When controversies like this arise, we are regularly reminded that powerful Christian leaders should not be beyond the reach of accountability. This is absolutely correct, and we should also be reminded that the men who summarily dispatched Paige Patterson are themselves powerful Christian leaders, and therefore not beyond the reach of accountability. One of the best ways to maintain an atmosphere conducive to real accountability for all is to cultivate a spirit of biblical fair-mindedness—in every direction.
What I would like to do this morning in the time allotted is provide a few links, then spend a little time discussing some truths laid down in 1 Timothy 5, and then last, ask three questions of those who dismissed Paige Patterson.
A Couple Caveats First
I am not yet willing to say that the firing of Patterson was unjust. I am saying that the circumstances seem pretty fishy, but I am not accusing the board. I am asking questions that I think the board should answer, and I am doing this because I think that they should have the full opportunity to explain themselves before people make up their minds. So these are questions, not accusations. This is how it looks from outside. Can you explain for us how these appearances do not really represent the full picture?
I have served on multiple boards over a number of decades, and I have been involved in more than one messy firing. There have been occasions when we could talk about it, and other times when we couldn’t. I know how complicated these things can be, and so if they had simply fired Patterson, I don’t think the public necessarily has a right to ask any questions they want. But if they fired him for “enabling abuse,” and he denies it, then I believe there are legitimate questions that can be asked.
First the Links
As more elements of the story straggle out into daylight, the more we should be reminded of the importance of Proverbs 18:17, which I reproduce here in a colloquial translation. “The first person to speak always seems right until someone comes and asks the right questions” (ERV). So first is an account from a friend of Paige Patterson, followed by a statement from Southwestern, followed by a round-up from The Christian Post.
I am leaving the comments open on this post so that others may post any other relevant links. But please, as a courtesy to me, do not post any comments that illustrate why you should never be selected for jury duty.
Two or Three Witnesses
Following the advice that Solomon gives in Proverbs does not mean that you read up on a case until you get to the first plausible account that suits your political alliances, in order to homestead there. Rather, it means that you weigh and sift the evidence, not in a state of suspended belief in every direction, but rather with a decided bias on behalf of the accused. This is what the presumption of innocence means. Our practice of this (still) in our courts of law is part of the legacy of Christendom. The burden of proof is on the accuser.
But it may be said by some that this doesn’t apply because Patterson has not been accused of a crime. He was simply fired, and he serves at the pleasure of the board, right?
Of course the board has the right to fire him. He does serve at the pleasure of the board. But that is not the question—the question is whether they have the right to fire him for “enabling abuse” if he didn’t. Can a man’s boss fire him at any time? In a free country, sure. Does he have the right to fire him for embezzling if he is not an embezzler? Well, no. Our criminal courts learned the principles of biblical due process from church courts originally. Now it seems to me that pagan courts still remember the lessons when the teacher has perhaps forgotten them.
So if the board had fired him with no comment that would have been their right. If they had fired him because of declining enrollment at the seminary, that would have been their right as well. But if they fire him for “enabling abuse,” and he denies it, and public political pressure to fire was being applied, and he had no opportunity to answer the particular charge, then we might have a real problem.
If the person accused is in fact guilty, a person who insists on the guilt being established beyond a reasonable doubt is not complicit in the guilt. One of the sins of our very muddled age is the sin of believing that if someone insists upon hearing both sides, then such a person must be taking up one side. This just shows how alien the principles of liberty and justice have become to us.
Someone might say that nefarious people like me are rushing to Patterson’s defense because we are worried about the precedent of punishing church leaders who enable abuse. Could be, I suppose. Or perhaps we might say that innocent people like me are worried about the precedent of punishing political enemies as a result of a mob-inspired bum’s rush. Could be that too. Just speculating here.
So biblically speaking, the person who wants to weigh both sides is actually defending the processes of justice first, and the accused second. The first defendant in every trial is justice herself. Whenever anyone is accused, guilty or not, the standards of justice are always on trial as well. In every trial the rule of law is also in the dock. A guilty person could be condemned (by sheer luck), and at the same time—if the process was a travesty—innocent justice might be condemned at the same time. Not all victims of lynching were falsely accused of whatever it was—but they were all falsely (and wickedly) treated. If due process is not followed, then you are stringing up justice right alongside a guilty man.
So in a situation like this one, what does Scripture require of us?
“Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality” (1 Tim. 5:19–21).
The first thing is this. We are not supposed to even entertain an accusation against an elder (and Paige Patterson certainly fits this description) unless there is independent confirmation of the accusation. The charge needs to be clear—clear enough that different people can know they are talking about the same thing. Is the charge corroborated? The board said that they had a student record that contradicted an earlier statement by Patterson. Was the content of that record independently corroborated?
The second requirement from this passage is also plain. If there is independent confirmation of the accusation, then an elder can be and should be rebuked, and it should be public—in the presence of all. The reason it needs to be public is that powerful Christian leaders do require accountability. This really is true. In addition, this is also a way of getting men in powerful positions to walk circumspectly. If you strike a fool, the simple do learn wisdom (Prov. 21:11). The requirement of following due process with accusations against elders, followed up by dealing with the offense publicly if the guilt is established, is God’s appointed means for keeping moral order among leaders.
The third thing is this, and I am quite sure the apostle would have written this part with day-glo fluorescent pens, had that technology been available to him.
The third part is that all things must be done without partiality. But notice that refusal to accept a charge against an elder is fully consistent with doing all things without partiality. What this means is that there is to be no partiality between small and great, which means that there must be partiality between accused and accuser. When you reverse this—as our wicked generation most certainly wants to do—and remove partiality between accused and accuser, where accusation online can equal conviction, thus flushing centuries of progress in jurisprudence, you will (depend upon it) wind up with a system that shows partiality between small and great, the very thing Scripture prohibits. If you think I am writing about these things for no particular reason, then my heart really goes out to those children who will be born into the world you are trying to build.
To repeat, to show partiality between accuser and accused is the biblical way to maintain and protect the lack of partiality that any true system of justice will insist upon.
The ancient Romans often did not live up to their standard, but at least they had a reasonable standard. In this respect, many online justicey Christians have sunk beneath the level of the pagans.
“To whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him” (Acts 25:16).
So, Two or Three Questions
Given how this thing has staggered somewhat drunkenly into public view, I do have three questions that I believe the authorities responsible for making this decision about Patterson really need to answer.
The first question is this. Given that the firing of Dr. Patterson was done, um, expeditiously, while he was traveling abroad, and that he was in effect “locked out” of his position, can the board of the seminary guarantee that he will have full access to any and all files that used to be in his possession, as that information might be used by him in crafting a response or defense? Will his access to the materials for his defense be restricted and impeded in any way?
My second question is this. Can the board assure us that the public pressure that was mounted against them did not affect their processes at all? By this I mean, the speed of deliberation, the specific actions that were taken, and the processes that were followed. Mobs have assembled outside courtrooms for centuries, and they do this because it frequently works. Can the board assure us that they acted on the basis of corroborated evidence alone, and that the presence of the outside pressure was a complete irrelevance?
The third question is this. The word abuse has a broad range of meaning. In your statement, you said this:
“Further, the Seminary stands against all forms of abuse and grieves for individuals wounded by abuse. Today, Dr. Bingham made it clear that SWBTS denounces all abusive behavior, any behavior that enables abuse, any failure to protect the abused and any failure to safeguard those who are vulnerable to abuse. Additionally, Dr. Bingham called for the SWBTS community to join the Body of Christ in praying for healing for all individuals affected by abuse.”
What, specifically, do you mean by “abuse,” and what, specifically, do you mean by “enables abuse”? Clearly Dr. Patterson was in view here as an enabler of abuse, but what are the precise boundaries of this enabling? Is it enabling abuse to encourage someone to stick it out in a troubled marriage? Given that you cited the enabling of abuse as your reason for terminating Dr. Patterson, could you please supply us with your definition of abuse, and your definition of enabling?
So there we go. Just three basic questions.