Founders Journal · Fall 2000 · pp. 13-20
Interview with Paige Patterson
The following excerpts are taken from a interview with Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, conducted by Dr. Mark Dever and Mr. Matt Schmucker of the Center for Church Reform. An audio CD of the hour-long interview is available from CCR (phone 202.543.1224). The transcript has been slightly edited to fit accepted literary style and, where necessary, for clarification.
Schmucker: Briefly, for those who are not familiar with Southern Baptist life, particularly the last 20-30 years, tell us what people refer to as the Southern Baptist Controversy?
Patterson: The Southern Baptist Controversy really grew out of things that happened to our denomination following World War II. In spite of the fact that we were a very large denomination at that time, nobody took much notice of us. We were sort of isolated to the south and nobody took a lot of interest in us. But then, as we began to expand into all 50 states and that kind of thing, plus the controversy, then we became fairly well noticed at that point in time. Now it seems like we can’t comment that “It’s a cloudy day” without the press picking up on it. But, be that as it may, the controversy began in 1979 when some of us just felt that our denomination was slipping ever to the left just as most mainline denominations had done. Some of us decided that it didn’t have to be that way and that we were going to try to raise up a standard and sound the trumpet and see if the brothers and sisters wouldn’t return to the faith of their fathers. We didn’t know whether they would or they wouldn’t, but we knew that’s what we had to do and the Lord graciously blessed from heaven and that’s exactly what happened. The churches returned to the faith of their fathers. Of course, that was not to the liking of some people and so there has been not a little bit of controversy out of it.
Dever: If I could just interrupt you for just a second, for a non-Southern Baptist listener your name is probably one of the best known among Southern Baptists. Most loved among some and most hated among others.
Patterson: I would say that’s true.
Dever: Southern Baptists probably understand that. Can you tell those who are not Southern Baptist but evangelical pastors in other churches why that is the case with you in particular.
Patterson: I think probably so. I try to empathize with those who are my enemy, and those who think they are my enemies. I understand that many of them had positions in leadership and prestige and all those things that go along with it and they look upon me as the man who blew the whistle.
Dever: They would blame you for them being fired or for a lot of people losing their jobs?
Patterson: Or for it just becoming so uncomfortable that they couldn’t stay and they of their own volition left. But nevertheless I would be blamed for it and I’m sympathetic to that. I often understand very well why they are unhappy, but I still say that truth is more important than one’s level of happiness or unhappiness.
Dever: A good book summarizing this at least at the time would have been Nancy Ammerman’s Baptist Battles.
Patterson: Nancy, I thought, did one of the best jobs because she was not sympathetic with the conservative revival in Southern Baptist life. She was on the other side, but she was a very honest sociologist.
Dever: She sustained what had been your main contention throughout that it was a theological battle, not a political one, while the other guys had always been saying this is just a bunch of guys from Texas who want power. Nothing theological in it. She said actually it’s very theological.
Patterson: Yes, that’s exactly right and one of the funny things that happened out of that was that I wrote a review for Christianity Today and was bombarded by people saying that they should not have allowed me to do the book review on it because I didn’t represent it correctly. So I called Nancy Ammerman and asked her whether or not I had been accurate. She said, Absolutely. So I said, Would you alert Christianity Today and tell them that and she did. So that sort of brought an end to that.
Dever: Hasn’t the need for reform in the history of the church always been true, given human nature.
Patterson: Given human nature, that’s exactly right. Given human nature, and the thirst for power and influence and prestige, the church will forever be having to take a look at itself and asking how much is being influenced by the world philosophy around it, how much materialism has seeped into the lining of the church, and how much the desire for recognition and prestige has passed by the desire for holiness. So, forever, we’ll have to do that and we must each individually examine our own hearts on a regular basis about this, too.
Dever: A prominent pastor has recently been divorced by his wife and is maintaining himself by staying in the ministry at this particular church. That’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t have seen 50 years ago, isn’t it.
Patterson: Absolutely not. Fifty years ago that was not even questioned.
Dever: I don’t mean to get into that particular case, but isn’t it true that pastors are facing situations today that they just weren’t facing even when you entered the ministry 20-30 years ago?
Patterson: Certainly, that’s true. Not that pastors 30-50 years ago didn’t have their problems, but it is true that we live in a problem-plagued world right now that is full of so many difficulties that pastors are called upon to face things that they’ve never even had to think about.
Dever: In my mind that encourages me to tell pastors to get back to the Bible and look and see what it says. I know the Bible doesn’t directly address everything we’re going to run into as pastors, like Mrs. Jones of the flower committee, but there may be a lot of things it addresses. For example, in that case, is it appropriate for a brother who may be genuinely a brother in Lord but has been divorced, is it appropriate for him to serve as an elder or pastor of a congregation? Rather than just simply asserting we have a congregational right to do this, I think there are biblical issues at stake that we need to raise and, in charity, discuss.
Patterson: I think you’re exactly right, Mark, because otherwise we end up with purely human solutions. Human solutions are always fraught with all the same inadequacies that all human thought has.
Schmucker: The up-side of this looks like it would be increasingly thoughtful Christians and a knockout of Christian nominalism.
Patterson: That’s what we can hope for. That’s what we want to see take place.
Dever: That’s what I’m guessing is going to be the case in the younger generation. When it’s no longer a fashionable thing to be in church on Sunday morning you’re not going to have the huge number of nominalists hanging around the churches. I think that in America one of the biggest barriers to evangelism is the sloppy way that pastors are treating church membership.
Dever: If you’re out there doing evangelism on Tuesday nights, sharing with somebody in their home, and they know the guy two doors down is a member of your church and he’s been in an openly adulterous affair for 2-3 years and doesn’t come to church, yet your church never disciplines him, what on earth do they think you’re saying when you’re sharing the gospel?
Patterson: Here’s the pity of it. It is easier to get into a church than it is to join the Rotary Club. It is more difficult to be disciplined by a church than it is to be disciplined by the Lions Club. If you’re a member of the Lions Club (if I understand it correctly) and you miss four weeks in a row, you’re out. If you’re out of town for four weeks in a row, you better find a Lions Club in that city wherever you are and attend or you’re going to be out. So, the sad state of affairs that exists in many of our churches now is church membership is meaningless. Therefore there is nothing appealing to the people on the block as they look at the church members who live there. They look no different than the others.
Dever: I think the Lions Club may have gotten their standards from 19th century Baptist churches actually. I want to come back to that more specifically in just a moment, but basic to the tenor of a church, I think, is the preaching and the commitment to biblical preaching.
Patterson: I concur 100%.
Dever: Any comments on that? Are you encouraged by the state of preaching as you go around? But you’re usually preaching as you go around to churches, aren’t you?
Patterson: Yes, I’m usually preaching, so I don’t get to hear as much, but I would have to say, without trying to sound pessimistic, that on the whole I am not encouraged. I am encouraged about what our seminaries at this present moment are doing, but we’ve got a hiatus here in which, very frankly, we’ve got people out there who are not really doing biblical preaching.
Dever: So, Paige, would you encourage pastors to spend more or less time reading systematic theology?
Patterson: I would encourage them to spend more time reading systematic theology. The commentaries are important but a man has to understand the whole of what God has said and to get a biblical worldview and perspective. The Bible says that God said our ways are not His ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. Well, just exactly how are we going to come by His thoughts and His ways? We have to see the broader picture. I think the pastor ought to be reading not only systematic theology and not only his commentaries, but he ought to be reading a good diet of good biography, not only for the influence of the spiritual lives of people that he reads about, but also for cogent illustrations for a segment of his preaching.
Schmucker: Name two you would recommend of the biographies.
Patterson: Of course, one of my favorites still remains Bainton’s biography of Luther, Here I Stand. Very frankly it’s one of the books that sustained me more than any other during the days of difficulty and confrontation through which I walked. That book was very, very helpful to me. Another is coming from my own background, of course, a book called The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep which chronicles the story of the south German and Swiss Anabaptists during the Reformation and the many persecutions that they suffered. That book, too, was very helpful to me. So those would be two right off the top of my head.
Dever: There’s something we have talked about before that I would like to understand a bit more, specifically on conversion. We both agree that salvation is of the Lord, that God saves people.
Dever: I understand that conversion has to be something that fundamentally God does in our souls by the vivifying influence of the Holy Spirit, to use the old theological language, that the Holy Spirit by the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10), and by the word of Christ, that the Holy Spirit comes in and uses that word and brings new life to a soul. What that means essentially is that regeneration is not caused first by our faith apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. As we are thinking through conversion, I see it very much the Bible teaching it as the activity of God’s Spirit in us. Not at all unrelated to our action. We have to have the gospel preached, Paul is clear on that, and we have to repent and believe, but what I stop and ask the question How is it that I ever did repent and believe? My only answer is the activity of God’s Holy Spirit.
Patterson: I think I would agree with you 100%. I think probably where we might not see it quite eye to eye is that I would not insist that regeneration be the word applied to that work of the Spirit at this point. I am uncomfortable with preceding repentance and faith by regeneration, although I am equally uncomfortable with preceding regeneration by repentance and faith. I see it all as something that happens in a nanosecond. The point where I really do agree with you 100%, Mark, would be that that can never come to pass as a coincidence of any set of human actions, however you want to define that. Whether of one person or other person’s influencing it, or whatever. If it happens, it happens as you very well stated by the vivifying presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
Dever: My concern and I think the concern of the more Calvinistic types in this is simply to say that we don’t want to fall back into this Roman Catholic error of assuming that we are saved because we have cooperated with the grace of God. We just really don’t want to go anywhere near that. We know that we have to repent and believe but we want to make sure the glory of that goes entirely to God. Whereas the Roman Catholics are quite clear in saying that they want God to be glorified, but they think He has made us such a way, and the fall has not been so bad that we can’t of our own nature still cooperate with God’s grace.
Patterson: No, they have misunderstood the scripture completely because even after you are saved Jesus said “without Me you can do nothing.” If that’s even true after you’re saved, then what is it before you’re saved? So I agree with you completely and the only rejoinder I would make is that the reason some of us fear the more Calvinistic expression of it is that we fear that what often happens is that people don’t preach hard for repentance and faith. Certainly some Calvinists do, and I don’t have a problem with that. But I do have with those who don’t preach hard for repentance and faith because they say, If God’s going to do this He’s going to do it regardless of what I do.
Dever: I have to say as somebody who’s a Calvinist who preaches all the time, I do feel that tension. You’re not just making that up. I understand that because I do know it is God who saves and I don’t want to manipulate a false conversion because I think that hurts evangelism and deceives that person, but at the same time Jesus used a lot of imperatives. If we are going to be biblical Christians and preachers we cannot be scared to use those imperatives.
Patterson: I guess my concern is that we keep it in proper tension. We don’t know how to explain all those things for each other or for a lost and listening world. We wish we could, so we have to, in effect, preach with an intention. Spurgeon was one of the best at that, actually. He’d write a book against Calvinism but then he himself would pretty well preach Calvinistically. So I think he saw the tension that has to be held.
Dever: So on evangelism I am hugely concerned that some of the ways that we’ve done evangelism have actually been some of the things that have most damaged our attempts to spread the gospel. In other words, if I simply share the gospel with somebody, lead them in praying to receive Christ, and then quote 1 John 1:9 to assure them that if they confess their sins that they’re forgiven, and ask them, “Have you confessed your sins?” and they say, “Yes, I just did,” and I respond, “Then you’re forgiven. If you doubt that you doubt the word of God.” I fear that we have filled up our churches with millions and millions of people who genuinely don’t know Jesus from a hole in the wall. They give every evidence of it in their lives, and we preachers and pastors are partly to blame for the way we’ve done the evangelism. I’m not talking about all the preachers who are not obedient in doing evangelism at all. You know, there was the Great Awakening rejoinder that somebody said, I’d rather do my poor evangelism than your no evangelism. Well, me too. But, for those who are doing evangelism, it does seem to me like there are a lot of people sitting in our churches who think they are going to heaven. Well, they’re sitting on our rolls but they don’t sit in our churches, and some who sit in our churches don’t really seem to know the Lord.
Patterson: Regrettably I have to believe that anytime you stand up and face a congregation these days in the average church you’re looking at 30-40% that have never been born again and are not genuinely saved.
Dever: You mean in the evangelical church?
Patterson: I’m talking about in Baptist churches where we supposedly emphasize nothing in the world but regeneration. Lord knows what it is in some others, but I think that’s true of us and I think it’s because we have been very careless. We’ve been more concerned about numbers to report to the denominational press than we have been about genuine conversion. So, yes, I’m very concerned about it. Matter of fact, I’ve got to where, going into churches, I preach hardly anything else but the new birth anymore from one of 18-20 passages that I work from, just because I’m so concerned about that. So, yes, I do share your concern about that. It can’t be any other way for us to have as much of the world in the pew as we presently have.
Dever: So, what can a pastor do to help sort that out? Is that where taking church membership and taking that seriously comes in?
Patterson: It is true that church discipline is a major part of assuring that we have a redeemed church membership. However, it is also true that in the handling of people when they initially come forward. I’ve come to believe, for example, that in an evangelistic invitation most people who come forward have not yet really made a commitment of their lives to Christ. They are coming forward out of an honest interest. Usually that is true, but I think if you put them down on the front pew and give them a card to fill out that you have probably done a tremendous disfavor to them if that’s the sum total of what you’re going to do. I think those people need to be taken and counseled very carefully and walked with until there is some evidence that a genuine conversion has taken place. If I were counseling pastors today I would say don’t receive anybody into the church or for baptism or anything else at the moment they come forward. Get them into a counseling program. By counseling I am not talking about professional counseling.
Dever: Examining them?
Patterson: That’s right. I am in favor of baptizing the new converts as quickly as possible because I think that’s the New Testament way, but I am also in favor of putting in the careful approach both at the front and the back.
Dever: I think a lot of this can be helped just even by the front and you don’t even have to talk about discipline. You just need to examine the way you take in members. So you’re saying you don’t think it is wise for some of these pastors who may be listening who tend to take in members of the churches at the end of the service? You encourage them not to do that?
Patterson: I really have my growing doubts as to the wisdom of that.
Dever: I heard about one church recently, and I don’t know if you know about churches like this or not, in order to encourage baptisms among children the baptistry is shaped like a fire truck and they’ve got confetti cannons that go off whenever a kid is baptized. Do you know about any of this?
Patterson: This is my first time to hear this. This is blasphemous!
Dever: Anyway, it’s a church in America. It’s an evangelical church and they mean to preach the gospel so I want to be real quick to say their intentions are good. That’s going to get kids of course, because they want to come forward, get in the fire truck and make the confetti cannons go off.
Patterson: I do not view [positively] the huge number of child baptisms that Baptists are now guilty of–Baptists are some of the worst paedo-baptizers there are.
Dever: I know the average age of baptism has dropped, I think, about 10 years in the last 100 years. When you read biographies from the 19th century, they’re always getting baptized at 17, 18, 19, 20. J. R. Graves was baptized when he was 19. John Gill was that way. John A. Broadus was that way.
Patterson: It’s out of hand in our churches.
Dever: I don’t think we have to say that children can’t be saved, we’re not saying that at all. But the difficulties to us are knowing that they’re saved
Patterson: Because of the difficulties of communication.
Dever: Is the fastest way to get fired in a Southern Baptist church is to begin to practice church discipline?
Patterson: Probably that’s true. When I tell my students about it I tell them, Do not go do this next Sunday.
Dever: Are there Southern Baptist churches that are doing this, that are practicing church discipline?
Patterson: Yes, there sure are.
Dever: A growing number?
Patterson: A growing number, yes. I would say right now probably we’re at the 100-200 level. So, at first you think, Wow, that’s wonderful, that’s great. But we have over 42,000 churches, so we’re just beginning to make a dent in it. But I think more and more are realizing that you cannot have a meaningless church membership and expect to make any impact on the world.
Dever: How do you encourage a pastor at Southeastern Seminary in their classes? Does the seminary encourage young ministers to help churches move toward church discipline?
Patterson: Yes, we absolutely do. I tell them to begin preaching it as you come to it in the text, don’t back off from it. Preach it straight. Then I tell them when the day comes when you’re actually going to begin practicing it, the place to begin is not with somebody who’s been caught in some heinous iniquity, because you’re going to have sympathy problems there. The place to do it is on every one of these church rolls where you have huge numbers of people that are not attending church . That is something that people can understand. If folks have not come in five years and they are obviously not intending to come then we owe them, if we love them, a confrontation. If they choose not to respond to that confrontation then we’re doing a disservice to them and the church to continue to consider them members.
Dever: What about the argument that in doing this you are cutting off a relationship with them that could be evangelistic?
Patterson: I think many people believe that, but these are generally people that just have no understanding of the fact that there is a confrontational element in Christianity that is unavoidable.
Dever: I know one Southern Baptist church that has 1100 members with about 40 attending. I think there are a lot like that. So if we really did this over the next year you might not be president of the biggest Protestant denomination in America.
Patterson: You know, this came up last year. Last year for the first year in our history we had a little drop in membership. The press kept coming to me and saying, Aren’t you concerned about this? I said, Well, no, as a matter of fact I’d like to see a year when we dropped about 3 million more. The press would say, What’s that you say? You wouldn’t mind 3 million more dropped? I would say, No, we’re having a boasting membership of 15 million people, there are at least 3 million of those that we can’t even find. Some of them are in heaven, some probably went the other way, some of them are just in L. A., and we don’t know where they are. For us to count them as church members is absolutely unfair to these people. It’s one of the most unchristian things we could do. So, if we love them, we must stress to them that following Jesus Christ is a matter of trusting Him as Lord and doing what He says. Why do you call me Lord and do not the things I say? We can’t help people live that way. We’ve got to help them see the better way and we need to lose about 3 million that are not really associated with us. Maybe more.