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Sorry/Not Sorry: Dr. Paige Patterson teaches us how not to apologize

Dr. Paige Patterson, recently in the news for disrespecting women and appearing to encourage women to stay in abusive relationships, sort of apologizes and definitely wants you to think he did.

You have likely seen articles or read letters (or apology letters) in response to Paige Patterson recently, the pastor and President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who is being brought to task for former statements in which he appears to encourage domestic abuse or, at the very least, to encourage Christian women to stay in abusive situations.

Today Dr. Patterson released an apology (well, at least, he called it an apology), and I thought it would be good to look at it, and talk about what a “good apology” looks like. This document has been carefully worded, and it is instructive and reasonable to read it with care.

Let’s start with a definition of “apology.” Here’s Merriam-Webster:

“Apology: an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.”

Here’s Dr. Patterson’s statement, broken up with my commentary:

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.

This sentence is apologetics, not apology. “This was a long time ago!” “This was a sermon illustration.” “I was trying to explain the Bible.” These things (old ministry, sermon illustrations, and explaining Hebrew) have been “hurtful to women” in “possible” ways. These are excuses that boil down to “you (women) misunderstood me.”

I wish to apologize to every woman who has been wounded by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity.

One does not “wish to apologize.” One apologizes or does not. This sounds like an apology but is not. Also, the lack of specificity about how women have been wounded “by anything I have said that was inappropriate or that lacked clarity” makes it sound as if Dr. Patterson is unsure what was inappropriate OR that he thinks his words were completely appropriate but misunderstood. A true apology would say something like, “I am sorry I said thing X, which understandably wounded you, because it was inappropriate.”

We live in a world of hurt and sorrow, and the last thing that I need to do is add to anyone’s heartache. Please forgive the failure to be as thoughtful and careful in my extemporaneous expression as I should have been.

“Please forgive the failure…” Whose failure? Does Dr. Patterson mean “my failure”? Also, what does it mean to forgive a failing? Is it not Dr. Patterson who needs forgiveness? Should it not be, “Please forgive me for my failure”?

And what was this failure? According to Dr. Patterson, it was thoughtlessness and carelessness. I don’t think anyone is upset because his words were “careless” they’re upset by what the words communicated. “Careless” would be a slip in communication (and honestly who hasn’t done that before? I have many recorded instances of myself doing just this in a talk). It’s unclear, here, if he’s referring to his comments about abused women staying with their abusers, or the time he said it was “Biblical” for someone to call a 16 year old girl “built.” Which again, only points out that it is still unclear what is being apologized for (and again, there has not yet been an actual apology at this point… no blame has been shouldered, no specific wrong acknowledged, no apology asked for, merely “wished” and a request that “the failure” be forgiven).

Anyway, this was “extemporaneous expression.” A reminder that his words were “off the cuff” and we shouldn’t weigh them too heavily against him.

I would also like to reiterate the simple truth that I utterly reject any form of abuse in demeaning or threatening talk, in physical blows, or in forced sexual acts. There is no excuse for anyone to use intemperate language or to attempt to injure another person. The Spirit of Christ is one of comfort, kindness, encouragement, truth, and grace; and that is what I desire my voice always to be.

This is a good paragraph overall, and what he should have immediately said when his old clip resurfaced. He should have repudiated his former statements and said, “I was wrong to say those things and to counsel that woman in the way that I did.” It’s not an apology in any way, but it is a good clarification. To say he wants to “reiterate the simple truth” sucks, though, because that’s self defense and a way to communicate, “Everyone who says something else about me is (1) wrong and (2) missing even a ‘simple’ truth.”

To all people I offer my apology, but especially to women, to the family of Southern Baptists, my friends and the churches. I sincerely pray that somehow this apology will show my heart and may strengthen you in the love and graciousness of Christ.

Again, no actual apology has been present in these words, and even here he refers to it as an apology without ever apologizing. Also, unfortunately, he says that at least part of his motivation is that it will “show my heart” which is another way of saying, “I hope these words make you realize I am not the person you thought and that I am, in fact, better than that.”

I am bummed, because this whole thing smacks of a political response. It was only a week ago that Dr. Patterson said he couldn’t apologize because “I didn’t do wrong.” This letter only backs up that sentiment. It’s as if he asked, “How can I say remorseful sounding words without acknowledging wrongdoing?”

Now, a week later, as his seminary trustees are about to meet, as various leaders in his denomination are asking for his resignation, and as public outcry increases, he’s suddenly able to release this not-quite-an-apology so we can understand his heart, and how his off the cuff statements were unclear and hurt some women who had a hard time understanding him.

Come now, Dr. Patterson. If you’re not sorry, stick to your guns and take the consequences. If you are sorry, then admit your error and express regret (and yes, this, too, may have consequences).

This inability to admit wrongdoing is, unfortunately, a common malady in Christian circles, especially as one increases in power. (How could I be wrong… because what I said was based in my understanding of the Bible? And if I *was* wrong then I must somehow be reading the Bible incorrectly, or broken in some way in my relationship with God and that certainly can’t be true.) This moral weakness makes apology impossible. And according to some who have worked with him, Dr. Patterson has a pattern of being unable to see his own wrongdoing.

Apologies should be a normal part of life. Most days I do something wrong, I mess up, I hurt someone’s feelings. I don’t say, “I wish to apologize if you have misunderstood my words and your feelings were hurt because of your inability to understand my off-the-cuff statements.” I say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

So here’s my apology about this whole thing:

Women… it is wrong that the subjects of domestic abuse and objectification of women have been reduced to a theological and political talking point. I am sorry for the times I have not made the time or not had the courage to speak up. You are worth better than that. Please forgive my slowness, my lack of proper priorities, and my cowardice. I will strive to do better.

Thanks, everyone. I’m sure we’ll all be talking about these things again soon.

Dr. Patterson: If you’re actually sorry (which is unclear to me), then you can do better than this.

P.S. You might read the apology letter I linked in the first sentence of this post and say, “Wait… but Dr. Anyabwile also used similar language as Dr. Patterson when he said ‘I hope you can forgive me’ and things along those lines.” Yes. But notice the super specific addressing of wrong action and statements (and inaction) and the constant stream of words like “grief”… Tabiti’s apology both expresses wrongdoing and remorse, unlike Dr. Patterson’s.

By Matt Mikalatos

Matt Mikalatos is a writer not a fighter.