Albert Mohler, known colloquially as “Al,” is the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. He’s also one of the most prominent voices in American evangelicalism, representing the Southern Baptist Convention on the national stage through his radio shows, blogs, and on the boards of various organizations across the United States.
Paige Patterson, like Mohler, is a prominent member of the SBC, working as president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, where he’s served for 15 years, until being removed from his position in May following the revelation that he had counseled women in his care to forgive their rapists and to stay with abusive husbands. (It should be noted, however, that Patterson leaves with a golden parachute that includes “compensation,” a title as president emeritus, and, according to the Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “the option of living as ‘theologian-in-residence’ at the seminary’s new Baptist Heritage Center.”)
Mohler, long a mouthpiece of the SBC, wrote in a commentary on his website that the events surrounding Patterson signal the wrath of God being poured out upon the SBC. And he asks: “Is the problem theological?”
In a word, yes. It always has been, and always will be until the SBC and the larger conservative evangelical movement is willing to reckon with the fact that their theology lays the groundwork for abuse. While abuse exists in all circles and all faiths, there is a unique theological problem that creates a culture of apology for abuse within the SBC.
The SBC, a driving force in American evangelicalism—a largely white, largely Republican voting bloc—believes in a set of guiding principles surrounding gender and sexuality. The first is that God created men and women with separate and complementary gifts and skills; the second is that men and women work best together in a marital pair, in their complementary roles and strengths; and, third, that women are to submit to their husbands as head of the household and natural leader. This complementarianism is a guiding principle in the evangelical gospel, and as such grounds everything about God into heterosexual, cisgender marriage and family.
But, as any close observer of evangelicalism since its booming growth in the 1960s and 70s can tell you, complementarianism is a breeding ground for abusive marriages and harmful sexual ethics. Patterson didn’t emerge out of his own unique muck of sin: his theology is directly in line with what prominent evangelical pastors have been saying for years. When I first began studying the evangelical church in 2010, I discovered an entire underground network of women harmed by their churches, unable to return. Members of my family were shunned from their churches for divorcing after their husbands cheated on and abused them. Men instructed me that abused women are like “martyrs for Christ in China.” Prominent evangelical pastors declared that women ought to “endure abuse for a season.”
Mohler ignores the suspect theology that led to Paige Patterson telling a rape victim to forgive. He ignores the ongoing conflicts over similar behavior in evangelical circles around the world. He ignores that Cedarville, Pensacola Christian, Bob Jones, Baylor, and numerous other evangelical universities have faced ongoing controversies over allegations that rape victims were instructed to forgive their rapists, were asked how they provoked their own attacks, and were instructed that drinking was the problem.
Patterson is the tip of the iceberg. What Mohler depicts as “God’s wrath being poured out” is merely the harmful and abusive theology of complementarianism finally receiving the public shaming it deserves. The clarion call of feminist theologians and writers like Rachel Held Evans, Hannah Paasch, Emily Joy, Sarah Bessey, and other critiques of the evangelical tradition has been a prophecy of the eventual destruction of a power-hungry, abusive institution.
Dr. Kristen Donnelly, executive vice president of Abbey Research, who has done extensive research into Baptist theology and rape culture, says this demeaning of women is a natural consequence of their patriarchal theology: “The churches that make up the SBC are shaped by male voices as default authority. They pronounce Scripture from pulpits, lead meetings, shape polity, and exercise unilateral gendered authority within the convention.” When male authority is centered, Donnelly says, it’s “not surprising that their first instinct was to allow Patterson to retain [his] position within the organization.”
Yet, Mohler refuses to admit that the theology might actually be the issue. Instead, he goes the way of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, writing that pastors have a responsibility to go to civil authorities when presented with cases of abuse, following it up by saying: “I believe that the pattern of God’s pleasure and design in the family and in the church is essential to human flourishing. I believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible verbally inspired Word of God. I believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the great news that any sinner who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved.” A pastor who instructs a wife to submit to her abusive husband—as Patterson did—is therefore not truly following complementarian theology. Any abuse justified by complementarianism, in Mohler’s eyes, is not true complementarianism and can therefore be discounted.
As Donnelly says, “The foundational belief of women as less than men is foundational to the modern SBC, and to reconstruct foundations takes more than one man’s public fall from grace, no matter how integral that man was.” And this belief developed in the face of Biblical precedent that declares that followers of Christ are “co-heirs” of God’s glory with Christ, and that there is no longer male or female in Christ. Apparently, the SBC are reading a different Bible.