The Fall Of Southern Baptist Paige Patterson Part One: Lion Of The Convention

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter
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This is Part I in a three part series on the downfall of Paige Patterson. You can find Part II here and Part III here.

Paige Patterson, once hailed by conservative Southern Baptists as the Martin Luther figure of their convention, is now a denominational pariah, leaving many Southern Baptists asking ‘how?’

Patterson’s fall from grace captured headlines almost as swiftly as it stripped him of his future in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But the outcry of Southern Baptist women against Patterson’s approach to abused women and his concept of Biblical womanhood that led to his eventual firing from Southwestern Baptist Seminary highlights just one of a litany of alleged abuses of power.  Those who knew Patterson from the time he led the conservative takeover of the SBC in 1979 until now told The Daily Caller News Foundation that the road leading to his downfall began long before he gave harmful counsel and made objectifying comments. (RELATED: Baptist Seminary Fires Ousted President Over New Evidence In Sexual Abuse Case)

A clear question now looms over the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas on June 12 and 13 — how did Patterson, a denominational power broker, doctrinal watchdog, and man considered the “most loved and loathed personality in SBC history” fall out of favor and find himself stripped of authority days after becoming president emeritus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary?

Patterson’s Rise

The gravity of Patterson’s sudden termination can only be understood in the context of his rise to power, which began over four decades ago with the Conservative Resurgence.

The year 1979 was tumultuous for the Southern Baptist Convention. Conservative pastors and Baptist leaders decried what they saw as influx of liberal theology and “neo-orthodoxy” in Southern Baptist seminaries and churches. At issue was the question of whether the Bible was truly the inerrant Word of God, which came to a head at the SBC meeting that year in Houston, according to theologically conservative members of the convention.

Enter Paige Patterson, then president of Criswell College in Dallas, and Paul Pressler, a Houston judge and former Texas state representative. The two men met with conservative Southern Baptist leaders W.A. Criswell and Rev. Adrian Rogers in Atlanta and devised a political strategy to wrest control of the SBC from perceived liberal influences. Their strategy was intended to elect a fellow theological conservative as the convention president, which would allow them to elect conservative presidents to the convention.

The convention president nominates the members of the Committee on Committees, which was then known as the Committee on Boards, according to SBC bylaws. The members of the committee have the authority to nominate the members of the Committee on Nominations, which has the authority to nominate members to vacant positions on the convention. Members nominated to vacant positions are then approved at the next annual convention meeting.

If conservatives were able to elect a convention president of their choice, that president could then fill the Committee on Committees with conservatives, who would then nominate conservatives to the Committee on Nominations. That committee could then nominate conservatives to whichever convention positions lay vacant. All committee leadership would become conservative under a 10 year succession of like-minded convention presidents.

Patterson and Pressler’s tactics worked, and the campaign became famous as the “Battle for the Bible.” Conservative Pastor Adrian Rodgers won the election for convention president, and the SBC adopted a resolution unequivocally declaring their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. Convention members in line with Patterson’s approach to doctrine purged theologically liberal members from committee positions, and the conservatives elected like-minded presidents for most of the following years.

The convention hailed Patterson as the man who saved their denomination from liberalism, correcting its course back toward sound, biblical doctrine. He became known as the Martin Luther of the SBC.

The SBC, now largely conservative, later elected Patterson as convention president in 1998 by acclamation at the convention meeting in Salt Lake City and re-elected him by acclamation the following year at the meeting in Atlanta. The convention elected Patterson once more in 2000 at its meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Those close to Patterson, like Southern Baptist leader Wade Burleson who served as Pressler’s driver in the late 1980s, told The Daily Caller News Foundation that in the mid-2000s, it became clear to them that the Conservative Resurgence begun in 1979 was more about the attainment of power for Patterson than about the “reclamation of Biblical authority.”

Game of Committees

The first red flag in Patterson’s convention leadership rose in 2000 at the Orlando convention.

The Committee on Nominations appointed Patterson’s brother-in-law Russell Kaemmerling to the International Mission Board (IMB), which is the largest board in the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. Fifty percent of all Southern Baptist funds that pass through the cooperative program — the system of giving by which participating churches support the national and state conventions — go to the IMB. Kaemmerling was under federal investigation for fraud at the time, and he now had access to that money.

Kaemmerling was subsequently indicted, forced to resign from the IMB, and sent to federal prison for 19 counts of fraud. He would later be implicated in an alleged plot with Patterson to seize control of IMB leadership.

Burleson told TheDCNF that he too noticed red flags in Patterson’s activities over his years in power. Burleson has pastored Enid Emmanuel in Northwest Oklahoma for 26 years. In addition to serving as the driver for Pressler, Patterson’s cohort in the Conservative Resurgence, he later worked on a platform security team for Patterson and other Conservative Resurgence leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Burleson was elected to various positions within the convention beginning in 1995, later serving as vice president of the Southern Baptist general convention of Oklahoma in the early 2000s. He claims he first noticed problems among the trustee boards under Patterson’s leadership in 2005 when he was elected as a trustee to the IMB.

“It was in 2005 that my eyes were opened to what the Southern Baptist Convention had become,” Burleson told TheDCNF. “A lot of men and women might’ve started out supporting the Conservative Resurgence because they thought it was a Battle for the Bible, and I discovered in 2005 it was actually about power and control.”

Burleson said that as a trustee he realized Patterson “had his hand on everything.”

“All the trustee leadership of the IMB were his best friends,” Burleson told TheDCNF.

More disturbing than the omnipresence of Patterson’s loyalists, as Burleson called them, was his discovery of Patterson’s plot to remove then-IMB President Jerry Rankin, with whom he had a personal disagreement. Patterson planned to supplant Rankin with a man he had handpicked and to remove women from all positions of leadership.

“When I came on board, I discovered that there was an attempt to fire president Jerry Rankin because he didn’t doctrinally line up with what Paige Patterson thought he should be,” Burleson told TheDCNF. “And so I opposed Patterson and his loyalists in an attempt to fire president Jerry Rankin and remove from positions of authority within the international mission board all women.”

Burleson discovered that other trustees held an after hours meeting in violation of SBC policy during which they openly discussed how to supplant Rankin and remove women from the IMB, allegedly at Patterson’s behest.

“It was at my first IMB trustee meeting in the fall of 2005 when I overheard several IMB trustees discussing how they would accomplish their goals of removing Dr. Rankin and the women. I confronted them and told them that their informal trustee meeting – a meeting outside of established times set for business and without the presence of the full board – was in clear violation of the Blue Book, the policy manual for trustee conduct and behavior,” Burleson wrote on his blog.

Burleson claims he confronted the trustees privately and later voiced his concerns to trustee leadership, saying that if they did not stop their plotting he would go public with their misconduct. The trustees involved were Patterson loyalists and would not be denied lightly, according to Burleson.

Burleson’s fellow trustees passed a motion recommending that he be removed from service as a trustee because of his public disagreement with new policies governing baptism and private prayer language. Burleson was the first trustee to be confronted with such a recommendation since the convention’s founding in 1846.

“We’ve had murderers. We’ve had adulterers. We’ve had people who’ve gone to prison. I’m the only person to ever be recommended for removal,” Burleson told TheDCNF. “And it was about me opposing the power, control, and influence of Paige Patterson and his loyalists.”

Benjamin Cole, a now former Southern Baptist pastor and understudy of Patterson’s at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, came to Burleson’s defense. Cole said that at the time he had documents, including several emails from Kaemmerling, proving that Patterson and others interfered in the IMB and attempted to have Rankin ousted.

Cole said the emails from Kaemmerling “detail a strategy to block candidates for top IMB administrative posts and replace Rankin’s choice with Patterson’s stalking horses,” according to Ethics Daily.

Cole also detailed his personal encounters with elements of Patterson’s alleged attempt to take control of the IMB.

“During the time, I myself was involved in several conference calls with a caucus of trustees at the International Mission Board where plans were discussed to bring an end to Jerry Rankin’s tenure,” Cole said at the time, according to Ethics Daily.

“Moreover, I was personally offered a job working at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in February 2004 to listen to multiple hours of audio-recordings of Jerry Rankin, collected by the seminary president’s office, and cull them for suspicious theology, potential instances of charismatic teaching, or questionable statements that could be interpreted as contrary to the [2000 Baptist Faith & Message],” Cole added.

The motion against Burleson was rescinded after he threatened to file a motion calling for an investigation into “possible manipulation of trustee elections, coercion, improper executive sessions, excessive doctrinal requirements and suppression of dissent among IMB trustees,” according to Ethics Daily.

Patterson achieved other power moves in the convention between Kaemmerling’s appointment to the IMB in 2000 and the attempted ousting of Rankin, according to Burleson. He claimed that Patterson in 2003, while president of Southeastern Baptist Seminary, and David Allen, chairman of the board of seminary trustees, engineered the firing of then-President of Southwestern Baptist Seminary Ken Hemphill.

Burleson asserted that personnel from Allen’s office at the time of the lead up to Hemphill’s resignation confirmed Allen and Patterson’s involvement to him.

Denominational news outlet Baptist Standard also asserted that “although Hemphill and trustee spokesmen deny it, numerous sources have told the Baptist Standard and other media that Hemphill was forced out of the presidency by seminary trustees and SBC leaders who were unhappy with the seminary’s declining enrollment and Hemphill’s alleged failure to clear out faculty not fully sympathetic with SBC leadership.”

However, Hemphill flatly denied all accusations that Patterson and Allen, among others, coerced him to resign under threat of forced termination. He called the story “ludicrous.”

Whatever the case, the trustee search committee reached out to Patterson in May, weeks after Hemphill’s resignation, to ask him to be president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary.

Patterson intially protested their request and told the 2003 SBC meeting in Phoenix that he would not go to Southwestern.

“I don’t want that misunderstood,” Patterson said, according to Baptist Standard. “I have a great love and appreciation for (Southwestern’s) history. It’s just that when you are totally satisfied and happy and blessed of God beyond any possible way, and someone says, ‘Are you interested in moving?’ the answer is ‘No, I am not interested in moving under any circumstances.'”

Patterson remained stalwart in his refusal of their offer for a short while “until crossing the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago and I felt God decisively spoke to my heart. Until then no decision whatever (had been made) on my part.”

Upon assuming the presidency of Southwestern and resigning from Southeastern amid financial controversy, Patterson made Allen the dean of the Southwestern’s School of Theology.

And there Patterson remained as the president of the seminary that at the time was considered the premier institution in Southern Baptist theological education. He did not cease exerting his influence as convention power broker or as doctrinal gatekeeper and arguably attempted to immortalize himself in Baptist history, according to Burleson. He literally imprinted himself on Southwestern.

“Anytime Southern Baptistis imprint their visages on stained glass windows of our chapels, we’ve got a problem with pride, hubris, and control,” Burleson told TheDCNF. “And as you know, the chapel windows at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary have been emblazoned with the visages of Paige Patterson, Judge Pressler, Dorothy Patterson, and all of the people involved in the Conservative Resurgence.”

“That is not only the height of hubris, I would call it absolutely ungodly.”

This is part one of a three part series. 

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