Last week, an audio tape from 2000 resurfaced in which Paige Patterson, currently the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), described counseling women to remain in abusive marriages.
The unfolding reckoning within the SBC is, on the surface, about a man who was moved by the suffering of a woman—in that Patterson likely does want to see abuse end. But sadly, his advice and his theology only perpetuate the devaluation of women and further endanger them. His response falls far short because it focuses only on the man and sidelines the needs, health, and safety of the woman.
In Patterson’s official statement about this tape, and in his interview with Baptist Press News, he claims that he condemns abuse. But his words in his interview demonstrate a profound lack of concern about the suffering of women; he says, “‘minor non-injurious abuse which happens in so many marriages’—and which does not make the wife fear for her safety—might spur a woman to ‘pray [her husband] through this’ rather than leave.”
To be crystal clear, Patterson is suggesting that women should endure abuse because if they stay and suffer, they may be able to help their husbands become better people.
He further digs in to this position with an anecdote, which was part of the tape and then was retold in his official statement, about a woman who came to him because her husband was verbally or emotionally abusing her. Patterson counseled this woman to return to her husband and continue to pray for him; when she returned, her husband became physically violent. However, this man did later come to church with his wife and become a Christian, causing Patterson to rejoice over the husband’s conversion while the abuse this woman endured faded into the background of her husband’s story.
In this anecdote and in his interview, Patterson does what countless popular narratives do: he reduces a woman’s primary value to her effect it has on the men around her. Consider William Wallace’s wife in the movie Braveheart. She matters because she, and her suffering, spurs the men to brave action. Likewise, Liam Neeson's daughter in the movie Taken is not a subject, but a plot device to drive a man forward. These women’s own suffering, their own stories, their own acts of courage and endurance are not the subjects of the narratives. Their suffering only has meaning because it affects a man.
Patterson justifies his position as a refusal to counsel divorce. But in his interview and his statement, he implies that the possibility of redemption for a husband—whether that means accepting Christ or turning from sin—is worth the actual emotional and even physical suffering of that man’s wife. When we accept this kind of risk to women, we imply that women’s primary value is as supporters of their husbands. And we tell women that, in order to preserve that value, they must be willing to accept abuse.
But God didn’t create women to be accessories to men’s stories, to be the plot devices that fade into the background so that men can accomplish great things.
When women are treated as accessories to men’s stories, men can tell them to endure abuse for a season, or to suffer through “minor” abuse (whatever that means), in order to win their husbands to Christ or to repentance. When women are accessories, they matter only in relation to men; they lose value as independent human beings. They matter as a man’s wife, or mother, or daughter, not as a person fully created in the imago dei with value and agency.
By contrast, where women are men’s accessories, men are the perpetual subjects and have natural value regardless of their relationship to anything or anyone else. Because men have standalone value within this system, they can also claim superior authority. They then use that authority to deny the same value to others. But a system where men have the authority to render women accessories hurts everyone, including men.
Nothing can be further from the way that Jesus interacts with women or from the ethic of the gospel. I think especially of Mary Magdalene, and particularly the moment recounted in John’s gospel when, lingering by the empty tomb, she encounters Jesus. Mary initially thinks that Jesus is the gardener, but she recognizes him when Jesus speaks her name.
He calls her by her name, and she experiences herself as fully known and beloved by her creator. She stands in the garden and, named by her Lord, she goes out to spread the news of the resurrection, to become the apostle to the apostles. Her value, though, is not in her message to the other apostles or her ability to spur men on to great deeds. We don’t even learn how Jesus’ male disciples reacted to Mary’s news. Instead, Mary’s value lies in her status as beloved daughter of God.
The church must acknowledge that subordinating women to men, subordinating the actual lives of women to the potential lives of their husbands, subordinating women’s stories to men’s, conveys to women that they are not as beloved by God as men. It conveys that their lives, their needs, their suffering are less important. It conveys to women that they don’t deserve respect and consideration—even the most basic respect of not being abused. It devalues God’s good creation, creation that God called very good in Genesis and called by name in the garden at the end of the Gospel of John.
Condemning abuse is a sadly necessary first step, and it’s good that other SBC leaders, like Thom Rainer, have strongly condemned any type of abuse. But the root of the problem lies far deeper than Paige Patterson’s view that some levels of abuse are acceptable. The root of the problem is a view of women that sees them as subordinate to men, as supporting characters to men, rather than as fully realized human beings in their own right.
And until the church as a whole is willing to acknowledge and repent of this view of women, leaders like Paige Patterson will continue to devalue women and treat them as accessories to men rather than as beloved daughters of God.