I remember well the first time I met Paige Patterson. He came to preach at the annual area-wide Bible conference at my home church, Glendale Baptist in Bowling Green, at the invitation of our long-time pastor, Richard Oldham (a conference where I also met Albert Mohler, Richard Land, Hershael York, and a host of other SBC personalities for the first time). I even remember what he preached on (four views of the Lord’s Supper). This was in January of 2000. I was 15. I went up to him afterward and had him sign my Scofield Reference Bible, which I proudly carried for everyone to see. I knew of his legendary status in Southern Baptist life even at that young age.
It would not be our last encounter. The following year I attended the perennial First Baptist Church of Jacksonville’s Pastors Conference (also at the invitation of my pastor). Walking into that cavernous 9,500 seat sanctuary on a winter Sunday morning (the first church in which I had ever encountered escalator) as Dr. Patterson was giving the invitation, his captivating manner and delivery resonated with this high school sophomore. I shook hands with him during my first semester at Southern Seminary in 2007 after he preached the chapel service: “Barry, I’m Paige Patterson; it’s good to see you.” The last time I encountered him close-up, ironically, was while sitting next to Joel Gregory at the Evangelical Homiletics Society annual conference in October 2016 (held at Southwestern’s Riley Center that year), where Dr. Gregory made an out of his way effort to greet Dr. Patterson. I was surprised both to see Dr. Gregory on location at SWBTS and to see their personal interaction, given their previous histories at FBC Dallas and Criswell College, respectively.
Although I’ve seen him up close on several occasions, I’ve watched him from a distance for the majority of my life. Paige Patterson is lionized in Southern Baptist circles because he helped preserve doctrinal orthodoxy. At a time when most denominations were drifting away from Biblical values toward secular influences, Dr. Patterson devised a method to elect conservative presidents who would keep the SBC anchored to its Scriptural moorings. To my knowledge, we are the only major denomination in history to return to doctrinal fidelity. Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler, over beignets in New Orleans a generation ago, helped make that reality possible. Dr. Patterson is one of the last foot soldiers remaining from that historic conservative resurgence.
That’s part of the reason why what the trustees at Southwestern Seminary did early this morning was so difficult. How do you honor someone who helped rescue the greatest missions-sending organization in church history while also unequivocally repudiating his comments relating to women, misogyny, and abuse? Most of us have family members and friends without whom life as we know it would not be possible, yet those family members and friends are also deeply-flawed. Sometimes moral heroes and crazy uncles reside in the same body.
That’s the dilemma facing many of us within the larger #MeToo movement. How do you condemn the comments of the very ones you love without permanently breaking relationships? It’s not as easy as simply denouncing their rhetoric; at a certain level, you also have to denounce their character. The saddest part of this whole scenario is that the true victims, those who’ve experienced sexism, or in the worst cases, sexual assault, rape, and abuse, have to listen to us deliberate how to soft-land the same people who crashed a significant portion of their lives. It’s necessary, totally necessary, but not easy.
To all the victims of abuse: please tell us your stories. Please come forward. We want to hear you. Jesus hears you.
To all the younger generation thinking of abandoning SBC orthodoxy: brighter day are coming. While we are thankful to Dr. Patterson and others for preserving our Baptist Faith and Message, we’re ready for the next chapter. I’m greatly encouraged at many whom God is raising up, even within my local church community. The Lord is working among us. Different approach, same gospel.
To all those outside SBC lines: we love you. We want to serve you. You may not agree with our Gospel, but when you see yellow shirts and yellow hats during disaster times in your homes, when you witness food drives, as well as health and dental clinics in your communities, and experience selfless colleagues in your workplaces, know that the light of Christ is shining no matter how much we inadvertently try to blow it out.
The power isn’t in us, but in Jesus.
Barry Fields is pastor of Hawesville Baptist Church.