Paige Patterson is the President of the US Southern Baptist Convention. His response to a question about domestic abuse at a conference in 2000 re-emerged this week. You can listen to a transcript of his comments HERE. The questioner asks about the media discussion around submission “jumping” on the issue of women being abused by their husbands. He asks Paige Patterson
“What do you recommend for women undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands and the husbands say they should be submitting?”
Patterson responds with,
“It depends on the level of abuse to some degree. I have never in my ministry counselled that anybody seek a divorce, and I do think that’s always wrong counsel. There have been, however an occasion or two when the level of the abuse was serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough that I have counselled temporary separation and the seeking of help. I would urge you to understand that that should happen only in the most serious of cases… More often, when you face abuse it is of a less serious variety.”
He explains that he won’t describe the type of abuse that was severe enough to lead him to counsel temporary separation because it was so horrifying that it couldn’t be spoken about in public.
He went on to give an example where a woman was being “subject to some abuse” and he told her to pray about it based on his understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-12. He said that she came to church with two black eyes, but that it was all okay, because her husband came to church for the first time that Sunday and “his heart was broken”. Patterson explains,
“…when nobody else can help, God can. And in the meantime, you have to do whatever 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 life and arrest him and bring him to his knees.”
Let’s take a little look at some of the language used within this. Patterson clearly reinforces all concerns that submission leaves abusive men supported in their behaviour. To some degree I wonder if this is preferable to the weasel words of those who try to justify complementarian theology as absolutely fine. At least he’s honest about it.
From the outset, the questioner uses passive language and a qualifier to abuse, “undergoing genuine physical abuse from their husbands”. I use this clip from Jackson Katz A LOT in training to explain how language is used to erase the agent of the abuse (who is generally a man).
By asking about “genuine physical abuse”, the questioner is inferring that non-genuine abuse exists. What would that be? Does the husband’s violence have to leave bruises to be genuine? What about if there isn’t physical violence? Is that what he means? If a man is berating his wife, belittling her, humiliating her, manipulating her into degrading sexual acts, giving her no money to buy sanitary products, timing how long she takes shopping, screams in her face, torments the children to punish her, deliberately gets her into debt, keeps her up all night, makes her watch him wash after sex because she’s so dirty? Are all these things not genuine because he hasn’t physically hurt her?
I should say at this point, even responses to Patterson still echo the language of only an abuser’s physical violence warranting separation, for example:
Patterson’s response starts again with qualifying the type of abuse a man has to perpetrate in order for a woman to legitimately separate from him. But apparently it has to be SO bad that you can’t actually publicly tell people about it. Patterson also doesn’t make any mention of how a church leader would actually be privy to the full scale of abuse being perpetrated.
Disclosure is usually accidental and is always gradual. Nobody starts by disclosing the worst things that their husband has done to them. We start small and see if a) we are believed and b) we are looked at with disgust or care. The risk of speaking out leaves most women unwilling to do so, which means that often it will be accidental. Someone sees us at the school gate on the day he has bruised us, or one of our children mentions something to their teacher, or we mention something benign like, “Oh my husband doesn’t let me go shopping for more than half an hour.” Because we hadn’t realised that isn’t normal.
Nobody is going to start off by telling their church leader, “he urinates on me and chokes me and one day he took me to a derelict building and told me if I tried to leave him, he would bury me there”. And so, how exactly is Patterson able to assess how serious the abuse is in order to decide whether it meets his criteria, when he will likely never be provided with enough information to do so. But besides that, what abuse is not serious? Why does he get to make an arbitrary line between run of the mill abuse which should simply be ignored and that which is “serious enough, dangerous enough, immoral enough” to warrant temporary separation (nothing warrants divorce, so the only women able to escape are those whose husbands kill them, or who kill their husbands)? Sin is sin. Abuse is abuse. There is no sliding scale. And abusers inevitably escalate their behaviour, so whichever abuser fits within Patterson’s “acceptable abuse” category today may kill their partner or children tomorrow.
It takes years for most of us to recognise that our partner’s behaviour is wrong. He works very hard to ensure that we blame ourselves for his behaviour, and his constant minimisation and denial leaves us sure it can’t be that bad. By the time a woman says, “I need to get out”, you need to be listening to her and doing all you can to help. Particularly women in Christian communities, who have been indoctrinated to believe men have to be in charge, that submission is the solution and that denial-based-forgiveness is the way to move forward. But from this interview, there seems to be an inference that women are accusing their husbands of abuse willy nilly, just waking up in the morning and thinking, “Today I’ll go to my pastor and say that George is abusive because he won’t let me buy 73 pairs of shoes.” Just no.
It’s always convenient isn’t it, that people like Patterson have that story of the violent husband whose wife prays and he becomes a model Christian man. But it is hugely irresponsible to tell that story (whether it’s actually true is always something we must ask too). Abusive men do not change out of nowhere. There are too many benefits for them in remaining abusive. They get whatever they want whenever they want it; sex on demand, a servant, the status of being a good husband and father without actually being one, they get to always be right. And Patterson wants to uphold all those benefits, in fact he wants to increase them. Why on earth would an abuser change when Patterson is saying that an abuser should be rewarded with increasing levels of submission and adoration from his wife?
Patterson says that “when nobody else can help, God can”.
YOU CAN HELP, PAIGE PATTERSON! WE CAN ALL HELP. THIS IS NOT SOME INCURABLE DISEASE THAT WE ALL HAVE TO HOPE GOD WILL INTERVENE IN. THIS IS AN ABUSIVE MAN MAKING CHOICES THAT ARE ILLEGAL. WE CAN REPORT HIM TO THE POLICE. WE CAN FIND HER AND HER CHILDREN A SAFE PLACE. WE CAN STAB HIM IN THE HEAD. OKAY I KNOW WE SHOULDN’T DO THAT, BUT AT LEAST WE COULD THINK AND ACT WITH A VIEW THAT HE NEEDS TO BE STOPPED.
The only mention to “arrest” that Patterson makes is that God might arrest the abuser’s heart. PATTERSON SEEMS TO LIVE ON ANOTHER PLANET WHERE THERE AREN’T ACTUAL POLICE OFFICERS WHO CAN ARREST ABUSIVE MEN. The US and UK have both had laws in place for decades which can be used to arrest, charge and convict those who harm a partner. The police could actually arrest the abusive husband, but no, Patterson wants to leave that up to God. We should just pray that God brings situations and people into the man’s life that cause the man to be changed. Let us not consider that maybe WE are the people that God has brought into the man’s life! Let us not consider that WE could be the ones God is asking to partner with women and their children in finding a way out. Instead, Patterson would prefer that like the Pharisees we tithe our herbs and neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
It is easy for us all to be horrified and outraged about Patterson’s comments. And they are deeply concerning, particularly for all the women and children who have been brutalised first by an abusive man, and then had that compounded by church leaders and communities who have been more interested in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of justice and mercy. However, it is much harder to accept that we are likely to believe some of the things that Patterson says, albeit in much more implicit and hidden ways.
Years ago, I was contacted by a church leader. She wanted to know what to do about a family in her congregation. The man had been violent towards his wife on a number of occasions. I started by asking the church leader if she felt able to advise the woman to leave, “Oh yes of course,” she said, “nobody should be abused.” After we had been talking for about 20 minutes, she said to me, “The thing is, he was going to leave, and we felt that we could support her, because he was going to instigate leaving.” My response, “It sounds like you’re saying that if she had instigated leaving, you wouldn’t feel you could support her?” This church leader thought for a moment and responded, “No, I don’t think we would, because of what the Bible says about divorce and forgiveness and…”
We all like to believe that we think abuse is wrong. And that we don’t have such horrendous views as Paige Patterson. But in reality, we are theologically and psychologically predisposed to deny abuse. If she’s a strong woman, or he’s a lovely man. If she hasn’t mentioned physical violence or it seems like it’s a one off. We don’t want to believe that it’s abuse and so we minimise it, make it into something palatable. It’s his mental health issues. She’s quite overbearing. They just need couple counselling or to attend the Marriage Course. (Relationship counselling is NEVER appropriate where there is an abuser).
I spoke to a woman who asked for prayer because her husband was abusive. The pray-er advised her to put little love notes in his pocket each morning. Apparently that would solve it.
We don’t want to live in a world where the men that we think are good and nice could be abusers. We don’t want to believe that the women we know who are competent and strong could also be subjected to abuse by their husbands. We don’t want to believe that our church, family, neighbourhood could be tainted by abusers. And so we minimise, avoid, reshape the narrative and all without ever believing that WE, the woke people that we are, could EVER be anything like Paige Patterson.
But maybe we are.
If you’ve found this blog helpful, my WHOLE book about Christians and domestic abuse is being published by SPCK in March 2019. If you’d like to get updates about the book, you can sign up HERE.