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What Alcoholics Anonymous could teach Paige Patterson

Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, gives a report to attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting on June 11, 2014. Photo courtesy Matt Miller via Baptist Press

The following is a guest post by Seth Haines, author of “Coming Clean: A Story of Faith

I was not surprised by the news coming out of the Southern Baptist Convention over the last few weeks. I wasn’t shocked by Paige Patterson’s comments about spousal abuse, or his objectification of a 16-year-old girl, or the fact that the 75-year old president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary allegedly terminated a PhD seminary student for tweeting about the controversy. I wasn’t blindsided by Patterson’s initial refusal to apologize, or his far-too-late late apology “to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity.”

I wasn’t surprised by any of it, and tellingly, many Southern Baptists weren’t either. But to understand how I got to this place–and how Southern Baptists got here–you’ll need a little bit of history.

Every Sunday of my childhood was spent sitting in awalnut-stained pew, facing the blue-carpeted platform, listening to the capital-t Truth preached in a homespun rhythm. I was Southern Baptist and that meant something.

What it meant, my preacher said,was that the world was created in a literal seven days just a few thousand years ago. It also meant that we would be whisked away from the evil earth in a miraculous rapture. Therewere moral absolutes, too—don’t drink, respect your elders, save sex for marriage, and never divorce.The scriptures were inerrant, I was taught, and they were meant to be interpretedliterally.

We had our beliefs, and we had our celebrity leaders. Their names were invoked by our preachers, our Sunday School teachers, and adults in the know.

Among those names were Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler, paragons of virtue who’d rescued the denomination from creeping liberalism. It was said that Patterson and Pressler orchestrated the “Conservative Resurgence,” which refers to the period during which theological conservatives chased moderates from Southern Baptist seminaries, agencies, and pulpits. They’d saved the denomination from sliding into moral decay—or so the preachers told us—and they were the closest thing we had to saints.

I heard legends about these men and others like them, and though it was never directly intimated that they were above reproach, I assumed it. They’d become leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, and their teaching was unquestionable. If they preached it, you could take it to the bank.

“Coming Clean” by Seth Haines is a story of faith and overcoming addiction. – Image courtesy of Zondervan

I was active in Baptist ministry into my mid-twenties. I served with good men, conservative ministers who were often outside of the power fabric of the Convention and who didn’t use their influence to silence, shame, or objectify women. Even still, I didn’t have to look far to find those who took a different approach. More than a few influential preachers seemed to value conservative theology over people. It wasn’t uncommon to hear sermons that subtly objectified women. There was an irreconcilable disconnect between what I believed and what I heard preached from so many like Patterson.

As it grew, I took my leave. I stepped away from the Southern Baptist world.

The years passed, and life did what life does. In my mid-thirties, I found myself in a darker season. My youngest son’s health was failing, and I’d been over-drinking to numb the pain. I’d nearly lost my way, but the grace of God intervened, and I was carried into sobriety. I began to explore what real life-change, real dependency on God might look like in this season of sobriety, but instead of turning to the steady diet of conservatism and moralism that hadn’t been helpful in my hour of need, I did what so many who struggle do. I turned to therapy and a program of recovery.

As I worked my way through weekly therapy, as I examined the wounds that led me to the bottle, I took note of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps were familiar, and I could find similar principles in the scriptures I’d learned in my youth. Among those steps, was the eighth step regarding making amends. As stated by Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, in the eighth step of recovery:

“[W]e take a look backward and try to discover where we have been at fault; next we make a vigorous attempt to repair the damage we have done; and third, having thus cleaned away the debris of the past, we consider how, with our newfound knowledge of ourselves, we may develop the best possible relations with every human being we know.”

The process of making amends in the 12-step rubric goes beyond simple apologies or acknowledgements of guilt. It’s an active, reparative thing. What’s more, it mirrors Christ’s teachings on seeking forgiveness and making amends.

In his most famous sermon, Jesus preached about repentance and seeking reconciliation. He taught, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

READ ALSO: “Why Paige Patterson’s apology may not be enough”

Jesus knew that words are not enough. Reconciliation requires the willingness to lay down your gifts, to walk away from the very thing you think might justify you, and to make personal, specific, one-on-one attempts toward reconcile.

Paige Patterson should consider joining a 12-step program. It might teach him something about dealing honestly with his mistakes and making an effective amends.

In recent weeks, Patterson’s pattern of behavior has been exposed. As a result, and before he issued his apology, over 3,000 Southern Baptist women spoke up and signed a letterto the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Board of Trustees. Their request was singular: “The Southern Baptist Convention cannot allow the biblical view of leadership to be misused in such a way that a leader with an unbiblical view of authority, womanhood, and sexuality be allowed to continue in leadership.”

In response, Patterson issued his apology. But he’s not stepped away from his position, nor has he been removed. There’s been no public clarity about his attempts to make amends or restitution for his damaging statements, either toward the women he’s directly offended, or to those who drafted the letter to his employer.

Still, it seems many Southern Baptist Convention leaders are content with his three paragraph apology. His words, they intimate, are enough.

But as both the 12-steps and the Gospel teach us, words are not enough. Christ-like reconciliation requires more than mere words. Reconciliation requires action, personal attempts to make amends, and when warranted, restitution. This, it seems, is something better understood by participants in AA than by the president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

There are good and upright men and women in the Southern Baptist Convention. There are faithful preachers and active participants in Baptist churches who’ve given their lives to bear witness to the work of Christ in reconciliation. For their sake and the sake of their church members, I pray they’ll ask Patterson to do the right thing.

I hope they’ll listen to those 3,000 Southern Baptist women who penned the letter, and in humility take action in accordance with that letter. This mirrors the way of Christ, whom Patterson claims to follow. It also paves the way for lasting healing, which is desperately needed within the Baptist church.

As it stands, 12-step programs like AA, which require proactive attempts to actually repair relational damage, have more moral authority than the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Southern Baptist leaders should take a page from the AA book. If they don’t, they’ll watch as congregants leave their pews just like I did so many years ago.

Image credit: Brian Hirschy

Seth Haines is the author of Coming Clean: A Story of Faith, an Award of Merit honoree in Christianity Today’s 2016 Book Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @sethhaines.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

12 Comments

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  • Surely his actions don’t matter as long as he ‘truly repents in his heart,’ right? That’s what I keep hearing.

  • Paige Patterson could probably learn quite a few things from AA, for all the conventional reasons. After all, it was George Carlin who famously said, “There are three religious truths: 1. Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. 2. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of the Christian faith. 3. Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.” There are more Baptist closet alcoholics than there are closeted Baptist homosexuals, and that’s saying something!

  • What could PP learn from AA?

    Humility?

    the nature of a true apology?

    To park his car at the sex shop so that no one will think he’s in the liquor store next door?

  • In *fact*, although Patterson et al do not want to acknowledge it, the understanding of Christianity (i.e. TRUE Christianity) is constantly changing.

    I am glad there are folks like Patterson, since his speaking out exposes the true nature of conservative religion and believers. Reports I’ve read in other venues say that the number of non-believers in the US is rising, thanks to folks like him.

  • Once again I am reminded of the mythical war that conservative Baptists supposedly waged against the liberals. I was raised during the 70’s and 80’s in the bible belt of Southwest Virginia. I was a Primitive Baptist first and then migrated to the Southern Baptist faith due to the absence of a primitive Baptist church in our hometown. My wife of twenty-six years was raised exclusively as a Southern Baptist. We were never aware of “The War against Liberalism” of which Paige Patterson and, in our area, Jerry Falwell Sr. bravely fought.

    We did, however, take leave of our more liberal Southern Baptist colleagues in the 90’s, quietly and with prayers for their deliverance from the corrupting influences of their Slaveholder Faith. We were certainly not unique and have reunited with many of our orthodox Baptist friends in a Wesleyan tradition that speaks of the Kingdom of God rather than the politics of men.

    I pray nightly for Paige Patterson and his kind. I pray that God will open their eyes. I pray that they see they are not heroes of a valiant cause, but rather satan’s laborers working diligently to sow weeds in Christ’s garden.

  • It seems to me the author wants more than an apology. If Patterson is one of the authors of a theology that objectifies women and justifies their abuse, then to make amends he must use his moral authority (such as it is) to change that theology in the SBC. The author believes he owes it to the women and that such a change is necessary for the spiritual health of the whole denomination. I agree.

  • Yeah, well, you know it, and I know it, but those who don’t want to believe it’s true, will make all kinds of cockamamie accusations against me, and work hard to remain ignorant.

    I work hard to learn the “true facts”.

  • For me – I think you have to break the P Paterson issue into 2 parts and 1 Whole.

    1. Comments with sexual innuendo directed at an underage women are an offense/sin of a sexual nature suggesting issues with a leaders purity.

    2. The willingness to lead a women or any person into a dangerous abusive situation and then self vindicate your actions when the abuser “comes to Christ” is questionable on its own.

    As a whole we see a diminished value placed on females safety and an emphasis placed on their role as “mens” sexual provissions. Add a willingness to prop up a “conversion” as proof that he was right despite 2 black eyes and you have a sick picture of a sick man in a position he has disqualified himself from..

    Paterson is in my disqualified to lead bucket

    The men that rally around him and allow him to continue with such a poor apology are in my questionable to lead bucket.

    Praying for strength in my own walk, to continue to take thoughts captive without blurting out filth especially with regards to women..

  • I cannot separate Dr. Patterson’s recent comments from his handling of the serial abuser Darrell Gilyard. I am not sure that anyone really knows the number of women that Gilyard sexually abused. What is known is that Darrell should have been exposed to churches and reported to the police and not protected and promoted. However, the internet was not as prominent then, there was no ”#metoo” and the “good ol boy” system was at its zenith in power. A former President of the SBC had to change his autobiography because one of the victims, a teenager and member of his church who Darrell abused, was courageous and unrelenting in her pursuit of justice and truth. If anyone is unaware of the Gilyard incindent, please research it and see just how coldly abuse victims were treated. This recent revelation is not a misspeak or some out of touch remark. Just take time a read about Gilyard. Darrell Gilyard is a brutal but breathtaking insight at how some men in the SBC have always felt about women who have suffered abuse. There will be a meeting, a statement of remorse and support, then a review of all the good PP has done, and the he will move into a retirement home built on SBC Seminary property. Oh, somewhere along the line, Paige will get a standing ovation, the women? They will get a new statement/apology suitable for framing.

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