If you grew up in any evangelical church—especially a church that was a member of the Southern Baptist convention—you may have heard of Dr. Paige Patterson. Patterson served as the President of both Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), two of the most prestigious Southern Baptist theological seminaries, alongside Gateway Seminary, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Paiging all Baptists, Paiging all Baptists, we need a Conservative Resurgence…stat!”
Patterson began preaching from a young age (even as a teenager), but his first real position of leadership was in 1975 as President of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies, from which he was fired in 1992 after “he had spent too much time on denominational politics and not enough on insuring the school’s financial well-being.” In other words, he focused less on his job as a financial leader of the school and more on the networking and political side of his job (as well as frequent Scriptural debates). While he was in that position, he made an important connection: W.A. Criswell. Criswell went on to serve as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention for two years, which became an important asset to Paige Patterson’s rise to leadership in the church. After being dismissed from Criswell College, Patterson was appointed as the President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1992-2003. While in this position, he was elected as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention for two years in 1998 and 1999.
Paige Patterson is so well-known largely because of his role in the conservative resurgence that transformed the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) into a staunchly (and, I would argue, paranoia-ridden) conservative coalition. When Adrian Rogers was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979, Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler (remember that name because we will come back to him later) saw their chance to “expose” liberal theology and ideology they saw as a disease within the Southern Baptist Convention. They practically coined the phrase “liberal theology,” which even now serves as a buzzword that triggers paranoia akin to the degree the phrase “Russian spies” may have in the 1980s.
In fact, nowadays the phrases conservative or liberal theology do not refer to your adherence to certain non-essential doctrines, but rather whether or not you are theologically right-minded or even a Christian at all. Patterson rallied thousands upon thousands of supporters to fight against the “left-leaning” ideas of the SBC under the banner of defending the inerrancy of scripture (which was, of course, a worthy agenda). Since this overwrite of the convention, Southern Baptist churches, colleges, seminaries, and institutions of any kind have held tightly to conservative ideology.
Things Start to go South…Literally
Dr. Patterson followed his time at SEBTS with fifteen years as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) from 2003-2018. While at Southwestern, he met Dr. Thomas White, who was completing his degree but later served as his second-in-command as a Vice President. While they served as President and Vice President, Dr. Anthony Moore served as the Dean of Student Life. What a dynamic trio. Nothing bad could possibly come of three bros serving Jesus at a prestigious Southern Baptist Seminary!
In 2012, Paige Patterson sent a letter to former Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Draper saying he was worried about the election of the SBC’s first black president because “among many of the ethnic groups there are not so many of them who understand the issues involved and the seriousness of them.” In other words, black people just don’t get the issues Southern Baptists are dealing with, Jimmy. This is incredibly disturbing coming from someone who surrounded himself with seemingly likeminded individuals and pioneered the modern-day theology of an entire denomination. In a response, Draper said Patterson meant no harm in his objective discussion of “the ethnics.” Yeah. The ethnics. That’s definitely an okay thing to say.
(I hate to cut in on this history lesson, but “the ethnics” is just so beyond confusing to me. That’s like saying “the races” or “the cultures don’t understand.” It is so strange that this terminology was used to describe black people specifically)
More recently, Dr. Russell Moore—the former leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) who recently resigned after being accused of being “too liberal”—cited Patterson as saying, “I was really just concerned about that black girl, whether she’s egalitarian” in reference to former ERLC staff member Trillia Newbell. I’ll just let you make of that what you want.
Paige Patterson began serving on the Cedarville University Board of Trustees during the Purge (aka the firing of “liberals” and hiring of “conservatives” including Dr. White), beginning his time right before the White administration. He served from 2013 until 2018 and oversaw the hiring of his two homies from SWBTS, Dr. White and much later Dr. Moore. The Justice Collective commented the following on our post about censorship:
“Fundamentalists have always confused uniformity with unity, and CU is a perfect example of that problem at the root. Paige Patterson’s brand of SBC fundamentalism took over the Board of Trustees, hired White, and the crackdown began–all because they believed CU was ‘going liberal,’ which was absurd, considering its doctrinal statement never changed.”
A Paige in History We would Rather Forget
2018 was just a horrendous year for Paige Patterson and ultimately signaled the downfall of his conservative empire (but not the ideology behind it). Over the course of the year, multiple scandals broke out which left him as more of a disgraced former Southern Baptist figure than a key voice in the Biblical community.
In 2018, several comments Dr. Patterson made regarding women at SWBTS resurfaced. One disturbing example is when he told campus security that he wanted to meet with a student alone in order to “break down” the victim of rape. He told her had obtained nude photos of her that proved she and her abuser were in fact in a consensual relationship (uhh, ew) and that even if there was a problem, he was too busy to deal with it. He did, however, take the time to call her in to a room full of men for her to recount graphic details of her rape (men who, reportedly, included our own president, Dr. White). Plus, if you think about it, he said, it was a good thing that she was raped because only the right man would accept her after that had happened. Unbelievable. It’s like he pulled out the book on how not to handle sexual assault allegations and memorized it.
When the woman’s mother questioned the school’s admission of the abuser who had an apparently violent criminal past, Patterson lunged at her and told her he would unleash his lawyers on her if she questioned his leadership (nice guy). After the victim left the school, Patterson’s wife (who, disturbingly, has published six books on women’s roles in the church) told the girl she had made the right choice and needed to stop putting the blame on someone else for what had happened to her.
Ah, but this was not the last of Paige Patterson’s woes in 2018. After this allegation of misconduct became public knowledge, people (especially the board at Southwestern) began to wonder why Patterson had left SEBTS in 2003. Turns out, a 2003 sexual assault allegation had occurred and been mishandled at his previous job. He had refused to report the victim’s rape, told her not to report it either, and told her she just needed to forgive her attacker. Don’t worry though. Patterson did not try talk his way out of that situation when he moved to SWBTS—oh no, Patterson just directly lied to the board after he was asked about assault allegations at his previous position by saying no such incidents occurred.
This led me to wonder why? Why would he cover up such abuse? Because as it turns out, one of the abusers was none other than his cohort in the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention, Judge Paul Pressler (told you we’d come back to him later). Patterson had abused his position to cover up the sexual misconduct of his friend, lied about it to the Southwestern Seminary hiring board, and returned to that dishonest and abusive behavior. I can’t believe someone would use their position to cover up sexual misconduct, mislead a trustee board and student body, and not be held accountable.
These were not isolated instances either. Several other women had similar or even identical experiences. One woman was told that when her husband was abusive, she should kneel down and pray as he fell asleep even though that would probably cause him to hit her more (and it did) rather than leave the abusive relationship. After he beat her senseless, Patterson described this behavior as Biblical female submissiveness to her husband and used it as a sermon illustration after the husband started to come to church. I am not saying that it’s bad he started coming to church, but counseling a woman to be a scapegoat to get her abusive husband to come to church is not good Biblical counsel…good Biblical counsel would have been to leave the abusive situation immediately but continue to pray for him from a safe distance. But this was his standard advice for the lesser gender, and he has said on several occasions that he would never condone divorce since it is always wrong advice, even in most situations of abuse.
With the emergence of this information, he was very rightly stripped of all benefits, rights, and privileges including his position as President Emeritus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Between the time of Patterson’s reemerging scandal and his resignation from the Cedarville board of trustees on May 31 of 2018, a petition had been signed by 1,300 people demanding he step down. Patterson did not attend the June Southern Baptist convention, but a resolution was proposed by his loyalists to reinstate him and fire everyone involved in his removal. According to the Washington Post, this resolution was “soundly defeated.”
In response to Patterson’s emerging scandal, Cedarville University President Thomas White wrote to reassure students, parents, faculty, staff, and outsiders that “some time ago [in 2014] in consultation with outside experts we developed and implemented policies that thoroughly investigate any reports of abuse. These processes operate across multiple divisions outside of the President’s Office increasing transparency and decentralizing authority.” He continued, “I can tell you that at Cedarville University we want a culture that supports and values women. We want a culture that defends and protects any victim.” Yeesh, not so much.
Dr. White also wrote, “These issues have been brought close to home with the recent reports involving Dr. Paige Patterson. I am burdened as I have friends on all sides. He is not perfect. None of us are, but I would have handled several situations differently from him. I appreciate the opportunities he gave me years ago and will always love him.” As a Paige Patterson protégé, statements like these come as no surprise.
Turning the Paige (or not)
If you’re Paige Patterson, you’re sooo glad 2018 is over. Whew. All those scandals in the past. Time to settle down and retire. 2019 is a nice year of relaxation and groveling for your remaining supporters to keep funding your lifestyle. But then 2020 hits. The year of COVID-19 and, if you’re Dr. Patterson, even more scandal.
In 2020, Baylor University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) filed a lawsuit against a charity organization with close ties to Paige Patterson when—after his removal—the organization diverted funds they donated to the school in order to pay themselves a salary instead. The founder of the foundation (Harold Riley) died in 2017 after creating the organization to fund Baylor and SWBTS years before. He stipulated that the schools may appoint the majority of the board, but the board created red tape to prevent the schools from having a say and sold off a large portion of the funds the schools were entitled too. Patterson’s supporters diverted the funds of the late founder after Patterson’s dismissal as president.
Just a few days ago, Southwestern published a report accusing Patterson of theft and improper donor solicitation. According to the report, “The Pattersons have continued to use institutional records for their own personal benefit and to the detriment of the Seminary. The Pattersons’s actions have caused substantial financial harm to the Seminary.” (https://wordandway.org/2021/05/28/southwestern-accuses-pattersons-of-theft-improper-donor-solicitation/) Patterson apparently stole (among many other things) boxes of confidential student and donor information and used it to contact donors in order to convince them to stop funding the University in favor of his own personal “charity”. The school’s lawyers have repeatedly contacted the Pattersons to request their property be returned, but to no avail. Patterson apparently talked SWBTS donors into diverting their funds to his personal nonprofit, and with their diverted donation funds, the Pattersons are living comfortably in a $1 million home made possible by generous donations to the cause of Christ. As Cedarville students, we know the difference that a $1 million donation can make to a school. But hey, Papa Patterson needs his walk-in shower.
Paige Patterson continues to play a role in a lingering number of churches, including Victory Baptist Church where he received a “Defender of the Faith Award” and as a keynote speaker at Fellowship church’s “Great Commission Weekend,” which sparked a flurry of controversy from within and outside of the church, including a statement of warning from the Southern Baptist Convention president. However, it would seem that his reign has finally ended. But his legacy continues to live on, even at Cedarville University.
A Paige of Cedarville History
Patterson had an effect on every organization he came in contact with, to include our own Cedarville University. Most directly, Dr. White was involved in the cover-up that got Patterson fired from SEBTS while White served as director of student life. According to the victim in an article published by Julie Roys, he was present during a meeting where Patterson urged her to share graphic details of the rape and—according to White’s secretary—the victim had another meeting with White during that time. She was placed on probation after her report (uhh, why?!) and required to meet with Joy White, who questioned the truth behind her allegations.
Paige Patterson joined the board during the Cedarville purge soon before Dr. Thomas White, his protégée from SEBTS, was hired. Four years later, Dr. Anthony Moore–another of Patterson’s protégées–would be hired under a restoration plan. And we all know how that went.
I won’t go into too much detail, but I will make a few key points on this subject.
- Patterson, White, and Moore represent a cycle of abuse that has become increasingly evident in the Christian community. Patterson covered up for Paul Pressler, White covered up for Patterson, and White covered up for Moore. This is evident in the way each of these situations have been handled. Dr. White hired a known sexual predator after knowing all of the information about his abuse (he claimed to only know some, but the Village Church said White knew the full extent of the abuse). Not only that, but Dr. White put him in vulnerable positions with male students.
(Courtesy of Thou Art the Man: https://thouarttheman.org/2020/04/27/oh-what-a-tangled-web-we-weave/)
2. Cedarville University’s handling of sexual misconduct is far too reliant on who knows who. Dr. Moore was hired because he was a friend of Dr. White and Dr. Patterson’s. Surely, the great guy they knew back at Southwestern wasn’t capable of anything that bad so they put him into a “restoration plan.” This “restoration plan” is absolutely ridiculous considering Cedarville’s willingness to expel students and faculty over questionable doctrinal insistencies such as alcohol, literature containing explicit materials, modesty, a literal six-day creation, same-sex attraction, and a menagerie of other unredeemable sins. Below is the story of a former Cedarville staff member who was offered no such “redemption plan” courtesy of Thou Art the Man.
3. It’s time to stop protecting abusive behavior and calling it benevolence. Cedarville is starved for consistency in their handling of Biblical issues. We’ll fire student Avery Redic from his successful position in SGA for same-sex attraction but hire Dr. Moore who was a same-sex attracted voyeur to work with the basketball team and teach theology classes within months. This culture of preference set forth by the leadership of Cedarville University extends beyond its own abuse. It is contagious. Like good little Baptists, RAs hand out Personal Cautions (PCs) like candy to those leggings-wearing harlots at Chick-fil-A but turn a blind eye to the make-out sessions of their friends in dorm lounges. I do not doubt that many of our trustees may be great guys or that Dr. White may be a great guy but being a great guy with charisma does not qualify you for a position in ministry or leadership. It merely gets you there.
4. The phrase “liberal theology” is still a paranoia-ridden buzzword at Cedarville used to shame students who have less restrictive ideas about their faith. “Oh, you’re okay with being in a car with your significant other on the way back from a break? Have fun rotting in hell with the rest of the lukewarm Christians, Benjamin and Sarah.” (Sorry if I called you out) It’s time to realize that we are united by our common faith in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. All those extra legalistic rules and regulations are unnecessary and sinful additions to the gospel. No one is perfect, which is why we need to find strength in unity with our fellow believers. So next time you call someone liberal or a “right-wing,” first find common ground in the gospel and discuss your differences with that as the foundation.
Where to Go from Here
When we survey the life of a figure such as Paige Patterson who has brought so much change alongside so much pain and abuse, it is reasonable to leave feeling cheated. If you fall in line with conservative theology, you mourn the discrediting of figures like Patterson. If you are a Christian at all, your heart aches when you see public figures of Christianity fall because it reflects poorly on believers as a whole.
Remember that there will be many people like Dr. Patterson whose legacies damage the gospel’s spread. But we know that God has preserved this good news throughout all of history by using people like you and I to draw the lost closer to him. By loving our neighbors and by holding our leaders accountable, we can create an environment of comfort and freedom for those who are weary from their sin. We have the opportunity to be different and to be nonconformists against the abuse that has pervaded organized religion for far too long. It begins here, on our campus by showing love to those who disagree with us and by confronting ideas that may offend us or make us uncomfortable. When we do that, we will not only grow in an academic sense, but will ebb closer to Christlikeness in our words, actions, and attitudes.