“If you stand up to sexual abuse, you must remain standing,” Susan Codone recently told me. She’d said the same thing on Twitter in response to news that Paige Patterson, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was slated to preach at the “Great Commission Weekend” at a church in Immokalee, Fla. Patterson was fired from SWBTS in 2018 after trustees learned that he planned to meet privately with a rape survivor because, “I have to break her down and I may need no official types there.”
Susan Codone, a professor at Mercer University, is a sexual abuse survivor and Southern Baptist. Despite being abused in a Southern Baptist church, she has remained steadfast in her commitment to the denomination and has become a much-needed voice calling for reform. She recently called on Timothy Pigg, the pastor of Fellowship Church Immokalee, to disinvite Patterson because of Patterson’s history of allegedly covering up abuse. Pigg earned his bachelor’s degree, master of divinity degree, and is a current doctoral student, at SWBTS.
Codone said that Pigg, who could not be reached for this article, refused to speak with her privately about Patterson’s presence at his event — as did every other Southern Baptist in Florida that she contacted except for Tommy Green, the state’s executive director–treasurer, who withdrew from the event soon after talking with Codone.
“I was reaching out the right way,” Codone said, “but they were not responding.”
So, Codone took to social media, where she posted Pigg’s professional contact information (publicly available at the church’s website), and asked other Southern Baptists to urge Pigg to rescind Patterson’s speaking invitation. Pigg, for his part, reported Codone’s activity to Twitter, which briefly suspended her account. It has since been reinstated.
“I am standing on the platform of belief in local-church autonomy, along with cooperation,” Codone said. Local-church autonomy is the idea that each church within the Southern Baptist Convention is accountable only to the members of that church, and not to any sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Local-church autonomy has often been cited in discussions of why the SBC has not taken action in the sexual abuse crisis it is facing.
Cooperation, though, is the other side of local-church autonomy, and Codone sees focusing on cooperation as a “middle-of-the-road way that can also gain traction” if enough people will stand together — cooperate — to make their voices heard.
Immokalee residents — where Pigg’s church is located — will likely be familiar with the middle way that Codone has modeled. Nearly 30 years ago, a group of farmworkers and activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to improving wages and working conditions of migrant farmworkers.” That group soon discovered that slavery was alive and well — particularly in Immokalee — and it became a leading anti-slavery group that helped the U.S. government prosecute nine cases of modern-day slavery in the United States. That small group cooperating together to make their voices loud enough so people had to listen led to significant, meaningful change for a large group of people.
Regarding Codone’s call on social media for others to contact Pigg, she said, “There was a grassroots effort but I didn’t expect it to go very far.” There has been some movement, though. Two of the event’s sponsors, including the Florida Baptist Convention and Crossroads Church, have dropped out, as have two of the speakers — Tommy Green and Wayne Briant, who, like Green, holds a position with the Florida Baptist Convention. The two speakers have been replaced by Scott Colter, a former employee under Patterson whose wife posted online the private records of survivor Megan Lively, and Brad Jurkovich, a frequent speaker at Louisiana College, where last year in a chapel sermon the dean of the school of human behavior compared women to “crack houses” and advised them to “mow your lawn.”
In addition to the withdrawal of sponsors and speakers, SBC president J.D. Greear spoke out against Patterson last week, telling Houston Chronicle’s religion writer Robert Downen, “Trustees terminated Paige Patterson for cause, publicly disclosing that his conduct was ‘antithetical to the core values of our faith,’” and adding, “I advise any Southern Baptist church to consider this severe action before having Dr. Patterson preach or speak and to contact trustee officers if additional information is necessary.”
In language that echoes what Codone has been saying, Greear highlighted the need for cooperation among Southern Baptists to protect church members against abusers and enablers of abuse: “Southern Baptist churches must take our mutual accountability to each other more seriously than we have in the past … If our system of governance means anything, it means exercising due diligence and heeding what those whom we put in positions of trustee oversight have reported about official misconduct.”
While Greear’s condemnation has no disciplinary effect for churches that choose to host Patterson or otherwise embrace disgraced leaders, given church autonomy, his words do carry weight — and people are paying attention.
This is perhaps not the monumental change abuse survivors and advocates hope for, but it is proof of Codone’s concept. Like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, perhaps grassroots organizing is just the effort needed to rid Southern Baptist churches of evils of abuse.