrow Wilson, who realized that fathers don’t always know what’s best. In the middle of World War I, Wilson changed his mind from opposing women’s suffrage in the 19th Amendment to supporting their right to vote because “… democracy means that women shall play their part in affairs alongside men and upon an equal footing with them.”
Wilson affirmed women’s social rank equal to men. “Without their (women’s) counseling,” he declared, “we shall only be half-wise.”
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.