Turning the Paige with the Southern Baptists and a Litton-y of Other Considerations in the Handling of Church Leaders Gone Wild

Dr. Steven Lawson, my favorite contemporary preacher, a Southern Baptist minister of the Gospel once said in a sermon (paraphrase), “If, as a pastor, you have not been thrown out of a church, you may want to check your calling to pastoral ministry and whether you are actually preaching the Gospel.”

When I watched the Southern Baptists crucify Paige Patterson (May — June 2018), there was a paradox in my view. Someone was obviously digging for dirt on this man (others may want to beware), and they found some questionable counsel from the early 2000’s, published it, and sparked a brouhaha against the 75-year-old former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas (they fired him amidst a negative media firestorm).

Dr. Paige Patterson had served the church of Jesus Christ for decades, and in a contrived smear campaign, he was discarded and dismissed (today’s vernacular…”cancelled”) in a twinkling of an eye. Boom. Gone. As the Washington Post suggested, the #metoo movement had visited the Southern Baptist Convention. Remember, this man did not abuse anyone (see Roman Catholic priests in various locations), but admittedly, he gave some questionable counsel to victims of domestic abuse.

Is marriage a sacred institution, ordained by God, and should a man and a woman not work to avoid the disgrace of divorce? Are there abusive men…and women in Christian marriages? Is forgiveness a powerful tool for victims of abuse? There is no advocacy of abuse by any Christian minister, and I am confident this includes Paige Patterson. How to work through the complexities of abuse in marriages is not a simple task with a simple resolution if one desires to honor God and His Word.

No pastor would ever claim to be perfect in his counsel on the diverse people and circumstances they face, regarding marital problems. Patterson did apologize for his wrongdoing. The court of public outrage had already spoken, however. The Scriptures honor marriage between one man and one woman, and they disparage divorce and prohibit remarriage. Husbands are to love their wives, and wives are to respect their husbands. Sin messes up marriages, but God is at work in Christian marriages. These are pictures of Christ and the church, much to the chagrin of feminists and egalitarians.

Paige Patterson surely knew all of these things about the biblical view of marriage, and no doubt he has helped innumerable couples to work through their marriage problems. Is it possible he was wrong in counseling a victim of abuse to forgive and return to her husband without some other recourse? Sure, we get it wrong sometimes. Was Patterson a serial criminal Christian leader advocating wives be enslaved to abusive husbands? Surely not.

The paradox of good men becoming victims of a media malaise, designed to take them down and shame the church, is coupled with Lawson’s view that this is almost a rite of passage for a true minister to follow in the footsteps of Christ, spurs my desire to pray for Paige Patterson. It also spurs my desire to see Christian couples honor Christ in their covenant relationship with one another. Marriage is difficult and pastoral ministry, in the area of marriage counseling, is difficult. What is sad is how quickly the church goes into damage control, to please the world, before having the discussion and debate over these very important issues.

How quickly the church turned on Paige Patterson for the sake of its denominational reputation. They should have let the man speak. They should have let Paige Patterson use the platform, built by Satan to destroy him, to preach the beauty and sanctity of Christian marriage. They should have let the man explain his statements, his position, and how he sees Christian pastoral counseling on marriage. They should have let him tell his story of what he was learning about the current events in his life and ministry, for better or worse.

Instead, the church proved that witch hunts are still in vogue. We have not shied away from casting the first stone at this seasoned man of God, who has faithfully served Christ and His bride, the church. Sadly, Paige Patterson was abandoned, as was the apostle Paul in his Roman prison cell. Two old men of God, who gave their lives to the cause of Christ and His church, and who both suffered for it at the end of their ministries. Sack him! Crucify him! If Lawson is right, Patterson will soon hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant, you have followed the path of your Master, albeit, imperfectly, and suffered for the sake of the elect. Enter the joy of the Lord!”

In June and July of 2021, the plagiarism controversy regarding Ed Litton, the Southern Baptist Convention’s president, also gave us opportunity to consider the handling of less-than-perfect church leaders. Litton was given a pass for his plagiarism of other preachers’ sermons. He then put a spin on his behavior in front of the chapel at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the same institution that cancelled Paige Patterson. Dr. James White, Justin Peters, and other apologists called out the Southern Baptists for excusing the bad behavior compounded by further bad behavior.

The world is watching. Satan loves drama in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our adversary prowls in the quest of making a mockery of Jesus Christ and His body of believers. Thus, the issue of how churches handle their sinful leaders is an important one because of the ever-present spiritual warfare. How refreshing it would have been for the SBC to have learned from its mistake in their mishandling of Paige Patterson’s case and applied that lesson to the Ed Litton case.

Ed Litton, if the church were compassionate and forgiving, could have confessed his sin of plagiarism and lying to the chapel at SWBTS, which would have been unnecessary if he had any hope of forgiveness for the first offense when it was exposed. Confessing one’s sins, in front of a watching church and world, is a remarkably humbling experience. Ask Mark Few about that exercise. The Gonzaga University Men’s Basketball coach was cited for a Driving while Under the Influence of Alcohol offense in early September 2021. When the story broke in the media the next day, He owned his offense and publicly apologized. In repentance, he promised it would never happen again. As a pastor’s kid, Mark Few obviously learned some good lessons. He was forgiven (my estimation of the public court of sentiment) and the story all but disappeared.

Litton was privy to the Patterson cancellation; hence, he knew what unforgiveness looks like in the church. So, he spun his story, which is a modern way of saying that he lied about what was visible to everyone via the videotapes which proved the case against him. The plagiarism is cringeworthy, but the post-event cover-up is simply insulting. Paige Patterson was silenced, and he did not survive. Ed Litton lied and survived. Mark Few confessed his sin and survived.

In conclusion, the church is obviously inconsistent in the matter of handling sinful church leaders and publicly prominent members. As with other matters, scandals, and schisms, I suspect these will not go away until King Jesus returns. It is a travesty to report that some get “lucky” and others suffer, but that will be the story until the just Judge of the living and the dead brings perfect justice to the earth. On that day, some will be exonerated, while others will pay for their sins under the sentence of eternal punishment. In light of these inconsistencies by the church, where God’s judgment begins, may we all walk a bit more humbly with our God, under His grace and providential care, especially church leaders gone wild.

David Norczyk

Spokane Valley, Washington

September 16, 2021

Some random theologian out West somewhere, Christian writer, preacher