How can the Southern Baptists solve their Paige Patterson problem?

The excruciatingly difficult position in which eminent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson has landed his denomination has been made clear by a statement released by Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president Rev Steve Gaines a few days ago.

Patterson has been under heavy fire since a recording emerged from 2000 where he appears to argue that abused women should stay with violent husbands and submit to them. He is also accused of defending the sexual objectification of a 16-year-old girl as 'biblical', and has been named in charges laid against another Southern Baptist grandee, Paul Pressler.

Paige Patterson is under fire for his views on abuse and divorce.Paige Patterson

In an indication that the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse has permeated even the conservative ranks of the SBC – which espouses a doctrine of wives submitting to their husbands' authority – more than 3,000 Southern Baptists, mainly women, have signed one petition urging the SBC to take action, while one specifically from men has attracted another 300.

However, Patterson – who has issued two apologies which have failed to satisfy his critics – is scheduled to deliver the prestigious Convention Sermon at the SBC's annual meeting Dallas, Texas in June.

And as Ed Stetzer – executive director of the Billy Graham Center and the most prominent Southern Baptist to publically criticise Patterson – remarked: 'If Patterson preaches at the SBC, he will, because of his past work, get a standing ovation. Every news story will point to that moment, tie it together with the accusations against Paul Pressler, and say that Southern Baptists don't take abuse seriously.'

Stetzer added that this was 'not just a public relations crisis. It's a message to women that we must not send.'

For both these reasons it's clear that for many in the denomination Patterson is a problem they devoutly wish would go away. Gaines says in his statement he's told Patterson he disagrees with him about counsel he gave about an abusive husband and that while 'I love him and appreciate him', his remarks about a teenage girl were 'improper'.  However, in his statement Gaines makes it clear that there's not much they can do about it.

'Some have called for me to stop Dr Patterson from preaching the Convention Sermon in Dallas. The SBC president does not have the authority to make that decision. Neither does the SBC Committee on Order of Business. It was the messengers of the 2017 SBC meeting that selected Dr Patterson to preach the 2018 Convention Sermon,' he says.

The only way he can be stopped is if the messengers (delegates) vote to oust him, or if he personally withdraws.

Patterson is a famously combative figure who – judging from his second apology – arguably doesn't actually think he's done anything wrong. While he has several paragraphs of appropriate contrition, he starts by saying: 'Pastoral ministry that occurred 54 years ago, repeated as an illustration in sermons on more than one occasion, as well as another sermon illustration used to try to explain a Hebrew word (Heb. banah "build or construct," Gen. 2:22) have obviously been hurtful to women in several possible ways.'

In other words, one incident was half a century ago and one involves his critics not understanding Hebrew.

The Southern Baptist Convention has been much in the news recently, with some public heart-searching about how closely it is being identified with Donald Trump and his populist agenda. Its brand of highly conservative evangelicalism is held to be putting Americans off religion altogether as they find it increasingly out of step with the culture. Ed Stetzer is undoubtedly correct in his diagnosis of the optics of Patterson's forthcoming appearance: it will look terrible. But the SBC's hands are tied. And the ball is in Patterson's court.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods