A Preacher’s View of Domestic Violence

I posted this originally as a blog in answer to a news article I saw.  But I think it is a great example of a common pastoral mistaken teaching about domestic violence.

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The Southern Baptist Outpost has an article with an excerpt from audio recordings and transcripts from a conference in 2000, in which Paige Patterson explains the counsel he gave one battered woman. Here’s the quote the Outpost posted:

I had a woman who was in a church that I served, and she was being subject to some abuse, and I told her, I said, “All right, what I want you to do is, every evening I want you to get down by your bed just as he goes to sleep, get down by the bed, and when you think he’s just about asleep, you just pray and ask God to intervene, not out loud, quietly,” but I said, “You just pray there.” And I said, “Get ready because he may get a little more violent, you know, when he discovers this.” And sure enough, he did. She came to church one morning with both eyes black. And she was angry at me and at God and the world, for that matter. And she said, “I hope you’re happy.” And I said, “Yes ma’am, I am.” And I said, “I’m sorry about that, but I’m very happy.”

And what she didn’t know when we sat down in church that morning was that her husband had come in and was standing at the back, first time he ever came. And when I gave the invitation that morning, he was the first one down to the front. And his heart was broken, he said, “My wife’s praying for me, and I can’t believe what I did to her.” And he said, “Do you think God can forgive somebody like me?” And he’s a great husband today. And it all came about because she sought God on a regular basis. And remember, when nobody else can help, God can.

And in the meantime, you have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him. Obviously, if he’s doing that kind of thing he’s got some very deep spiritual problems in his life and you have to pray that God brings into the intersection of his life those people and those events that need to come into his life to arrest him and bring him to his knees.

Now, the gross – and offensive – errors in this quote seems obvious to me. But just in case, anybody doesn’t see them let me point out some things.

First, there’s an appalling brassy arrogance just in the repetition of this story and the verbage of its telling. It is all about Patterson patting Patterson on the back. Look what he did! Isn’t he so wise and a literal miracle-worker! Applause, applause. This tone is one of the things that in many people, particularly victims of clergy abuse or of clergy who have failed to stand up for them in domestic abuse, generates a nearly visceral reaction of disgust and repugnance. It can become virtually impossible to sit through church services because of this one “little” thing.

Second, this was spoken by a man who is adamantly insisting he has done nothing wrong in his part of the handling of the breaking SBC scandal of clergy sex abuse. This text is being used in examining an entirely separate issue — what he has or has not done to “bring Southwestern Seminary in line with the beliefs of the Southern Baptist Convention, as they relate to women’s roles.” This excerpt clearly shows Patterson’s attitude toward women and his view of their position in subjugation to men. A man who has this general attitude toward women is not going to view clergy sex abuse as a terribly relevant problem. At best it would deserve a slap on the wrist; tsk, tsk. Women (and children, since they are even “less” than women in a hierarchical system) are not as valuable as men, especially clergy who trump the average male on a power/importance scale. God’s work and God’s workmen are more important than “that little thing that happened to you back then.”

In this excerpt Patterson says, “…you have to do what you can at home to be submissive in every way that you can and to elevate him…” He believes submission of the wife is paramount. According to Patterson, woman’s submission is the most important factor in marital success. If only she will submit enough, God will be able to change her husband. That is what he said.

Patterson is also expressing that the abusive husband is still deserving of elevation! The abuser is to be elevated regardless of whether he beats the life out of his wife. Shoot, compared to that, what’s a little clergy sex abuse? Elevate that man!

He sent a domestic violence victim back to her abuser, knowingly putting her in harm’s way. He felt it didn’t matter that she would be abused even worse than before; he expected that to happen. It was completely fine.

But it was all worth it because, since that women subjected herself to an abuser, prayed for him on her knees by the bed, and took another beating, God brought her husband to his knees in a dramatic, miraculous, life-changing conversion! Amen! Or not. Let me break it down.

While I don’t want to accuse Patterson of lying, this story has all the earmarks of one of those pastoral embellishments used to illustrate or emotionally manipulate the audience into “feeling” his point. Everyone wants miracles like that story. Since pastors believe God can and will do things like that, they can get a little generous with their “true” stories.

The fact is, this type of miraculous transformation does not happen. There’s a reason. The problem with an abuser is not just a matter of getting “saved.” There are deep-rooted issues behind and underneath the behavior. While accepting Christ might motivate a man to find out why he is making the choices he is and might open his eyes to see the value of his wife, it’s going to take a lot more than a single spiritual experience to transform an abuser. Not maybe; definitely. The roots behind abuse are corrected through a process of seeking God and having the mind renewed through the truth of the Word.

Another problem is that this story demonstrates a commonly taught mistaken belief that God will force an abuser to change their behavior because you prayed about it (see my article God Answers Prayer in Abusive Marriages for more on this subject). If Patterson told this woman to do this, he was operating on erroneous theology and should be held accountable for the physical abuse she received. This is just as wrong as letting clergy sex abusers slide, and comes from the same root attitudes and beliefs. This is one example of why I feel the issues of clergy sex abuse and clergy overlooking domestic violence are fruit of the same tree. And in using this supposed event as a sermon illustration he is perpetuating a dangerous bit of wrong theology on his audience and on anyone they, in turn, encourage to do the same thing. It is not an overstatement to say someone could get killed trying to be obedient to “God” per Patterson, et.al.

In telling this story, Patterson is also perpetuating his horrific acceptance of domestic violence and subjugation of women to his audience, and through them, to how many others? This man is a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. He is in a position of authority. People look up to him and follow his example. This is one seriously bad example to follow.

Now, I’m going to give Patterson one out. The ideas and theology he verbalized in this excerpt are not an expression of his own that he came up with single-handedly. I have heard this type of teaching from many preachers for many years, in a variety of churches and denominations. He is just one voice of many harmfully negligent voices speaking about the subject of abuse in the pulpit and in pastoral counseling. That doesn’t mean we can judge every preacher as being the same. And certainly, a large subset of preachers are not to be confused with God Himself. Again I will reiterate – God is not the problem. What these preachers are teaching is not even remotely what God and the Word teach. It has to be exposed and highlighted if it is ever going to stop.

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