Abuse, Divorce, and Paige Patterson’s Bad Bible Reading

Patterson PreachingLast week Paige Patterson was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth for comments he made about women that are insensitive and demeaning at best. Yesterday he was fired.

It is not my intent to write a commentary on Patterson as a person or as a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Plenty of people are doing so, and it is the responsibility of the trustees of the seminary to judge his fitness for leading the largest SBC seminary in the world. They have done so. I have no dog in that particular hunt.

My interest is in helping my readers to be skilled in interpreting the Bible. This incident, and Patterson’s comments, are a cautionary tale about bad Bible reading.

The comments I want to focus on regard women who are abused by their husbands. In sermons that Patterson has preached he has repeatedly said that such women must stay with their husbands.

In one sermon he told of a time that he so advised a woman who came to him for counsel, telling her to pray. She later came back with two black eyes.

“Happy?” she asked. Patterson replied that yes he was, because her husband had heard her prayers and was in church the next day.

I know where Patterson is coming from because I come from a tradition that interprets the Bible very literally, just as he does, so let me explain—but not defend—his thinking.

In short, he’s anti-divorce, not pro-abuse, but the end result of his bad Bible reading leads to at least a tolerance of abuse and an excuse for men to beat their wives.

The Old Testament allowed a man to divorce his wife for just about any reason—while a wife had no similar right.

Some men exploited this and divorced their wives for shameful reasons, including to avoid adultery, as when a husband found another woman desirable but having an affair was dangerous.

To avoid the risk of being stoned for adultery he could divorce his wife, marry the other woman, and everything would be great—except for the ex-wife, who was left homeless, without support or protection.

Jesus therefore said that while Moses allowed for divorce, God’s intention was that man and woman become one flesh—and you don’t tear flesh apart.

Jesus made an exception for unfaithfulness, at least according to Matthew (5:32 and 19:9.) In the parallel passage in Mark that exception is absent.

That’s it. No exception for abuse.

It’s arguable that Paul added another reason: abandonment. The Corinthians were wondering if they should divorce their unbelieving spouses, to which Paul says no—unless the spouse leaves first. “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound.” (1 Cor. 7:15 NRSV)

In Patterson’s mind, according to his commitment to a literal reading of Scripture and to its authority over the life of a believer, a woman is not allowed to divorce her husband even if he regularly beats her to within an inch of her life. Scripture prohibits it, which is why Patterson only reluctantly if perhaps insincerely apologized for his comments.

But it’s just bad Bible reading. And tragic.

Look, Paul seemingly added to Jesus’ statement about divorce. Why did he feel it necessary to do so? Because Jesus was dealing with a Jewish context in which men were using the divorce law to get around the adultery law, while Paul was dealing with a Gentile context in which women as well as men were allowed to initiate divorce and early Christians were worried about being “unequally yoked.”

We are also in a different context today, one in which we have moved beyond a strictly patriarchal system (although some would impose one again real fast) to one that is much more egalitarian.

One that will hopefully will become fully egalitarian.

One in which no person—man, woman, or child—is forced to stay in an abusive relationship.

Is that unbiblical? Would Paul object that we’ve gone too far? Would Jesus?


This is the trajectory that Jesus was pointing to, which Paul and the other New Testament writers picked up.

This isn’t contradicting the Bible or rendering it irrelevant.

It’s fulfilling the intent of the Bible and the vision of the kingdom of God in which every woman, every child—and, yes, every man—is safe, secure, loved and valued as equal persons created in the image and likeness of God.

Photo Credit: Paigepatterson.org

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