Anyone associated with Cedarville University knows there’s been a shift in leadership in recent months. Two of the most visible men on campus, the President Dr. Bill Brown and Vice President for Student Life Dr. Carl Ruby, stepped down. A group of alumni and students speculated that Dr. Ruby’s resignation, coupled with ongoing turmoil in the Bible department, indicated a hard right shift in the University’s ideology. In a private conversation with a prominent alumnus, the head of the trustee board confirmed that such a shift was, in fact, the intention of himself and others in leadership of the University.
But let’s not be so distracted by the visible, up-front changes that we miss what’s going on behind the scenes. The trustee board has experienced a turnover as well, with several trustees resigning because they don’t support recent decisions by the board. Less visibly, a tiny blurb appeared in the Dayton Daily news two days ago announcing three new trustees. One of the names mentioned is the name Paige Patterson. Patterson was a Cedarville trustee from 2003-2011 and according to the Dayton Daily News, the Cedarville trustee board has voted to bring him back. The choice isn’t shocking given that right-wing elements in the leadership are seeking to entrench their position – Patterson is currently the President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a stalwart, vocal conservative evangelical. He’s been a prime mover in the most conservative faction of the Southern Baptist Convention. So it seems that those who selected him to serve on Cedarville University’s trustee board at this juncture knew exactly what they were doing, and intended to send a clear message to the more moderate members of the Cedarville community.
However, there are clear reasons why Paige Patterson should not be a trustee of Cedarville University. No matter your theological convictions, you should be able to agree that his documented failures in leadership should disqualify him from such a position of leadership and trust.
(I do realize, having read many of the threads online, that I’m inviting a great deal of controversy here. I’m also aware that it’s controversy which has been hashed over time and again in Southern Baptist circles. In fact, Patterson’s been criticized so often that people actually ask him for advice as to how to deal with “attacks.” I’m writing this post for the benefit of those in the Cedarville University community who may have no idea who Paige Patterson is).
Cedarville University wants to be known for holding its students, faculty, staff, and trustees to high standards of conduct and integrity. The University bylaws state (Article III: Standards of Conduct): “We prayerfully seek to serve Christ in an atmosphere free from…unethical and/or immoral conduct…” Lest anyone protest that this standard is meant only for students and faculty, the facing page assures us, “Trustee [sic] shall annually subscribe unreservedly to the University doctrinal statement and standards of conduct (Articles II and III).”
Let us leave aside Patterson’s vigorous self-aggrandizement. When one has been called “a modern-day Martin Luther” one may be permitted a little swaggering (Just kidding. Christian leadership really ought to be marked by humility).
The most widely discussed reason to doubt Patterson’s ethics has been thoroughly documented on another blog, so if you want the primary sources click over there. I’ll just summarize here. It’s a familiar story: a male leader in an evangelical community (in this case, Patterson, at the time president of Criswell College) is alerted to allegations of sexual abuse against another man in a ministry position (in this case, Darrell Gilyard, who was a Patterson mentee and whose praises were sung by Patterson, and who in 2008 was finally convicted of sexual molestation charges). Said male leader (Patterson) is slow to believe the victims, ignores evidence until it’s impossible for him to do so any longer, takes minimum necessary action, and in the end simply “withdraws support” from the abuser instead of issuing any sort of apology for negligence and cover-up. (If you’ll recall, a very similar scenario played out at ABWE when Michael Loftis, another Cedarville University trustee, was in charge). Of course, Patterson defends his actions, believing them to be honorable since he did finally take some action once he was thoroughly convinced of Gilyard’s guilt. In fact, he has claimed that anyone suggesting he acted inappropriately or too slowly, or that he was in any way at fault, is just as reprehensible as a sexual predator. Meanwhile, those who suffered from abuse may still be waiting to receive any real justice. I understand of course that Patterson’s views on gender roles prevent Patterson from lending a listening ear to feminists, but he could learn from their advice to believe survivors. It’s a shame he couldn’t take a cue then from the SBC Confession as affirmed and revised by a committee he appointed a few years later in his position then as SBC President: “We should work to provide for…the needy, the abused…the helpless…We should…contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” But, someone might say, you can’t hold Patterson responsible, he wasn’t perpetrating the abuse. No, but he was in a position of authority, which holds a lot of responsibility especially when abuse allegations come to light. Patterson seems extremely comfortable taking on positions of authority, but he just doesn’t seem quite at home with some of the less glamorous aspects of the accompanying responsibility.
But let’s say he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Patterson’s version of facts is correct and he actually did act as soon as possible and do all that he possibly could do. Let’s imagine that’s true for an instant, even if we suspect it isn’t. There’s still another extremely troubling incident which shows his deeply ingrained misogyny, his willingness to sacrifice real people’s well-being to his particular idea of how God’s plan should play out.
For a little background, let’s review evidence of the sort of traditional gender roles that Patterson is passionate about. On the same day that Patterson was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998, said Convention amended their doctrinal statement to explicitly require wifely submission to husbands. Patterson stood squarely behind this gender role definition, telling a New York Times reporter that “the amendment was a response to ‘a time of growing crisis in the family.’” That’s a pretty normal, traditional view for an elderly Southern Baptist leader to espouse. (In fact, if you want to know just how seriously Southern Baptists take gender roles, notice that of the extra “affirmed statements” in addition to the general doctrinal statement of SWBTS, one is on gender roles. The other is on Biblical inerrancy, Patterson’s favorite battlefield [other than Africa where he hunts wild animals for sport and for tortured salvation analogies]). However, this vigorous stance on gender roles takes on a sinister cast when we hear, in Patterson’s own words, how he responded to a specific family in “crisis.”
During a conference, Patterson was specifically asked a question about how the doctrine of womanly submission relates to the issue of domestic violence (for the extended audio clip, click here). He said that in the most extreme cases where there is severe moral, spiritual, and physical danger, he will counsel temporary separation and seeking of help (he didn’t enlighten us as to who decides how much danger the victim is in, but I suspect he himself gets to decide). However, in “most cases” he counsels women to never forget the power of prayer. One flinches a bit and hopes he doesn’t actually mean it, that he wouldn’t actually face a battered woman and tell her to go home and pray for God’s intervention. One would hope that perhaps Patterson might see himself as a means God could use to help intervene in a domestic violence situation, because after all, if God answers prayer it is often through human agency. One would hope, but one would be wrong. Patterson launches into a story about a woman he counseled (for the full transcript click here). He told her to go home and pray, explaining that her husband would likely become even more violent once she started praying for him every night before bed. She returned with two black eyes, saying “I hope you’re happy.” But, to hear Patterson tell this story, it all turns out okay in the end. The husband came to church and repented and according to Patterson is a wonderful husband today. (Anyone familiar with the psychology of domestic violence might doubt this, especially considering that many abusers are very good at repenting in tears only to engage in the same abusive behavior again).
This whole incident is one more example of a problem I’ve witnessed time and again in conservative evangelical authority figures. They believe they see the larger spiritual reality and so feel free to overlook the actual suffering in front of them. Patterson looked at this woman’s two black eyes and chose not to comfort her but rather to exult in the fact that her husband had come to church for the first time. He believed, very sincerely it seems, that it was right of him to send this woman back to a man who was behaving violently toward her. He believed his counsel was confirmed as correct by the husband’s eventual change of heart. Patterson saw himself as being an orchestrator of God’s plan in this couple’s life. But is it so hard to believe that perhaps God could have brought this husband to repentance even if, in an act of bold obedience, Patterson had chosen to protect this wife from her abuser? At the very least, this was a devastating betrayal of the position of trust and authority Patterson had in this woman’s life. And he’s proud of himself for telling her to return to a harmful and abusive situation.
As I’ve been writing this article, reading blogs and articles and comment threads for research, I keep feeling like I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not a Southern Baptist, so I’ll never be in a situation where Paige Patterson’s teachings and ideas and behavior will directly affect me. I certainly do care, deeply, about abuse that goes on in the church, about ways that harmful situations are perpetuated or ignored, but I don’t have a reason to specifically care about these situations out of all the other ones that are out there. However, as soon as it reaches my attention that Paige Patterson may have just been appointed to the governing body of my alma mater, I find that these stories begin to trouble me.
I am troubled to think that someone who talks so much and so often and so passionately about defending the Bible can summon none of the same passion to defend oppressed and abused women, especially considering that the Bible contains all sorts of directives to do so (perhaps even more than the directives to preach the Word). I am already disturbed at how Cedarville is in many ways not a safe place for survivors or for those currently undergoing abuse, and I’m afraid that Patterson’s presence on the board will only serve to further entrench a culture that values preaching the Word of God but is negligent to do the work of God (or thinks that the work of God lies solely in delimiting the boundaries of a stringent orthodoxy and then winning souls to that particular orthodoxy). I want to believe that Cedarville University can live up to its goal of being an excellent Christ-centered university, but I believe adding Patterson to the Cedarville community is a drastic step in the wrong direction.