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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A Response to Paige Patterson

(way long, sorry, but it’s important!)

Yesterday, as I was working through some tasks on the computer, a headline popped up on the browser at the MSN site.  The headline reads:

“Southern Baptist leader pushes back after comments leak urging abused women to pray and avoid divorce” 

The article is written by Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post.  I will summarize some of it, but here is the link if you would like to read the whole thing:  https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/southern-baptist-leader-pushes-back-after-comments-leak-urging-abused-women-to-pray-and-avoid-divorce/ar-AAwvUYN?li=BBnb7Kz

For those of you who don’t read the article, let me summarize by saying that Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, is described as teaching that “abused women should focus on praying and ‘be submissive in every way that you can’ and not seek divorce.”  He is directly quoted as saying, “It depends on the level of abuse, to some degree…I have never in my ministry counseled anyone to seek a divorce and that’s always wrong counsel." 

The article includes other quotes, that indicate Patterson’s position as being that separation may be necessary, but that he is opposed to divorce.  At one point in the article, he is quoted as saying, “I have also said that I have never recommended or prescribed divorce.  How could I as a minister of the Gospel?  The Bible makes clear the way in which God views divorce.”

That is enough of a summary, though the article describes much more about the wrestling within the Southern Baptists (which I am not, by the way), and among other very conservative Christians, and even points out that there is a higher-than-average divorce rate in the U.S among Evangelical Christians.  I have also read elsewhere that there is also a higher rate of physical abuse among the more fundamentalist type Christians (as well as other religions) due to the authoritarian structure created there.  

I would like to suggest that there are lots of dynamics going on in the subtext, both in the interview, and behind the scenes I suspect, that I think might be very enlightening for our consideration.  

First off, I join many others in questioning the idea that the best advice for an abused woman in a marriage is for her to go back home, submit and pray.  Ridiculous!  

Even Jesus knew that it was wrong to intentionally test God for protection by jumping off of the Temple pinnacle, how is going back into a dangerous and abusive situation not similar to the risks Jesus refused to take?  

When Jesus interacted with the woman at the well, who had split up with five different husbands, Jesus did NOT demand that she go back into any of those bad relationships and pray!  

I truly believe that God can change a husband’s heart and behaviors (or the wife’s if she is the abusive one), and I also believe that prayer is a critical factor in such situations.  But to offer a blanket statement that refuses the option of divorce and insists an individual return to a dangerous environment is a different matter.  I wonder how Mr. Patterson would feel had the woman he described had gone home and returned not with merely black eyes, but battered to death.  That is a consideration for any pastor who seriously seeks to minister to those suffering at the hands of an abuser.   Let me also add briefly, I note that he seems only concerned with physical abuse, or sexual assault, but there are many who suffer in their marriages from psychological and emotional abuse that is just as devastating.  Those people need a voice, as well.

I would like to offer a number of comments, and many of you already know that most of these issues are addressed in my books.  First, what DOES the Bible say about divorce?  Well, people like Mr. Patterson would likely quote Malachi’s phrase that says that God hates divorce, as well as Jesus’s comment that divorce was given because of our hardness of heart, but was never the original intention.   Both of which are, indeed, true.  What people of this bent do NOT point out, however, is that God’s attitude in the Bible is that it was a necessary evil in a broken world, and the Bible makes provision for it even in the laws of Moses at the formation of the nation of Israel.  It is also an option provided for in the words of both Jesus and Paul.  

I would suggest that the core of the biblical teachings are that they are strongly opposed to divorce on trivial grounds, but there is always indication that in a fallen world, there is a place for divorce, tragic though the experience is.

What of Patterson’s suggestion that the woman needs to continue to be submissive and be praying instead of pursuing divorce?  First, let me comment on that idea of being submissive.  Extreme conservatives often hammer that concept at women inappropriately, in my opinion, and let me explain why I say that.  

One of the primary passages where this phrase occurs is in Ephesians 5, but the passage says far more than merely that wives are supposed to submit.  First, the phrase occurs in a context where ALL people are called to be submitting to one another with reverence for Christ.  

Secondly, the expectation for husbands in the passage, which is not quoted nearly as often, is for the man to be the kind of husband who lays down his life for his wife, who does everything he can to honor her, who goes out of his way to overlook her faults and cherishes her and nourishes her life.  This is the kind of thing Paul is suggesting wives must submit to, not some oafish and bullying type of behavior by a self-important man with a superiority complex.  Peter indicates that a humble attitude by a wife may change a husband’s heart if the husband is out of line.  However, people who focus on these passages often neglect to highlight that men are also called to be in submission, not just women, and that the real submission is to the Lordship of Christ, not just some notion of a woman submitting to her husband as “lord of the manor”! 

Patterson is in a segment of Christian society in which a very legalistic interpretation of scripture currently dominates.  He is in a hard place.  His wording is very careful.  He says that he never “advises anyone to get a divorce.”  He may feel it is necessary for him to say that, because if he said otherwise, he may well lose his standing and his job, as the legalistic folks only see things in black and white, and would reject his leadership.  But, honestly, I could say the same thing; I don’t advise people to get a divorce, either!  

Probably few ministers do.  That isn’t how good pastoral counseling works…I don’t tell people WHAT TO DO in lots of ways.  I walk with them as they seek to understand God’s will for themselves.  Most people who come to me with marriage problems, and in the midst of it choose to divorce, don’t come needing me to tell them whether or not to get one.  They know they are the only ones who can make that choice.   What they need is someone who can help them think clearly about their situation, about their options, and challenge assumptions they may have about what a divorce would be like.  They need a pastor to pray with them about their struggles, and a pastor who will seek to help them experience God’s best for their lives.  

They need to know that there is such a thing as GRACE…that the love of God is not found in some legalistic interpretation of scripture.

A larger question that is in the subtext of this discussion is the way in which divorce is viewed.  The interviewer (nor the article) does not ask Mr. Patterson nor Christians in his theological camp other relevant questions, such as whether a divorced person has a place in the church, and what that place might be.  

To those in the legalistic camp, divorced persons are usually not allowed to serve as pastors or to be leaders in their churches, in much the same way as women are also not allowed to be in leadership roles.  They make an exception if you happened to have gotten divorced before you became a Christian, but generally speaking, their practice says loud and clear that grace and forgiveness only go so far. 

Several years ago, I was on a panel discussion as part of a radio show, in a panel that included a pastor from such a church.  At the end of the program, the moderator encouraged anyone listening who had been divorced or struggling in a divorce to consider attending his church if they didn’t have one, and the pastor indicated that any such person who did come would be welcome indeed. 

Yet these things were said by the speakers without any awareness that many of the pastor’s comments throughout the program had already made clear to anyone listening who had been through divorce, that though they would be welcome to attend, they would remain second class citizens in that church.  Like Mr. Patterson, there was a total disconnect between the statement of belief, and the realities of life in the church for people struggling with divorce. 

I suspect that Mr. Patterson is, in many ways, a very caring and compassionate man; you can’t be an effective pastor without those characteristics, and obviously he has a significant history in pastoral ministry.  But the comments as represented in the article DO reflect the reality that, within Christianity, there is a harsh and judgmental segment who, much like the legalistic Pharisees whom Jesus challenged, are so focused on their application of all the rules on the lives of others, that they fail to see the primacy of grace, or their own need for grace and forgiveness for their own harshness.  It is wrong lump all Christians, all Southern Baptists, or even all conservative Christians into one group and assume they all would be as skewed in their understanding of scripture as Mr. Patterson appears to be.  (It is also wrong to lump all of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day into the same harsh, judgmental camp, too!)  But for those of us who know the experience of divorce, there is almost a sixth sense, a radar if you will, that warns us about those who, like those legalistic Pharisees, care more about their own theology than they do about the people whose lives are mowed down as they apply it. 

Let me offer a couple of closing comments.  God does not reject people because they have been divorced…only people do that.  God NEVER sides with those who abuse others.  Never.  And the Bible that Mr. Patterson says is so clear, does indeed clearly make provision for divorce in certain circumstances, because God understands the pain in which some people are forced to exist, and God’s desire is for something better.  

Enough said. 

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