In 2008, I first publicly criticized Southwestern for the way certain faculty members were (repeatedly) registering disagreement with the results of our research. That day, several SBC leaders told me it was my last day as an SBC employee. As one son of an SBC entity head told me, “Nobody criticizes Paige Patterson and keeps their job.”
I still have the letter from Patterson. It was not the last.
It’s important to understand that this “no criticism zone” is the approach that the SBC often takes, and not just with Patterson. For example, when Christianity Today wrote about Russell Moore’s invitation of presidential candidates to the denominational missions conference, CT explained, “The ERLC’s press release…billed it as a ‘sold-out crowd of 13,000 evangelical pastors and leaders.’ That has led to a perception of the event as more arena-sized political rally than missions conference.”
Specific criticism from other denominational leaders, many who were uncomfortable with what happened, was absent. Jonathan Merritt explained why:
In conversations with multiple denominational employees, all said they felt varying degrees of discomfort with the decision to host Bush and Rubio but cited an unspoken policy against criticizing other denominational agencies and declined to comment publicly.
Do not misunderstand the silence as inaction. I understand that in 2018, if you are not on social media, you are not “speaking up.” However, social media quietness also happens because many leaders work in more behind-the-scenes ways to provide correctives.
Instead of putting their cards on the table via social media, they do so in private interactions with individuals or governing bodies, or they act through floor debates and ballots when the Southern Baptist Convention is in session. And that’s legitimate as well.
But because of this unofficial custom, it is highly unusual (and courageous) for Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources, the denomination’s publishing and retail arm, to tweet earlier today:
The ongoing discussion over recent comments by fellow Southern Baptist Paige Patterson remind[s] me we live in a politically charged environment, both in our nation and in our convention. Any statement is almost immediately construed to be a statement of political posturing. Such is neither my intent nor my desire. However I cannot be silent on the issue of abuse of women. My silence becomes a reverberating echo of indifference at best. There is no level or type of abuse of women that is acceptable. We have been called by God to show honor and respect to all women and girls. They are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our granddaughters, and our wives. We thank God for them. And I stand with all who say ‘no’ to any type of abuse of women at any time and under any circumstance.
I imagine today that Thom’s phone lines are lit up.
Again and again, no one says anything because that’s what we are told to do—SBC leaders do not speak ill of one another.
But What About Paige Patterson?
The irony was that the “no criticism” rule did not seem to apply to Patterson himself. He often spoke up about other entity heads, particularly Jerry Rankin, former president of the International Mission Board (IMB), our missions agency. In 2003, Patterson distributed a white paper written by a member of his faculty and criticizing Rankin. He even mailed copies directly to the IMB trustees with his own official cover letter.
Around 2006, the tide began to turn on Patterson’s influence within the denomination as a whole. His influence has continued to wane as Southwestern has declined.
When he began his presidency, the headline was, “Patterson declares end to downturn in Southwestern Seminary enrollment.” Since then, the seminary has experienced stunning decline. The latest reports from the Association of Theological Schools show a decline of full-time equivalent students from 2,072 in 2004–2005 to 1,393 in 2017–2018.
But as the number of students has gone down, his gaffes have not. Here are just some from the last few years: