During her years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, April C. Armstrong kept a journal of her experiences as one of the few women earning a Master of Arts in Theology.
There were scary moments with a Master of Divinity student who was preparing for ordination as a youth minister. When she rebuffed his advances, he claimed that, as part of the security team, he had keys to all doors on the Fort Worth campus. He added, “I know where you live.”
Armstrong was at Southwestern from 2004-2007 and, during that time, saw the last female professor exit the School of Theology. In one class, a male student quipped that “sophia” – Greek for “wisdom” – shouldn’t be a feminine word because “no woman is wise.” Then there was the chapel service in which a young woman sang a solo, inspiring President Paige Patterson to note that it was good that her skirt went to her ankles, since that would help men avoid the temptation of staring at her body.
“I was there to experience three years of unrelenting misogyny that it seemed NO ONE was willing to stop, because speaking out against it would realistically have drawn down the wrath of Paige Patterson, who could make or break your career,” she wrote, at her #SBCToo website.
Armstrong, who later earned a Princeton University doctorate, added: “The best thing SWBTS did for me … was to inspire a fierce, intensifying righteous anger.”
Anger is timely, along with grief, as waves of #MeToo and #ChurchToo messages about sexual abuse and domestic violence have triggered a series of stunning headlines. Most have been linked to the work of Patterson, a hero on the right because of his leadership in the conservative blitz that took control of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Now, Patterson has been pushed into retirement, and beyond, after news about sermons in which he critiqued a teen-aged girl’s body and, on another occasion, knocked female seminary students who weren’t striving hard enough to be attractive. An old recording from 2000 – when Patterson led Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary – led to renewed debate about his advice to an abused wife to stay with her husband, offering prayer and submission rather than seeking legal help.
Finally, The Washington Post reported that a Southeastern student claimed she had been raped by a seminarian, but Patterson advised her not to report this to police. The woman – with documents and testimonies backing key parts of her case – was placed on academic probation.
Responding to waves of public and private protest, Southwestern trustees recently met for 13 hours before removing Patterson. The trustees granted him a “theologian in residence” title and an on-campus residence in a new Baptist Heritage Center – privileges that were then revoked on Wednesday (May 30) by their executive committee. At this time, Patterson is still scheduled to deliver the keynote sermon at the annual Southern Baptist national meeting, June 12-13 in Dallas.
After the trustees acted, one of the SBC’s most vocal conservatives issued a withering statement entitled, “The Wrath of God Poured Out: The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
“The judgment of God has come,” wrote the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over.”
Southern Baptist leaders, he said, can defend their conservative teachings on sexuality, gender and the “pattern of male leadership in the home and church.” However, they must stress that there is “no excuse whatsoever for abuse of any form, verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual or sexual. The Bible warns so clearly of those who would abuse power and weaponize authority.”
Whenever there are abuse allegations, church leaders “must make every appropriate call to law enforcement and recognize the rightful God-ordained responsibility of civil government to protect, to investigate and to prosecute,” he added. Right now, Southern Baptists “cannot vindicate ourselves. … I believe that any public accusation concerning such a pattern requires an independent, third-party investigation.”
Mohler’s conclusion was blunt: “This is just a foretaste of the wrath of God poured out. … The Southern Baptist Convention is on trial and our public credibility is at stake. May God have mercy on us all.”