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Tuesday, May 1, 2018
A Response to Paige Patterson
INTERPRETING THE HEADLINE
(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”!