I’ve hesitated to write this post. I have wrestled for many days over these words because I do not want to join the masses who show up to throw rocks at anyone and everyone who stumbles. That being said, I believe that the years of the Conservative (Fundamentalist) takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention have illuminated lessons that need to be examined and embraced rather than ignored or explained away. What follows are observations about the kinds of things that can undermine any organization and render its leaders ineffective. So, here we go (with three initial disclaimers)
1)I attended SEBTS while Paige Patterson was President at the school. I was naïve and unaware of all that had been going on at the school, and quickly found that I had no stomach for the political atmosphere prevalent at the seminary. I did, however, have some wise and humble professors that I enjoyed and feel indebted to in my ministry now. So, while maybe not a look from the inside, my thoughts are from someone who was close enough to hear and experience the environment created by Patterson and his team.
2)I believe that it is rare for anyone to be entirely bad or entirely good. While Patterson’s behavior (and the behavior of those around him) has been troubling at times, I do acknowledge that he has done good things as well. That being said, the damage of the past several years should not be ignored.
3)I will not address Patterson and the movement’s treatment of women. That is being explored and written about by people more insightful and eloquent than me. God bless them for their courage in speaking out, and for their willingness to shine a light on this important issue. It’s an important conversation and I am grateful that the church is beginning to engage it.
The Conservative Takeover began with a very defined idea of ministry and theology. That’s not a bad thing. Passionately preaching, teaching, and ministering out of your understanding of Scripture and life is what all ministers should seek to do. The passion wasn’t a problem, but what arose out of it was. Somewhere along the way Patterson and the movement exchanged the words “my interpretation of Scripture” with the words, “God’s truth”.We can have discussions about our various interpretations of Scripture. There are no discussions however, about “God’s truth”. “God’s truth” must only be accepted and never questioned. Many problems arise when you think that you have the corner on truth, that you have figured it all out with perfect certainty. When you believe and teach that you possess not an interpretation, but instead, the absolute truth of God, then those who don’t see things the way you do no longer have a different interpretation, they are opposed to the very truth of God. This creates enemies within the Christian family. This led to the second major problem that grew out of the takeover: Voices of dissent were silenced rather than engaged.
Since people who differed from Patterson and co. were now seen as opposed to the truth, they were no longer allowed a seat at the table. Professors were fired. Certain chapel speakers were no longer invited to speak. Diversity of thought within churches was no longer seen as a blessing, but as a threat. Instead of building a community big enough and gracious enough to accommodate various interpretations of the Christian life, they sought to wall off and exclude any differing beliefs. Silencing and belittling opposing viewpoints isn’t a true reflection of the church. The church is a collection of people from different backgrounds, with different levels of growth and understanding. When there is no open dialogue and no room for gracious disagreement in the church, dysfunction quickly follows.
Power was being wielded to silence Christians who believed differently about things like the nature of the Bible, styles of preaching, and gender roles in ministry. Rather than being encouraged to speak truth to power, students and church members were being told to respect those in authority by remaining silent and accepting the course set before them. This led to a third form of dysfunction in the SBC during this time, a lack of honest accountability.
Pastors and leaders were warned of the danger of friendly fire, that is, of infighting within the movement. The biblical model of confrontation was twisted. Jesus laid out a method of confronting your brothers or sisters in a way that did not humiliate them or overpower them. First talk one on one, then with another brother if needed… That was turned into a way to leverage power and silence honest concerns. It was seen as unbiblical to question Patterson and those in power as it was a bad look to those outside of the movement. So rather than facilitating an open discussion of what was going on, the conversations (when had) were kept small and controllable. (Did anyone close to Patterson question him about why he chose to make sexualized comments about a 16 year-old during a talk?) Healthy leadership welcomes critique and examination. That sort of honesty is rare when it may lead to your termination or exclusion from the group, which was a recurring theme everywhere Patterson went.
While there are theological issues that need to be discussed that arose from Patterson’s time of leadership, the major problem during the takeover of the SBC was more basic. The core problem was an abuse of power. The toxic use of power to silence any dissenting voices or viewpoints within seminaries and churches has wounded countless people. Thankfully, many brave voices are beginning to sound a much-needed alarm.
The exposure of the SBC that Patterson’s comments has invited is a good thing and shouldn’t be avoided. Could the public discussion of the SBC’s failing cause non-Christians to shy away from the church? Initially yes, but any organization that is willing to admit it’s failings and forge a new path forward can still make a healthy impact in the world. Conversely, recent history has shown us that any organization that demands blind obedience in place of challenging discourse is destined to fail.