Both Eyes Black: Paige Patterson, Abuse and #ChurchToo
Last fall, the hashtag #churchtoo was launched by Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy as a #metoo tag specific to Christian environments. I participated by tweeting some vulnerable experiences. Tweets of mine were featured in pieces by TIME, Bustle, Vox, and RELEVANT, among other outlets. I turned down interviews because I knew I needed more healing time before saying anything more than I had already offered for public consumption.
Furthermore, I wasn’t sure the church was ready. Many of us offering stories were women, while many who responded with shock or incredulousness were men. That’s why I tweeted with skepticism. I wasn’t sure the men believed us enough or trusted our collective voice about the cultural issues within the church. Believing my #churchtoo account doesn’t mean there’s any acknowledgement of the systems within the church that allow the flourishing of such abuses. I knew too many unheard stories of sexual abuse in the church to expect much. Is anything different now?, I thought.
Just as resurrection news wasn’t initially believed because it was delivered by women, the 2000 recording of Patterson wasn’t considered notable when only female voices were sounding the alarm.
I still don’t know if anything is different, but I’m taking the risk of writing this anyway. In the past few weeks, I’ve seen some men present the Billy Graham/Pence Rule as the trick to avoiding sexual misconduct in the wake of allegations against Bill Hybels, as if marginalizing women is necessary for men to behave. On the other hand, I am seeing men object to Southwestern Baptist Seminary President Paige Patterson’s recording from 2000 and remarks from last week. Women aren’t alone in sounding the alarm. Maybe, hopefully, this means something is changing. I’m not sure, though.
Patterson’s recording is old, yes, but he clearly states that even in cases of spousal abuse, he has never counseled anyone to ever get a divorce and considers it wrong for anyone else to do so. He goes on to rank abuse by severity, as if all of it isn’t unacceptable. In his own words, shared at a conference sponsored by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood while he was president of the Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, NC:
I had a woman who was in a church that I served, and she was being subject to some abuse, and I told her, I said, “All right, what I want you to do is, every evening I want you to get down by your bed just as he goes to sleep, get down by the bed, and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene, not out loud, quietly,” but I said, “You just pray there.” And I said, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” And sure enough, he did.
She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, “I hope you’re happy.” And I said, “Yes ma’am, I am.” And I said, “I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.”
And what she didn’t know when we sat down in church that morning was that her husband had come in and was standing at the back, first time he ever came. And when I gave the invitation that morning, he was the first one down to the front. And his heart was broken. He said, “My wife’s praying for me, and I can’t believe what I did to her.” And he said, “Do you think God can forgive somebody like me?” And he’s a great husband today. And it all came about because she sought God on a regular basis. And remember, when nobody else can help, God can.
And in the meantime, you have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him. Obviously, if he’s doing that kind of thing he’s got some very deep spiritual problems in his life and you have to pray that God brings into the intersection of his life those people and those events that need to come into his life to arrest him and bring him to his knees.
I agree with Patterson's call to “arrest him” in the final sentence, but with a completely different meaning. This isn’t an opportunity for evangelism. This isn’t a moment for making women and their pain secondary to a men’s salvation. This isn’t a moment for poor theology, arguing that Jesus needs women to be abused for their husbands to come to faith. No, this is a crime, one that the church is not equipped to handle on our own.
Patterson's claim that prayer is the only response to abuse reminded me of the oft-lauded Christian film The War Room, which has grossed $68 million in sales to date. In that movie, the main character is encouraged to continue enduring spousal abuse and cheating. Instead of leaving him, she makes a prayer room to "take it all to God." One of her coworkers says that when he takes a swing at her, she should “learn to duck so God can hit him.” The movie’s telling of where the larger church is at on these issues.
Any Jesus who can’t save someone without another person being abused isn’t worthy of worship.
One in three women have been victims of intimate partner violence. More than half of all homicides of women in the US are due to domestic violence, with the highest rates among indigenous and black women and the majority dying at the hands of cishet male partners. At least 10 percent of those deaths could have been prevented if interventions had been provided in response to other violence that occurred shortly before the homicide. These rates are no different in the church, according to Dr. Nancy Nason-Clark’s body of research. A 2014 study by Sojourners and IMA World Health found that three out of four pastors underestimated rates of domestic and sexual violence in their congregations. Our cluelessness combined with the real threat to women creates a perilous environment.
Last week’s news gets worse, though. Patterson’s views haven’t been a secret. I’ve spoken to former students from seminaries under his leadership, and all say that Patterson’s stance was known but never challenged. In fact, it was taught in seminary courses, so the impact of his sexism plays out in churches all over the country.
Not only did students know, but this view has been shared online before. The SBC Outpost first published a story including the recording back in 2008. That same year, a commenter on conservative Christian professor Denny Burk’s blog called attention to Patterson’s words as well.
The diligent Dee Parsons of The Wartburg Watch then published Patterson’s remarks on their blog in 2009, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. Her 2009 post called for Patterson to resign, but was largely ignored. Meanwhile, last week, Ed Stetzer called for the same resignation and has been praised for doing so. Again, a man’s voice is heard while a woman’s was not. Another woman, Dr. Ruth Tucker, wrote the must-read book Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife in 2016. She opened the book with the quotes from Patterson that most journalists treated as breaking news last week. Just as resurrection news wasn’t initially believed because it was delivered by women, the 2000 recording of Patterson wasn’t considered notable when only female voices were sounding the alarm.
Historically, the American church hasn’t listened well to women. We haven’t merely been influenced by the world’s sexism. We’ve created our own brand.
The news here isn’t new. What’s new is that we’re willing to call it wrong. What’s new is that they’ve been rediscovered in the age of #metoo and #churchtoo. What’s new is that while women are speaking out, so are men. Does this newness mean change will come? I don’t know.
I do know, though, that Patterson’s words have consequences. I know that how we respond to sexual abuse by pastors has consequences. I know from the data that women are being abused and that we underestimate just how many in the church face this abuse. I didn’t need data to tell me that, though. My own #churchtoo stories had taught me that reality. Granted, mine are based in my youth, but when we don’t care enough to teach the value of women in the church, girls are made vulnerable too.
My first #churchtoo tweet was a story from my adolescence. I was being raped at night and had been physically and emotionally abused longer than I could remember. l told my pastor l wasn’t safe at home. I needed him to intervene. I trusted him, but the pastor chose to trust my parents over me. He never reported what I told him, believing the power of prayer and the accountability of the church to be sufficient. Meanwhile, I was raped and abused and ultimately trafficked for sex for several more years when a pastor’s actions could have stopped it all.
My next tweet told a similar story. By this time, my family no longer attended church, which was only ever a social activity for them anyway. I was 15 or 16. Outside an assembly hall in Guyana, l told the youth pastor’s wife that l had been horribly abused. She asked, “but he didn’t rape you, did he?” Her look of horror and disgust made me say no, when the truth was yes. She was willing to hear the stories of bruises and blood, but she made it clear that she would never look at me the same way if any stories involved my vagina.
I tried one more time, with one more female leader. The #churchtoo tweet of this story has been shared more than the rest. I was 16. At a friend’s youth group, in response to a talk on purity and modesty, l went with tears in my eyes to a female volunteer. l shared that l had been raped and felt shame about not being pure. She responded by asking if l had repented of my role in what happened. I didn’t feel right about it, but I prayed with her for God to forgive me for those sexual assaults.
A couple years later, as I tweeted, another male church leader seemed safe. He was a volunteer youth leader in his 30s. He seemed kind. Then he started regularly rubbing my back and shoulders and telling me how mature l was. He always tried to sit near me, touching my thigh or waist as much as he could without being too obvious. He invited me on several dates. I said no each time, but l didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t know for sure if it was wrong, even though it felt wrong. I believed I was wrong, though, whatever this was. Maybe I had led him on, I wondered.
Later, as newlyweds, my husband and I joined a new church. When I was 25, l began to share about the hell of my childhood. Repeatedly l was encouraged to stay in contact with all my abusers because they didn’t know God, per evangelical standards, and I was the only way they ever would. I followed their advice, enduring another decade of abuse from my family. Through friends and therapy, I realized that any Jesus who can’t save someone without another person being abused isn’t worthy of worship. That was only a few years ago. I didn’t know until then that God made me for so much more than being abused or serving as a savior to my abusers.
My #churchtoo stories happened in conservative Southern Baptist churches and liberal Lutheran ones. Progressive Christians like to act like we’re pointing to other churches when we declare #silenceisnotspiritual. Yet no single branch of the church bears all the blame here. We live in a misogynistic culture, in a country led by a misogynistic man, so it only makes sense that misogyny would also take root in churches. Historically, the American church hasn’t listened well to women. We haven’t merely been influenced by the world’s sexism. We’ve created our own brand.
I’ve heard women speaking out against entertainment icons and being heard. I’ve heard others speaking out against political figures and sometimes being heard. Now I’m one of many Christian women speaking about misogyny and abuse in the church, and I wonder if we’ll be heard. Then I see who is in the White House, review the list of credible accusations against him, recall his own words about grabbing women’s genitals, and remember that my white evangelical friends still support him in droves. I’m not talking about the 81 percent of those voters who chose Trump. No, the most recent poll shows approval ratings of Trump by white evangelicals are still holding strong at 75 percent. This is why I’m not sure the church is ready for the reckoning we need. I pray I’m wrong, but it’s hard not to be concerned by continued support for an openly misogynistic politician. This ongoing approval shows up as two self-inflicted black eyes on white American Christianity today.
I’ve lived through horror in the church. I’ve reported on other women’s horror stories. It would make sense for me to have left long ago. But I didn’t, and I haven’t. Why? More than hurt, I have found hope and healing in the church too.
I could offer more #churchtoo stories of excruciating pain, and I could share moments of exquisite love. Everything about my faith has been messy, but Jesus had shown up in the mess even when the church hasn’t. I can’t deny that the church has broken me in traumatic fashion, again and again. Yet I won’t deny that I’ve also found beauty and belonging there, again and again.
Is anything different now? Will these recent #churchtoo stories be heard and taken seriously? I don’t know, but I do believe hope can spring from the heartbreak. I love the church and believe we can change course and nurture those we’ve broken. But will we?