When I was growing up, I was taught that gossip is a sin. Granted, the people who told me this did not always practice what they preached. For the sake of full disclosure, I must also confess that I’ve been guilty of this offense on occasion. Nevertheless, the older I get, the more I’m repulsed by gossip. After 23 years in the pastorate, I’ve seen how much damage it can do in the local church. I’ve also seen colleagues in the ministry who were nearly destroyed by gossip. The advent of the internet has increased the problem exponentially. Rumors that used to take days to get around can now travel across the country within seconds.
I write this blog in response to the recent dismissal of Dr. Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Seminary. The most recent accusation concerns his alleged cover-up of a rape while he was president of Southeastern Seminary.* If this is true, then I certainly do not defend him. At the same time, I must say I was skeptical of this charge when I heard it. In the first place, I find it difficult to believe Dr. Patterson would condone any kind of sexual immorality among his students, let alone something as heinous as rape. In the second place, by the time this accusation was raised, people were already spreading so many vicious and ridiculous rumors about him that I didn't know what to believe! Here are a couple of examples:
- Dr. Patterson came under criticism for remarks he made about divorce and domestic abuse. I admit he could have chosen his words more carefully, but let’s be fair. He did not make these remarks in a prepared sermon or lecture, but in an extemporaneous response to someone’s question. Furthermore, he did not make these comments last month, last year, or even in the last decade. He made them eighteen years ago. I question the motives of anyone who would dig up a remark from nearly two decades ago and turn it into a cause for agitation. That is not the tactic of a Christian who is in search of the truth; that is the tactic of someone with an ax to grind. Dr. Patterson clarified his remarks, and he asserted that he neither condoned nor made light of domestic violence. Alas, that was not enough to satisfy his critics. As I said, gossips and ax-grinders seldom let the truth get in their way.
- Dr. Patterson’s critics also found a comment he made at a men’s conference in 2014. Some accused him of “objectifying women” (whatever that means), while others have gone so far to accuse him of promoting lust. I listened to a clip of his remarks, and I was indeed appalled – not by Dr. Patterson’s words, but by the fact that his critics made such a big issue out of such a trivial comment. I have heard worse statements on family-friendly sitcoms such as “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. People took a proverbial tempest in a teapot and have turned it into a Category 5 hurricane. Have Southern Baptists really become this hypersensitive? If so, then perhaps we should tear the Song of Solomon out of the Bible.
Dr. Patterson has certainly not been the only victim of gossip in our denomination. Almost every week I read some new allegation that one of our SBC leaders is teaching heresy, or that he's undermining our mission work, or that he's a Communist (yes, I saw someone make that claim about one of our SBC leaders!). Please understand that gossip is no small infraction of the rules. The Bible says a false witness is an abomination to the Lord, as is sowing discord among the brethren (Proverbs 6:16-19). It’s more than a little disingenuous for us to take a stand against homosexuality and same-sex “marriage” when we tolerate talebearing, half-truths, and complete falsehoods. What good does it to do to condemn one abomination if we are willing to accept other abominations?
I agree that the Southern Baptist Convention should address the issues of rape, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment. These are important issues, and we dare not take them lightly. At the same time, let us also remember that the end does not justify the means. I used to hunt when I was a teenager. Every time I left the house with my gun, my Dad gave me some simple but clear instructions: “Remember, don’t pull the trigger until you know what you’re shooting at. You don’t want to kill somebody’s cow, or somebody’s dog, or somebody!” Should any less be expected of a Christian when dealing with accusations of misconduct? In the case of Paige Patterson, many Southern Baptists chose to shoot first and ask questions later. Such tactics may win the approval of our modern society, but you will never, ever convince me that they reflect the spirit of Christ.
Many Southern Baptist churches still use the “Church Covenant”, in which we promise to “abstain from tattling, backbiting, and excessive anger”. The covenant also says we will be “slow to take offense, but always ready for reconciliation”. It seems to me that the campaign against Paige Patterson has been a prime example of tattling and backbiting, and his critics were very quick to take offense. It’s almost like they wanted him to be guilty. I ask again, is this truly in the spirit of Christ? Some people say Dr. Patterson has hurt our witness (if the latest charges against him are true, I agree). Nevertheless, his critics should not be too sanctimonious, as they have inflicted their own share of damage with their unbridled gossip.
Let us remember that the churches who support the SBC do so voluntarily. I am at least a fifth-generation Southern Baptist. The Cooperative Program was launched the same year my father was born. I have ardently supported the Cooperative Program in my twenty-three years as a pastor, and I believe it is one of the most ingenious ideas ever devised by a denomination. However, it cannot function without mutual trust and respect. If hypersensitivity and cynicism are allowed free rein in our denomination, the Cooperative Program will be dead before it is even a century old.
Gossip is not only destructive to a church and the SBC, but it is also destructive to the ones who spread it. Jesus said, “In the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2, NASB). Our Lord did not mean we should never judge whether something is right or wrong. He meant we should be careful about what standard we use in judging others, because we will be judged by that same standard. In other words, what goes around comes around! Do you want people to judge you by things you said fifteen to twenty years ago? Do you want them to take your words out of context? Do you want them to read things into your words that you never meant to say, and assign sinister motives to you as a result? Do you want people to assume you're guilty of a certain offense before they've even heard your side of the matter? If not, then you should avoid doing these things to others.
Yes, Southern Baptists should stand up for victims of sexual assault, but such a stand must be based on truth. After all, we serve a God of truth, and He is not glorified by demagoguery and innuendo. I join those who are calling on us to pray for the SBC, but I fear such prayers may be in vain without some serious repentance.
* I don't always agree with Dr. Phil McGraw, but he has a favorite saying that I think is spot on: "No matter how flat you make a pancake, it still has two sides." I don't know who is right or who is wrong in this case regarding the cover-up of a rape allegation, but I do know there is more than one side to the story. Thus, it is only fair to Dr. Patterson that I post this link: