Over the weekend the internet exploded in outrage over remarks made by Paige Patterson, president of SWBTS, over counsel he gave to a woman who shared that she was in an abusive marriage. This is one of the times it's hard to argue that the words were "taken out of context" because there's direct quotes and even Patterson affirmed the words themselves in a statement/clarification.
Patterson is a giant in SBC life. If not for his work in the 1970s to stem the tide of theological liberalism, the Convention itself might very well be dead. His unquestioned convictions have made him a polarizing figure, whether it's about his position on Calvinism or on gender roles. Like a good Texan, he's stuck to his guns. I think the counsel he gave was, though well-intentioned, off point. But it's not the point of this to heap coals on Patterson or his comments.
The point is to respond to the second wave of firestorm on social media: the equation of complementarian views of gender to a culture of abuse or the condoning of abuse. In particular the idea of "submission" that says a wife should stay submissive and quiet even when she's being used as a punching bag. Pushed by noted egalitarians/Christian feminists such as Rachel Held Evans, the real bad guy in this is a system of oppression--a patriarchy perpetuated that silences victims and protects abusers.
Let's be clear first about one thing: under no circumstance, under no pretense, under no "faithfulness to Scripture" is it ever OK for a man to emotionally, verbally, spiritually, or physically abuse his wife. That's not complementarianism. That's evil. Submission is a gift from a wife to her husband that flows from his Christlike leadership and guidance in the home (Ephesians 5:22-33 puts much more emphasis on the husband). This is intentional, it shows that where authority/leadership is given, there is greater expectation to lead well, with Christ as the example. Christ who provides for His Bride, Christ who suffered for His Bride, Christ who lives for His Bride, Christ who died for His Bride. Husbands, if you expect submission in your home without being willing to in a moment take a bullet for your wife, you're not a complementarian. You're a jerk.
How then, do we respond? How do we serve as a complementarian pastor and lead when we're confronted with something like what Patterson presented?
1. Call it what it is, and call the cops - If you're giving counsel to a wife and she shares she's been hit or that she's being abused, don't call it a "personal matter" or don't try to fix things in house. A crime has been committed. You have not only a moral obligation but in some cases a legal obligation to report abuse. It could be a child, it could a senior adult in a care facility in their own excrement. At that point, it's not up to you anymore. The police need to be called and the legal protection afforded by God through the State needs to be applied.
2. Put them in contact with appropriate resources - In most states you'll have a dedicated group to help families in abuse/domestic violence situations. As a pastor, you need to make sure you know who to call or where to get help for a number of situations. One thing I've found useful is to keep a listing of community supports. In Florida, we have a listing of local centers through the FCADV. These trained professionals are experienced in dealing with issues of abuse/violence in ways that you as a pastor simply aren't. Don't be too proud to make a call or a referral.
3. Counsel the priority: safety for her and the children - Patterson is unquestioned in his commitment to never counsel a divorce. I know a lot of pastors with the same conviction, they hold so strongly to the permanence of marriage they can't go against that conviction. But even with that conviction, if you have that, you can still counsel and advocate for safety. Whether it's legal separation, counseling for a protective order or in extreme cases packing bags and getting them out, it's not unbiblical counsel or "destroying a marriage" to counsel for safety.
4. Pray, let the system work itself out, and then handle it in the church - Too often churches see themselves as the court system for believers based on a mishandling of 1 Corinthians 6. But the church's internal response comes after the legal response. If there's been a crime that leads to conviction, then it becomes an internal matter. Then it becomes an issue of church discipline (walking through Matthew 18 -- for the purpose ultimately of seeing the lost redeemed). But it's not something we handle apart from the responsibility of justice.
As pastors, we can have an incredible amount of influence on peoples' lives through the regular preaching/teaching ministry. If we teach/preach from a true complementarian perspective (that men and women are equal in value before God, but distinct in function) then we lay the theological groundwork for husbands to see their role in the home to make their wives like Christ, and for a wife to see their role in being a strong presence in the home.
In an evangelical subculture that sometimes perverts manhood into machismo, we must stand unashamedly on the truth that a man's power, physical strength, or "headship" in the home is never an excuse or reason for him to treat his wife as anything but a treasure and jewel. If we are to learn from any of this, we must be willing to acknowledge our blind spots and our need to develop systems, policies, and practices that allow for victims to be safe to disclose their abuse and know that it will be handled and treated seriously.
What do you do in your church to work with these sensitive issues?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.