Ichabod – The Unwanted Child of Southern Baptists

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paige Patterson, Southwestern Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention and the controversy swirling around, threatening to engulf us all.

I actually had a correspondence with Dr. Patterson a number of years ago.  I was the Associate Editor of The Baptist Record, the news journal of Mississippi Baptists.  The 1998 convention was in Salt Lake City. Paige Patterson, then President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was declared president by acclamation by the convention President, Tom Elliff.

That’s right. He was “declared” president. This is how the official SBC minutes record it. There was no election, just a declaration. It was a mistake made by President Elliff. There was no malicious intent, just an over-zealous moment. If an actual vote had been taken, Patterson would have been overwhelmingly elected. He was, after all, one of the main architects of the conservative resurgence and was immensely popular.

I went home and wrote an editorial in The Baptist Record about the lack of an actual election. Then I got a letter from Dr. Patterson. He was gracious, took issue with me on something else I said, but agreed that Elliff had made a mistake and that there should have been an actual vote. I wrote back to thank him for his kind words. A year later at the 1999 convention in Atlanta, Dr. Patterson spoke to me by name at a preconvention press conference.  Seeing we had never met before and that I was a nobody, I was impressed.

That’s my Paige Patterson story. A lot of people in Southern Baptist life have a Paige Patterson story. He is a figure that is larger than life, having touched thousands of people, for both good and not so good. I thought about Dr. Patterson today as I was reading 1 Samuel 3, the story of young Samuel and the prophet Eli.

The boy Samuel was presented by his mother to the Lord at Shiloh, to serve at the altar of God.  The prophet Eli was his mentor and guardian.  One night when Samuel was about 12, he heard the voice of the Lord, but he did not recognize it. Thinking it was Eli who called him, twice he went to the prophet in response.  Demonstrating great wisdom and insight, Eli told Samuel that if he heard the voice again, it was the Lord who was calling. He should respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9)

Well, it was the Lord calling, and He had a message for young Samuel to deliver to Eli. He said to the boy, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

The Lord announced to Eli through the boy Samuel that he was about to execute the judgment he had previously pronounced against the house of Eli.  (see 1 Samuel 2:27-36)

Eli had been a great figure during the troubled, late period of the Judges, a lawless period where, “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” the text says. The Ark of the Covenant was entrusted to him, and the shrine he served at Shiloh was a quasi-capital for the largest tribes of Israel. Yet, for all the good that Eli had done during his lifetime, he had failed to discipline and properly supervise his sons. He shared in the shame of their sins.

Both Eli’s sons died in battle on the same day. Adding insult to injury, the Ark of the Covenant was captured and taken from Shiloh. Upon hearing the news, the obese prophet fell from his chair and was killed. His daughter-in-law, great with child, was thrown into labor. Before dying she was told that she had given birth to a son. She named him Ichabod, meaning, the glory has departed from Israel.  (1 Samuel 4:21)

Something is happening in Baptist life that has the ears of all who hear about it tingling (see Wade Burleson’s blog post here). Dr. Patterson has indeed been a huge figure in Southern Baptist life.  But there have always been flaws in the conservative resurgence he led and in the doctrines he espoused as a leader. A complementarian view of gender does not justify the attitude and kind of actions he, and those who think like him, have taken toward women. This heresy must be purged from our denominational life. This is the end of Patterson’s house in Southern Baptist life, and probably should be.

Let’s all pray that God is indeed doing something, and that Ichabod is not the unwanted child of the 2018 meeting of The Southern Baptist Convention.

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