Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. —Abraham Lincoln
Going back to the States after that life-changing summer in Switzerland was difficult for me. On August 8, two weeks after the Lausanne Congress ended and five days after my nineteenth birthday, I stood in the lobby of Hotel Rosat, watching and listening to President Richard Nixon give his resignation speech on television. I was grateful that all the commentary was in French so I didn’t have to hear what was being said. I was so disheartened by what I did hear that I almost delayed my return to the US to travel around Europe for a few months with others in the group. I knew I would be walking back into a nation embroiled in political and social turmoil, and I wanted to stay away. In the end, I made the decision to stick with my original plan and boarded the plane for the US a week later. There have been times in past days when I wondered how my life would have played out had I delayed my return for that one semester. As it was, my life journey took some dramatic turns; that is a story I’ll come back to later.
As is part of any period of change, the climate in the US at that time was charged with anxiety. These were unsettled times, not unlike the times we find ourselves in today. The change and uncertainty gave rise to a pervasive spirit of fear, and those in the Christian world were not immune. Our society was once again ripe for change, and change was in the wind. The story I will tell here is about what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention, but what played out there was to have a lasting impact on all of evangelicalism in America, and on all of America. In reality, the events of those years and the years to come shaped the thinking of more than one generation. At the time I didn’t recognize it; now I have the advantage of being in a position to understand backwards. And I have something else that wasn’t available to me at the time—I have the benefit of written history of those days, and the availability of the Internet to give me the capability to explore resources that give me a more comprehensive view. So stay with me in this; there is a big picture all of us need to see.
The story of how and why the meeting between Houston lawyer Paul Pressler and seminary student Paige Patterson came about has been told and retold, so I’ll not go into details you can easily find for yourselves (see resources below). Instead, I’ll focus on what happened as a result of their meeting, for that is what impacted and continues to impact us. Late one night in March 1967, these two men met at New Orleans’ famed French coffee house, Café du Monde, to discuss their shared dissatisfaction with what they saw as “dangerous trends” in the Southern Baptist Convention. The two left the Café that evening in agreement that something needed to be done, and resolved that they would be the ones who would lead the effort to turn the SBC in a different direction. In years to come, this joint effort of these two men would be referred to as “the Patterson-Pressler coalition,” “the Patterson-Pressler assault,” “the Patterson-Pressler movement,” as well as other terms. I will use that last term, “the Patterson-Pressler Movement” for reasons that will soon become clear.
Pressler took the role of strategist; Patterson was the theologian. For a little over a decade, the two worked to gain support from others who agreed with or could be persuaded to agree with their perspective. Using his skills as a lawyer, Pressler along with others studied the SBC Constitution and its Bylaws, and hit upon his strategy. That strategy would look like this: the SBC president had the power to appoint the members of the Committee on Committees, which had the power to appoint the Committee on Nominations, which had the power to appoint trustees for the various agencies. By electing likeminded Convention presidents for ten years, control of the SBC could be gained.
Twelve years of planning and preparing elapsed before the time was right, in 1979. By then Pressler had been appointed as a justice of the 14th Texas Court of Appeals in Houston. Patterson had become an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas, as well as president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies. When the SBC convened in Houston for their annual meeting in June 1979, they were ready to move.
What happened at that meeting and in subsequent years has been reported, dissected, and analyzed by many, including competent historians, so again, I’m not going to go into detail although I have read through the documents of those years. What is important to examine are the methods used by the Patterson-Pressler movement to prepare for battle and to achieve their goals.
In the months leading up to that pivotal national SBC gathering, meetings were held in at least 15 states to garner support and encourage churches to send as many “messengers” as possible to the Convention. This “get out the vote” effort proved effective, especially since Patterson and Pressler attended many of the meetings and raised their rallying cry, a phrase Patterson freely admitted he chose because of its effectiveness, not its truthfulness. I’ll come back to look at what this phrase was later, since it needs more attention than I can give it now.
Documents from that time (including press releases, news articles, motions, messages, and sermons) give evidence of the contentiousness of that 1979 meeting of the SBC. Judge Pressler’s overt efforts to control the convention caused an outcry from the moderate messengers. There was a rule prohibiting politicking from the floor of any SBC convention. Pressler came up with a plan to circumvent this rule: he used skyboxes (executive suites) high above the convention floor as his political headquarters from which to solicit votes and give orders. When confronted about his actions, Pressler argued that the rule said “from the floor,” and he wasn’t on the floor. Many were appalled and denounced his behavior; others laughed and applauded his skill in using technicalities to gain power.
After their success at the Convention, the movement gained steam. In mid-September 1980, Patterson and Pressler spoke at a conference in Lynchburg, VA, billed as “A Conference on the Conservative Move in Our State and Our Convention.” It was at this conference that Pressler uttered words that would characterize the spirit of the movement. “We are going for the jugular,” he declared when laying out a plan to gain control of all Southern Baptist institutions. That phrase caught the attention of those moderates who were being targeted. “Going for the jugular”—the expression was a familiar one in the worlds of the judiciary and politics, but it was loudly declared by many that this attitude had no place in the Christian world. I agree.
For the next ten years, battles in what has become known as “the SBC Holy War” were fought on many fronts. Historian Walter Shurden has characterized the underlying attitude of this War as one of control versus freedom: “Theologically, the combatants wrangled over the role of women and pastoral authority. Fundamentalists insisted on a hierarchical model of male-female relationships and denied a woman’s right for ordination to the ministry or the diaconate. Moderates, more egalitarian in outlook, advocated equality between women and men and affirmed ordination for women. Fundamentalists embraced pastoral authority in the local church to the point of saying that the pastor was to ‘rule’ the church. Moderates believed any such notion was contrary to the biblical and Baptist heritages and countered with the historic Baptist emphases of the priesthood of all believers and congregational authority.”1
There they are: the two basic points of conflict I was to go head to head with in my attempt to communicate with Glenn Rogers in his office at Tri-Cities Baptist Church that day [“A Defining Moment”]. “Combatants wrangled over the role of women and pastoral authority”—I don’t think “wrangled” is the word I would use to describe our interaction. At the time, I had no awareness of the depth or extent of the conflict; it felt more personal. Now I realize Rogers was following the playbook and using the tactics of the Patterson-Pressler Movement, and I was following the ideals and spirit of the Lausanne Movement. The two collided.
Rogers believed he, as pastor, was the “ruler” or “subhead” of the church. He was convinced that I, because I am a woman, have a God-assigned subordinate role, a “place” I must stay in. He was determined to use his “authority” to put me in that “place” by using whatever means necessary to, using Patterson’s expression, “break her down.” I can imagine how his inability to reduce me to tears or force me to lose control and respond in kind must have confused and shaken him. As I said, I knew how to handle this kind of overt attack. But there is another way to break a person down, a way that is almost impossible to withstand. That is the use of silence. Psychologist Kipling Williams is one of the few who has studied and written about the impact of silence on people. In his book Ostracism: The Power of Silence, Kipling writes: “William James [father of American psychology] suggested that to be ‘cut dead’ and to go ‘unnoticed’ by others would be worse than the ‘most fiendish punishment.’ The silent treatment may well be the most frequently used method of cutting people dead.” 2 This is an important topic I will come back to and develop more fully later, for it is time for this use of silence as a weapon in the name of “godly behavior” to be exposed and confronted.
I mentioned in my last post that I was ignorant and naïve, and had never really considered what the label “evangelical” meant. What I have found most helpful in understanding this is the explanation given by John Stott. In his book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness, Stott wrote:
“In April 1998 the Editor of the Church of England Newspaper suggested that there were ‘57 varieties of evangelicals’ (corresponding to the famous 57 varieties of Heinz grocery products). Rowland Croucher in Australia mentions an unnamed Californian seminary professor who claimed he could identify sixteen kinds of evangelical, while Clive Calver writes about the twelve tribes of evangelicalism. Other observers have reduced this number by half. In 1975, the year following the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, Professor Peter Beyerhaus of Tübingen distinguished six different evangelical groupings:
1. The New Evangelicals (including Billy Graham himself), who distance themselves from fundamentalism’s science-phobia and political conservatism, and strive for the greatest possible collaboration.
2. The Strict Fundamentalists, who are uncompromising in their separatist attitude.
3. The Confessing Evangelicals, who attach importance to a confession of faith and a rejection of contemporary doctrinal error.
4. The Pentecostals and the Charismatics.
5. The Radical Evangelicals, who acknowledge a sociopolitical commitment and strive to unite evangelistic witness and social action.
6. The Ecumenical Evangelicals, who are developing a critical participation in the ecumenical movement.” 3
As you see, there is quite a lot of diversity in the beliefs of those who have worn the label “evangelical.” Historically, until the time of the “Holy War,” the same could be said of the SBC. Its undergirding philosophical premise was characterized by the expression “theological diversity and functional unity.” For Strict Fundamentalists, like Patterson and Pressler, theological diversity was unacceptable and posed a “threat.” Their worldview, grounded in the worldview of authoritarianism and not in biblical teaching, required both doctrinal uniformity and functional uniformity. As Stott described, fundamentalists are uncompromisingly separatist. I would add that they are also committed to a belief in hierarchy.
In August 1984, Southern Seminary President Roy Honeycutt gave a Convocation Address that became known as his “Holy War Sermon.” In it he made a strong argument for unity over uniformity: “Unity does not mean uniformity, because you can’t limit God. He established the boundaries of Christian community with such breadth as to embrace our diversity within the larger unity created by the cosmic Christ. Thus, Christian unity does not drive diversity into exile, nor force it to live in the bondage of an ecclesiastical ghetto. Biblical unity absorbs our differences within a larger purpose discovered in Jesus Christ who is the Lord of history…an authentic community of faith does more than merely tolerate differences—it celebrates their creative presence.”
Despite the best efforts of those like Honeycutt who saw themselves as moderates, the Patterson-Pressler Movement continued to gain strength and pushed the denomination toward fundamentalism. At the 1984 convention, a resolution was passed that set forth the “role” of women in the church, the first of its kind in Southern Baptist history. In 1988 another unprecedented resolution was passed, one that in effect elevated the pastor to the position of “ruler” of the church. There were other significant changes in the SBC brought about by the march toward fundamentalism. You can read a brief summary of these in the article “How the SBC Has Changed.” 4
Two Movements—the Lausanne Movement and the Patterson-Pressler Movement—both having their beginnings in the same time frame forty years ago, each begun and led by two men in the world of Christianity. But it is here the similarities end. The Lausanne Movement arose from a desire for unity and was empowered by prayer, infused with hope, characterized by humility. In this “case study in cooperation,” efforts were made to consider the perspectives and voices of every person involved. This exemplified “the spirit of Lausanne.” The Patterson-Pressler Movement had its inception in the fear of difference and the desire for uniformity. This Movement can best be described as a power grab. Methods used to achieve their goals were those of the political and judicial world, and included “going for the jugular” and a “break her down,” win-at-all-costs attitude.
When, on the evening of June 14, 1990, the plan to elect ten consecutive presidents to achieve their “takeover” of the SBC had succeeded, the SBC leadership went back to the Café du Monde, that New Orleans coffee house where it had all begun, to celebrate their victory. Convention parliamentarian Barry McCarty presented Patterson and Pressler with certificates of appreciation for their leadership in the Movement. From all accounts, this was quite a “victory” party. Now think back to the concerns of the leaders of the Lausanne Movement: they “were concerned that the apparent ‘success’ of the Lausanne Congress would lead to it being hailed as a ‘great victory’ and so miss its essential spirit….Stott wrote: ‘Several speakers voiced the hope that the Congress would be marked more by evangelical penitence than by evangelical triumphalism. Triumphalism is an attitude of self-confidence and self-congratulation, which is never appropriate in God’s children. But the spirit of Lausanne was a spirit of humility and a spirit of penitence.’” The contrast between the two Movements is obvious.
What happened with the two leaders of each movement makes their difference even clearer. When John Stott died in 2011, the world turned out to honor what was described as “a life well-lived.” At his funeral an appeal was made to Christians “to honour Stott’s greatest desire—to see the church united and Christians loving each other as Christ loved them.” When Billy Graham died in January of this year, we watched as the world turned out to honor him. Both men lived lives of integrity, consistent with the message they preached, the message that is truly Good News, and finished well.
Patterson and Pressler are still living, and both have been in the news in recent years. Last year, Patterson was removed from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Seminary for his abusive behavior, something I referenced in my post, “A Defining Moment.” Pressler, now 89, has been accused by several men of sexual abuse going back decades. The fact is, Pressler had been fired from his position as a youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston for “an alleged incident” involving a young man in 1978, a year before taking his leading role in the Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC.5 Last spring, Patterson and Pressler again made headlines when windows installed in the chapel at Southwestern Baptist Seminary to honor them were removed.6 Neither of these leaders is ending his life well. Maybe this has something to do with a propelling force of this Movement: an emphasis on authority and control, driven by a desire for power.
Historian and moralist Lord Acton once made a comment that has become one of the most often quoted proverbs: “”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” For years this idea was believed to hold true, but recent studies have called it into question. It turns out that it isn’t power itself that corrupts. Power merely “heightens pre-existing ethical tendencies.”7 In other words, power is a revealer of what is already in a person’s heart. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”8 In these instructions Jesus gave to his disciples, four words stand out: Not so with you. When pastors, elders, and other “high officials” in churches set themselves up as the ultimate authorities and insist that the primary duty of church members, especially women, is to “come under authority,” you can be sure that something is seriously off. According to the teaching of Jesus, this is not the way things work in the kingdom of God.
In America, the evangelical world has been off course for decades. The message of the Gospel has not changed, but it has been misrepresented to the point of becoming unrecognizable. It is no wonder that people have walked away from the message being proclaimed: what they have heard, what they have experienced is not “good news.”
But change is coming. Even now we are in the midst of a sea change. What this change will look like is unknown at this point. The turbulence has already begun and we can expect more, but going into this with knowledge and understanding of where we have been can help us get our bearings and stabilize as we, hopefully, reorient ourselves to the Way of Love.
Now, the time has come for me to answer “The Question” I’ve been asked by so many for so long. I think you’re ready now to go there. And I do have some things to say to John MacArthur.
1 Excerpt from “An Overview of the SBC Controversy,” Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War, compiled and edited by Walter B. Shurden and Randy Shepley (Mercer University Press, 1996).
2 Kipling D. Williams, PhD. Ostracism: The Power of Silence (Emotions and Social Behavior). The Guilford Press, 2001.
3 John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (Langham Global Library, 2013)
4 “How the SBC Has Changed” by Dr. Rick McClutchy and Dr. Bruce Prescott, The Center for Baptist Studies, Baptist Freedom and Conscience Series. http://www.centerforbaptiststudies.org/pamphlets/freedom/sbc.htm
5 “More men accuse former Texas judge, Baptist leader of sexual misconduct”
6 “Shadows in the Stained Glass: Patterson and Pressler Chapel Windows Come Down”
Shadows in the stained glass: Patterson and Pressler chapel windows come down
7 “Why Power Corrupts” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-power-corrupts-37165345/
8 Matthew 20:25-28, NIV
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