(CNN) — First it was the pastor in Memphis, whose megachurch applauded when he confessed to having a sexual encounter with a teenager 20 years ago. He was later placed on leave.
Then the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee resigned, citing “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”
And last month, Paige Patterson, 75, a revered figure in many Southern Baptist circles, was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary amid accusations he had mishandled two separate cases where students came to him saying they had been raped.
Before those allegations came to light, Patterson had already been the subject of controversy. Audio and video recordings emerged online of Patterson making lewd remarks about a teenage girl, and counseling a woman in an abusive relationship not to divorce her husband, even when she showed up at church with two black eyes.
Patterson has denied any wrongdoing in an open letter, saying his comments and actions have been misconstrued. Patterson’s lawyer told CNN he was not available for comment.
As thousands of delegates — called messengers — arrive in Dallas on Tuesday for the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting, the mood is somber; some say the reputation and perhaps even future of the 15.2-million-member denomination may be at stake.
Many Southern Baptists said the series of scandals besetting the convention have been particularly upsetting for a religious movement that prides itself on theological clarity and moral rectitude.
“This is just a foretaste of the wrath of God poured out,” wrote R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville and a leading intellectual in the denomination, in a widely shared column.
“This moment requires the very best of us. The Southern Baptist Convention is on trial and our public credibility is at stake.”
And this year, the convention will be getting even more national attention. Vice President Mike Pence is expected to address delegates to the meeting, who number more than 8,000, according to the Southern Baptist Convention.
“We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting,” said Steve Gaines, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, “to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”
On Tuesday morning, several messengers rose to object to Pence’s speech, saying that Southern Baptists’ annual meetings should not be politicized.
‘A painful crisis’
In the wake of the scandals, some Southern Baptists have submitted resolutions for this week’s meeting that praise the accomplishments of women and condemn ministers who have “sinned against the Lord and against women by their ungodly language and behavior.”
But some Southern Baptist women say their denomination, the country’s largest Protestant group, needs to do more than pass praiseworthy resolutions.
“Resolutions are helpful,” said Kathy Litton, 61, a messenger from Alabama who leads a ministry for pastors’ wives, “but what we need even more is a willingness by people in power, particularly men in our denomination, to acknowledge that we need to rethink some of the paradigms we’ve been living with.”
Litton herself has submitted a resolution marking the 100 years since women were permitted to be delegates to Southern Baptists’ annual meeting. It was 1918, two years before women in the United States were allowed to vote, she noted.
“In a crazy way we were more progressive than the rest of the country,” she said.
Like other Southern Baptist women, Litton said she believes in “complementarian” theology, the view that the Bible instructs men and women have separate, complementary roles. According to Southern Baptist doctrine, that means women should “submit” to their husbands and be restricted from some leadership roles in the home and church, such as preaching to or teaching men.
But Litton said Southern Baptists should now take a hard look at how that complementarianism applies.
“This has been a painful crisis for us, particularly on the moral level, but God can bring something good out of this moment: a recognition that we have not valued women’s voices and contributions as much as we should.”
Just 12 minutes for women
Some activists, both inside and outside the Southern Baptist Convention, are urging the conservative denomination to go further in protecting women from abuse and making men accountable for misogyny and other mistreatment.
Mary DeMuth, who attends a Southern Baptist Church in Dallas, will be part of a protest outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on Tuesday, while Southern Baptists meet inside.
DeMuth, a writer and activist on behalf of sexual abuse victims, said she is skeptical of symbolic resolutions that pledge to give women a voice but offer no structural changes to protect them.
She noted that, of the nearly 1,000 hours of scheduled time at this year’s annual meeting, just 12 minutes have been allotted for a woman to speak from the main stage. In the past two years, two-thirds of the delegates to the annual meeting have been men as well, according to Ed Stetzer, a former researcher for the denomination. The figures for this year have not yet been released.
DeMuth said she and others at Tuesday’s protest will urge Southern Baptists to include more women in leadership positions, create a clergy sex offender database and require all ministers and seminary students to undergo training on how to handle domestic abuse and sexual assault.
“The event is not anti-Southern Baptist or anti-Christian,” said Cheryl Summers, one of the rally organizers. “We are advocating for a reform of culture, and for training of pastors and church leaders.”
‘Break her down’
Southern Baptists dodged at least one controversy when Paige Patterson announced last week that he would not deliver a high-profile sermon at the meeting, as he had been scheduled to do.
In a letter to his “Southern Baptist family,” Patterson struck a defiant stance.
“Recently, I have been accused, publicly and privately, of a number of things — none of which I acknowledge as having done in the way portrayed,” he wrote, “and others that I am confident I absolutely did not do.”
It’s hard to overstate Patterson’s importance to many Southern Baptists. Russell Moore, who heads the denomination’s public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said some compare him to Martin Luther, the reformer who took a stand against the excesses of the Catholic Church and sparked the Protestant Reformation.
“He was a revered figure in the Southern Baptist Convention for 40 years,” Moore said. “His place in Baptist history is one of the reasons for the agony people on all sides are feeling right now.”
After the audio and video recordings of Patterson surfaced online, more than 3,300 conservative women signed an open letter calling for Patterson’s removal as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The world is watching us all, brothers,” the women wrote. “They wonder how we could possibly be part of a denomination that counts Dr. Patterson as a leader.”
Then Patterson was accused of counseling a woman to forgive her alleged rapist and not report him to the police. The Washington Post first reported the story.
In a statement issued on June 1, Kevin Ueckert, the chairman of the seminary’s board of trustees, said Patterson had misled a board member about how he had handled a rape accusation while he was president of another seminary in 2003. The rape accusation was never reported to local police, Ueckert said.
In another incident, in 2015, another student said she had been raped. That rape was reported to the police, Ueckert said, but Patterson wrote an email to the head of campus security asking for a private meeting with the female student “to break her down.”
“The attitude expressed by Dr. Patterson in that email is antithetical to the core values of our faith and to SWBTS,” Ueckert said in a statement, using the acronym for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Shelby Sharpe, Patterson’s lawyer, said Patterson’s actions and remarks have been misreported. First, the 2003 rape case was handled by another seminary administrator, not Patterson, according to Sharpe.
Sharpe also said Patterson’s “break her down” comments in 2015 related to a dispute between the student and one of her professors.
“It had to do with her being forthright with her family about another matter not related to the rape,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe and Patterson also say that an anecdote Patterson relayed in 2000, of which an audio recording was recently published online, has been taken out of context. Neither Patterson nor Sharpe deny that it is Patterson’s voice in the recording.
In it, Patterson can be heard telling a story about counseling a woman who said her husband was abusing her. Patterson said he encouraged the woman to pray, warning her that her husband might take offense and “may get a little more violent.”
“And sure enough, he did,” Patterson said. “She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, ‘I hope you’re happy.’ And I said, ‘Yes ma’am, I am.’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.'”
Patterson told the woman he was happy because her husband had arrived at church earlier that day and decided to become a Christian. The couple stayed together and flourished, according to Patterson.
“You have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him,” Patterson said in the recording.
In a statement after the recording was revealed, Patterson said he has counseled and helped women leaving an abusive husband “on more than one occasion.”
“For sharing this illustration, especially in the climate of this culture, I was probably unwise,” he said.
“However, my suggestion was never that women should stay in the midst of abuse, hoping their husbands would eventually come to Christ. Rather, I was making the application that God often uses difficult things that happen to us to produce ultimate good. And I will preach that truth until I die.”
‘A house of cards’
Patterson’s comments didn’t emerge from a vacuum, said Karen Swallow Prior, a Southern Baptist and professor of English at Liberty University in Virginia.
“He emerged from a culture in which those comments are accepted.”
Prior said Patterson rose to prominence in an era when Southern Baptists were engaged in a fierce war with the wider culture over women’s rights and sexual politics.
She said she’s thankful to Patterson and other conservatives for leading the charge against aspects of liberalism, but wishes they had spent less time on the culture wars and more energy advancing their own ideas about how to build a scripturally rooted Christian movement.
“Any movement that is more reactionary than forward-thinking is built on a house of cards,” Prior said.
As for this week’s meeting, Prior said she’ll be looking to see if the church makes any structural changes that would allow women to participate in Southern Baptist leadership roles, within biblical limits. That means encouraging women to enroll in higher education and training women in Southern Baptist seminaries to be leaders, among other ideas.
“We have just seen the culmination of a culture in which women have, for far too long, lacked adequate representation. We need more women to have a voice in church life.”