Florida Church Faces Backlash for Hosting Disgraced Southern Baptist Leader Paige Patterson

Image: Adam Covington / SWBTS / Baptist Press

Amid a heated back-and-forth over Paige Patterson’s invitation to speak at a Florida church, the former Southern Baptist Convention leader’s supporters and opponents seem to agree on at least one thing: The #MeToo movement is changing the way some Baptists evaluate who is eligible for public ministry.

After Patterson was announced last month as a speaker at Fellowship Church’s Great Commission Weekend, fellow Southern Baptists and survivor advocates urged leaders to take him off the lineup in light of his 2018 termination from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and allegations he mishandled students’ sexual abuse reports at multiple SBC seminaries. Last week, SBC president J. D. Greear waded into the discussion, urging churches to consider Patterson’s past before inviting him to speak.

Yet, Paige Patterson and his wife, Dorothy, remain top-billed for next weekend’s event. Timothy Pigg, pastor of Fellowship Church, told CT the church has received dozens of emails and phone calls about Patterson. The congregation’s social media traffic has increased approximately tenfold since announcing Patterson as a conference speaker, and its local newspaper, the Naples Daily Newsreported on criticism of the church.

Two leaders with the Florida Baptist Convention were scheduled to speak at the conference but have withdrawn. Approximately 150–200 people are expected to attend. Sexual abuse victims’ advocate Susan Codone tweeted a request that people contact the church and ask it to withdraw Patterson’s invitation because “the #SBC and the many harmed by the Pattersons deserve better.”

Among Southern Baptists, adultery and divorce used to be the only sins thought to disqualify a person from public ministry, said Barry Hankins, a Baylor University historian who has written extensively on the SBC. But now, mishandling abuse may be joining the list.

“Things have changed so quickly across American culture with the #MeToo movement, whether you’re talking about Hollywood on one end or the Southern Baptist Convention on the other,” Hankins told Christianity Today. He said that Americans moved from thinking, “Let’s not make a big deal out of” sexual abuse, to thinking, “It’s a big deal, and anyone who doesn’t make a big deal out of it needs to be singled out.”

On Friday, president Greear cautioned churches to think twice before hosting Patterson, when asked by the Houston Chronicle about this weekend’s conference.

“Trustees terminated Paige Patterson for cause, publicly disclosing that his conduct was ‘antithetical to the core values of our faith.’ I advise any Southern Baptist church to consider this severe action before having Dr. Patterson preach or speak and to contact trustee officers if additional information is necessary,” said Greear, who himself studied under Patterson as his doctoral advisor and long saw him as a model and mentor in ministry.

Now, many Patterson supporters seem to agree with his concern, but some critics claim Greear’s statement violates the biblical principle of local church autonomy by attempting to govern a congregation from the outside—pushback that has followed every effort by the denomination to strengthen its response to abuse. The critics also say Patterson is not guilty of mishandling abuse.

Patterson told CT, “President Greear has every right to hold any opinion of my life and ministry that he wishes. While I read his persuasion with great sorrow, he has a right to publish his views as far as he wishes. If he is accurate, I deserve it. If false, I leave the matter in the hands of God confident that God will excel in mercy and justice at all times.”

Patterson was removed from his presidential role at Southwestern in 2018 and terminated a week later. Trustees cited information regarding Patterson’s “handling of an allegation of sexual abuse” at “another institution” (presumably Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was president from 1992–2003). Patterson also is being sued for allegedly mishandling a student’s claim of being sexually assaulted at Southwestern. Patterson has denied any wrongdoing at either seminary.

Over the past year, he has continued to preach at multiple Southern Baptist churches, including Victory Baptist Church in Rowlett, Texas, where he was recently given a “Defender of the Faith Award.”

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Source: Christianity Today