The coronavirus challenged compassion-providing ministries in new ways
Last week, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) board fired Paige Patterson from his position as president following revelations of his history of statements and decisions many people say were dismissive and demeaning to women.
At first, SWBTS had simply demoted Patterson—a highly esteemed figure in the conservative evangelical movement—to “president emeritus.” But then the board moved more forcefully to strip him of all “benefits, rights and privileges” after confirming new information that while Patterson was president of another seminary, a graduate student reported her rape to him and he encouraged her not to go to the police but to forgive her alleged rapist. That news came in the wake of public outrage regarding various statements Patterson had made in the past 18 years, including encouraging an abused wife not to divorce but to pray for her husband, criticizing female seminary students for not dressing up, and making sexually charged remarks about a girl as young as 16.
Many leaders in the denomination applauded the SWBTS trustees’ decision, but asked for continued prayers. Lauren Chandler, writer and wife of megachurch pastor Matt Chandler, said she felt “a sigh of relief,” but added that she was also saddened for the people who felt bullied and silenced and for the loss of the Pattersons, who had made a tremendous positive impact in their community. Author and Bible teacher Beth Moore praised SWBTS trustees for “their tremendous courage in what has surely been a brutal process,” but also warned that it’s not over: “These are sobering days. These are days for each of us to go on our faces before God, searching our own sin-prone hearts, repenting for our own transgressions and asking God to dislodge planks out of our own eyes.”
Perhaps this hard, painful reckoning over how we treat women within the conservative evangelical body is one repercussion from the #MeToo wave. But if that’s true—if it’s true that the church really needed a secular social movement to jolt us awake to the need to challenge beliefs and behaviors and attitudes that we once deemed acceptable (or to “clean house,” as Moore calls it)—then I’m embarrassed.
I’m embarrassed because we are the salt and light of this world. We should be the first to set the trend toward treating men and women with greater dignity, compassion, and love. So how is it that we’re only now questioning what Patterson said many years ago? How is it that when another pastor, Andy Savage, stood in front of his mega-congregation and confessed that as a 22-year-old youth pastor he once had a “sexual incident” with a 17-year-old girl (who claimed sexual assault), his church stood and applauded him? What message does that send to that woman who had for so long stayed silent? What testimony does it send to the world about the head of the church, Jesus Christ?
This issue is not just about women. It’s about how we Bible-toting Christians, who read and hear and preach the Truth, who pray in the name of a God of justice and mercy and love, can so misunderstand Truth and misuse the name of God—especially with the best and most sincere of intentions.
Ever since I wrote a feature story and two columns on spousal abuse, I’ve been receiving emails from readers—both men and women—who tell me they’ve been abused by a spouse, too. After being told repeatedly by their church leaders and fellow Christians to submit, to forgive, or to pray more, they tell me they’ve learned to keep silent. But inside them brews a thick, sour frustration: How? How do they stay in a marriage that ravages their soul, how do they forgive a person who’s still harming them, what else must they pray to overcome the anguish of abuse and change the heart of their unloving spouse?
I understand Patterson’s reluctance to advise divorce to an abused spouse. Divorce shouldn’t be the first solution. Since the gospel is true, there is always hope for repentance, redemption, and restoration in the most broken, messy marriage. It is right and good for the victim to one day forgive his or her abuser. It is right and good for the victim to pray for his or her abuser, especially if the abuser is not a believer.
But to get there is a long, complicated, messy journey that requires a lot of intricate, tender care. When hurting spouses approach their spiritual leaders with very real, very urgent questions and trauma, they’re usually not asking for approval to divorce. They’re asking for answers that require sensitivity, nuance, and empathy guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. They’re asking for precise, specialized surgery, not a Band-Aid. They’re asking for brothers and sisters to walk—and sometimes carry them—through this excruciating process together. They’re asking for hope, encouragement, strength, providence, and protection. And it takes more than one pastor to deliver that. It takes the whole church.
The #MeToo movement in its original purpose sought to rip away the invisible tape over the mouths of women who have faced sexual aggression. Last year, the world watched as hundreds of thousands of women lit their social media platforms with #MeToo hashtags claiming that they, too, have faced sexual harassment or violence. It was meant to empower the vulnerable, spread global awareness, and stir empathy.
But the scepter of justice can be hard and cold and even lead to further injustice. Even now I see the #MeToo wave growing into a tsunami of bitterness, hurt, vengeance, and destruction. Simply voicing “Me too” is not enough to heal the shame, anger, and pain of wounded individuals. We need more than raw anger and public shaming. We also need more than beating people over the head with Bible verses without shepherding and equipping the saints in their daily struggles.
The Scriptures (Psalm 89:14, Psalm 58:11, Micah 6:8, Proverbs 21:15, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 61:8, to name a few passages) point to God’s extremely high standard of justice. They also point to the only person who fulfilled God’s standard for justice by submitting Himself to the greatest injustice in history: Jesus Christ, who dwelled among us in flesh and lived through all the pain and struggles and betrayals of mankind, who then bore all our shame, self-righteousness, grievances, and guilt on the cross. What a powerful, beautiful paradox! I wonder what the #MeToo movement would look like if it began, continued, and ended with the cross at its center. It’s time to reclaim it.