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The Religious Right’s #MeToo Reckoning Is Coming

The Paige Patterson scandal just scratches the surface of a movement that has created a ripe environment for sexual harassment and abuse.

AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Paul Moseley

April Armstrong just wanted an education. When she entered Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2004, she thought she knew exactly the sort of education she would receive. She had been homeschooled by Southern Baptist parents, and though she had attended the secular University of Oklahoma for her undergraduate degree, she told me that she had largely remained sheltered from the outside world. SWBTS, the second-largest of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) seminaries, seemed like a familiar place.

It proved to be entirely different from what she expected.

“There was definitely a culture shock with how much I had to deal with what I would characterize as sexual harassment, which I was subject to just for existing,” she said. Armstrong had chosen to study for a theology degree, though she did not intend to enter the ministry. There were few women in her program, and the school’s stance against women preachers made Armstrong suspect to campus conservatives. “I was put in a position where I was constantly having to defend myself against gender-based hostility,” she explained.

Armstrong succeeded academically despite these challenges. The faculty voted to award her the prestigious Albert K. Venting Jr. Memorial Award shortly before her graduation in 2007. At the ceremony, Armstrong was one of only two women to receive awards. The other woman was recognized for achievement in women’s ministry, the spiritual instruction of women by other women.

Armstrong’s time at SWBTS coincided almost exactly with the beginning of Paige Patterson’s tenure as seminary president. As The Washington Post has reported, Patterson came under fire for claiming that it is unbiblical for an abused wife to divorce her husband and for describing a 16-year-old as “built” and “very attractive” in a sermon illustration. After an outcry from Southern Baptist women, SWBTS trustees voted to remove Patterson as president. The Post later reported that, as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, another SBC institution, Patterson had counseled a rape victim against reporting her attack to police.

Patterson’s denomination, which is guided by the belief that men should lead the church, now faces a major dilemma. Founded in 1845 by slave-owning Southern Christians, the SBC is still overwhelmingly white and its leadership is exclusively male. With around 15 million members, it is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and thus forms the heart of President Donald Trump’s evangelical support. The ramifications of how the SBC handles the Patterson question will reverberate far outside its membership body.

The dilemma becomes acute when you consider the kind of environment that Patterson established at SWBTS. Female students like Armstrong say that, under Patterson, they experienced discrimination. From stricter dress codes to sexist sermons, Patterson reinforced a rigid social structure that left women little room to breathe and established that they were beneath men in the Baptist hierarchy. If the evangelical movement is facing a #MeToo reckoning, it will have to come to terms not only with individuals like Patterson, but with an ideology and an entire way of life.

Patterson, who once served as president of the SBC, was president of SWBTS from 2003 until May 2018. He became a campus institution in his own right: The seminary’s chapel even boasts stained glass panels starring Patterson and his wife, Dorothy. Even now, Patterson remains president emeritus. He still receives a salary. He and his wife will continue to live on campus, which leaves Patterson in proximity to students. He is still a trustee at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. (Full disclosure: I graduated from Cedarville in 2011 and filed a Title IX complaint against the school, which was resolved in 2014.)

As president, he earned a conservative reputation on gender issues. In 2007, SWBTS terminated the contract of a female theology professor, Dr. Sheri Klouda, explicitly based on her gender. A spokesman for the school told the Associated Press at the time that the decision to remove Klouda represented a “return” to the seminary’s “traditional, confessional, and biblical position.” In an email to me, Klouda described Patterson’s attitude toward women as “condescending and dismissive,” and added that prior to Patterson’s arrival at SWBTS, she had been treated with respect, first as a student and then as a professor in her own right.

In interviews, alumnae told me that the seminary could be hostile toward female students. “When Patterson was talking about women or the role of women in the church, that made the seminary feel like it was not the most comfortable place to be,” Armstrong told me.

Tricia Dimmitt, who attended SWBTS with Armstrong, echoed her sentiments. “I appreciate my theological education and I made good connections with students,” she said. But there were issues. For example, Dimmitt took a co-ed preaching class, though she did not intend to become a pastor. Dimmitt and her two female classmates had the option of delivering a practice sermon to female friends instead of to a mixed-sex group, and, feeling peer pressure, Dimmitt chose to preach to women. She still expected her male professor to grade her work. Instead, she says, the professor sent his wife in his place.

“His wife was a communications major, so she came and listened to our sermons and graded them,” Dimmitt told me. “I thought he was going to be grading them and that we were just going to invite our female friends to listen.”

Discrimination didn’t stop at the classroom door. Mary Burbrink, who says she was hired as the seminary’s first female patrol officer in 2013, described rampant discrimination at work. In a seven-page letter mailed to SWBTS trustees ahead of their decision to ease Patterson into retirement, she claimed that her supervisors regularly treated her differently because of her gender. “I remember always being sent away when we would go to calls of a serious nature. ... I would arrive and would promptly be sent away by my supervisor once he arrived on scene with another officer,” she wrote.

Burbrink, a former Marine, told me that she’s used to being one of the only women in a group of men. But she said her experiences at SWBTS were unusual. She told me that she wasn’t allowed to be alone with any of her male colleagues, and that supervisors assigned her menial tasks more often than they did the men. She added that her experiences on the job reflected a general campus atmosphere toward women. “I felt like a petty annoyance on my best day, and on my worst day I felt like I was an evil seductress hell-bent on destroying the men around me, just because I was a woman,” she said, a gendered perception she believes the school actively reinforced.

She was particularly disturbed by a 2014 chapel sermon delivered by Patterson, during which he condemned women who dressed like “harlots.” “He was talking to the women,” she recalled. “And he asked us if we dress like harlots, and he said that if we dress like harlots and we cause our brothers and Christ to stumble into sin then, you know, we’re personally responsible for their sin.”

Burbrink referred to the sermon in her letter to trustees, and an archived recording confirms her characterization of its content. “May I just pause a moment and ask you, young ladies, is your attire the attire of a harlot? How do you dress? How you dress is a responsibility you have before God. You look like the world, you act like the world. Not long until you’ll be identified with the world. And you’ll be a part of the fall of some lustful man and your own fall also,” Patterson said. He went on to ask women in the audience if they are “loud and boisterous.” “That’s not going to be of God. That’s not what he’s looking for. He’s looking for the meek and the quiet spirit,” he added.

Burbrink, then a student in the school’s biblical counseling program, said she eventually began suffering from severe anxiety, which she attributed to an “emotionally and verbally abusive” romantic relationship and a “toxic” environment at work and in school. But she found little support. “I was hearing from them that I was depressed because I didn’t have enough faith in God, and I don’t really think that that’s a very responsible way to handle someone,” she told me.

Burbrink eventually left SWBTS without completing her degree. Asked if she believes the school has adequate resources available for women in abusive relationships, she answered emphatically: “No. No, I do not.” (The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, which sponsors a course at SWBTS, teaches that anxiety and depression have spiritual dimensions and advocates prayer as a treatment for psychiatric disorders like depression.)

SWBTS has a sexual harassment policy, but its ethical conduct standards, as outlined on its website, barely mention abuse, and they never specifically reference assault or rape. There’s only a passing mention to “sexual misconduct” in a provision prohibiting “heterosexual misconduct, homosexual or bisexual behavior” and “transgenderism,” and another, vague prohibition on physical, verbal or emotional behavior that is “demeaning, harassing, or abusive of another person.” The website does not explain the process of filing a complaint of sexual assault, and it makes no guarantee that women who report assault will be safe from expulsion based on the school’s other prohibitions on premarital and extramarital sexual activity. SWBTS accepts no federal funds, and it has no legal obligation to enforce Title IX standards on addressing gender discrimination on campus. SWBTS failed to return multiple requests for comment about its policies.

Without legal restraints, SWBTS is free not only to interpret the Bible in a way that emphasizes the submission of women, but to promote and enforce that doctrine on its campus. In his own words, Patterson is antagonistic to women who do not order their lives after his dictates. In a 2017 sermon, Patterson claimed he has no problem with women who have jobs, but there’s a major caveat: “If the best eight hours of your day are devoted to somebody else, don’t tell me that you are faithful to your husband,” he said. “Don’t tell me that you’re doing with your children what you ought to be doing.”

Women, he added, had one primary job after marriage. “You don’t have to marry, but if you choose to marry, then you understand that your commitment is to make the home the first place,” he said.

For Christians, a woman’s place is a contested subject. “Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence,” the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy. Generations of Christians have interpreted Paul’s words as a prohibition on opening certain clerical roles to women. Catholic women cannot become priests, and neither can Orthodox women. Many Protestant denominations similarly forbid women from taking up roles as pastors or preachers. However, a prohibition on female clergy does not necessarily translate to a prohibition on women working outside the home or holding other positions of spiritual authority.

The belief that God designed different, complementary roles for men and women is widespread among conservative evangelicals. It is the official doctrinal position of the SBC, thanks in part to Patterson himself. As reported by Baptist News Global, Patterson helped write the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987, which states that “husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives” and that “wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership.”

Patterson again emphasized this doctrine—known often as complementarianism—in his plot for a “conservative resurgence” within the SBC. In 1998, Patterson helped orchestrate the passage of an amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message that outlined, again, his beliefs about gender roles in the church: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” it reads. “She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.” Patterson later wrote in 2012 that the passage of this amendment incited “an eruption like Krakatoa” in the press. To Patterson, at least, secular outrage signaled success. Conservatives had landed a real blow—all in defense of the family.

Or so the argument went. Nothing in the doctrine articulated by Patterson and his allies provides Biblical justification for counseling a rape victim against going to the police, or for banning women from teaching theology. Patterson seems to have reached far beyond the stipulations of the doctrine he’s promoted for most of his adult life.

Patterson’s conduct has incited a major doctrinal debate. Did he misrepresent the doctrine of complementarianism? Is complementarianism the root of Patterson’s particular sin? And how can the denomination square a belief in submissive, obedient women with a commitment to fighting sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and gender discrimination?

Opponents of complementarianism say the overreach is inevitable. “I’ve been writing on this issue of the unbiblical and nonsensical treatment of women in the Southern Baptist Convention for 13 years,” said Wade Burleson, an Oklahoma-based Southern Baptist minister. Burleson, who spoke to me from an overseas missions trip, emphasized that his objection to Patterson is doctrinal, not personal. “Paige Patterson and others like him believe that Genesis 3:16 is a commandment, not a curse,” he explained.

In Genesis 3:16, God speaks to sinful Eve: “Unto the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’”

Added Burleson, “Any time you see a man dominating, controlling and subjecting women, he is living out the curse. Jesus reverses the curse.” Burleson interprets the Bible literally and believes God directly inspired every word of it. He just thinks Patterson, and Southern Baptists like him, get the Bible wrong.

While Burleson is optimistic that change is on the way, it’s clear that the SBC’s path to equality contains a number of obstacles. On June 12, the SBC will convene its annual meeting. Unless Patterson himself decides to withdraw, or attendees rescind his invitation by voice vote, he’ll deliver a sermon there as planned.

Attendees will also have the opportunity attend a panel discussion on “Gospel Sexuality in a #MeToo Culture,” and members will vote on a resolution “against the anti-gospel of the social justice movement.” Proposed by a Texas pastor, the resolution would ban Southern Baptist organizations and congregations from using the terms “‘social justice’ or ‘social justice warrior’ when referring to Christian ethics or activism.” It also seeks to ban SBC-affiliated colleges and universities from teaching the “Marxist-based” ideology in classes.

Armstrong, meanwhile, hopes the SBC will use the meeting as an opportunity to repent. “The Board of Trustees and the Southern Baptist Convention need to repent of fostering and enabling an environment harmful to women at Southwestern and work to change this,” she said.