Birmingham behind us, Part 1


“Break her down.”

We will never forget where we sat when we first read those words. At the Ebenezer Coffee Shop — a ministry of an evangelical church in Washington, D.C. — we sat at a small table drinking an iced coffee, putting together final plans for a trip to Scotland, and reading the news.

In a statement from Southwestern Trustee Chairman Kevin Ueckert, the seminary reported the contents of a 2015 email from then-SWBTS President Paige Patterson in which he instructed campus security to bring a rape victim alone to his office so he could “break her down.”

Now we’ve read plenty of Patterson’s words before. Dispersed throughout the SBC in various archives, libraries, and private collections are emails, letters, handwritten notes, and epistles of a seemingly self-important apostolic authority written to everyone from family members to former students and faculty. There are even letters to presidents, governors, prime ministers, state legislators, and members of the United States Congress.

There are even letters where he joked about beating his own wife.

But nothing, we mean nothing, hit with the breathtaking thud of the “break her down” email. What sort of man born of woman thinks such things, let alone fires them off to campus security about a rape victim. The collective gasp heard round the convention and across the evangelical world could have been measured on the Richter scale.

And yet, nobody should have been surprised. For years, abuse survivors had been asking for greater scrutiny of Patterson’s handling of past rape cases. But they were dismissed as “evil doers” and “opportunists.”

One year ago, the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was set to give Paige and Dorothy Patterson their proverbial Golden Jubilee, complete with a prime-time convention sermon for him, the report of the Evangelism Task Force, and a post-convention celebration on the Fort Worth campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. And, of course, an afternoon tea event.

But the much-hyped Patterparty — like enrollment projections at Southwestern for the past sixteen years — never materialized.

By the time the convention rolled around, Patterson had begrudgingly declined the speaking engagement, resigned from the Evangelism Task Force, and Southwestern cancelled all campus events. From our modest cottage overlooking the coastal hamlet of Port Askaig on the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, we streamed the Dallas convention in real time. We watched it all from gavel to gavel, in between distillery tours and sundry ribaldries with local Islay folk and a band of bachelor partying brothers.

We watched as J.D. Greear won a stunning victory for the convention presidency over Dr. Ken Hemphill, whose honorable pursuit of the Broadus gavel was regrettably moored to the dishonorable actions of a few Louisiana-based campaign bunglers. We watched as the convention batted down clumsy efforts to relitigate Patterson’s ouster and shame the seminary trustees. We watched the floor debate, the resolutions, the speeches and entity reports.

And we determined that this year, in Birmingham, we would attend the annual convention as a messenger for the first time since 2008 to get a glimpse, up close and personal, of what the SBC could look like if the gospel — truly — were above all. That is to say if the convention was a place where petty side squabbles gave way to Christ-centered worship and transparent reporting.

And a place where women and their ministry gifts were affirmed. Where churches said with one voice to those who have abused and covered up abuse, “Time’s up.”

In the weeks leading up to Birmingham, the possibility emerged that J.D. Greear’s noble aspiration for gospel focus might be sidelined. This time, the threat came not by abusive kleptocratic fundamentalists in Texas but by complementarians of the Lilliputian variety and a handful of unreconstructed Dortians who think the Communist Manifesto, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Living Proof Ministries are adjacent links in an unbroken heterodox chain within Southern Baptist life. By the first week in June, however, it seemed the fuss was dying down.

For the most part.

Indeed, as Southern Baptists arrived in Birmingham there was a sense of cautious optimism among attentive messengers that this year — the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence — would bring a needed reprieve from decades of tribal squabbling and petty doctrinal recriminations.

To be continued . . .



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