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Dorothy Patterson: on submission, family, friends, hats & the Bible

WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–While enjoying dinner one evening two years ago, Dorothy Patterson was jolted by an announcement from her husband, Paige.
“Dr. Patterson had broached the subject that he was going to get a dog,” Dorothy recounted, “and I told him in no uncertain terms he was not.”
Could these be the words of a woman who co-authored the controversial words on submission in the family statement added to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement in 1998?
“You don’t really have submission until you have an impasse,” Dorothy reflects, and the dog that later arrived at her door created an impasse between her and her husband. “I probably could have insisted on my way and gotten rid of the dog, but I had to make a conscious choice to submit.”
The dog, named “Bandit” by his master but dubbed “Squealer” by his mistress, still resides at the Patterson home; and Dorothy has learned to live with him. “I trained him, and I take care of him. I’m content now because I see how happy he has made my husband.”
Dorothy Patterson, known for her strong opinions almost as well as she is known for her sometimes-unpopular views on submission, is the first to admit that submission is often a difficult choice for a woman to make. She contends, however, it is ultimately not an issue between a woman and her husband, but between a woman and God. “Submission in the home is actually training ground for submission to the Heavenly Father.”
To those who know and love her, Dorothy Patterson’s life is characterized by a combination of strength and submission, which is manifested in all her roles: as wife of the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; as mother of their children, Armour and Carmen; as mother-in-law of Mark Howell, whom she regards as a son; as a friend; and most importantly as a daughter of God.
Dorothy married her childhood sweetheart at the tender age of 19. The role of wife is one she knows well and relishes. Despite her reluctance to surrender to his desire for canine companionship, Paige asserts that his wife’s strength has usually worked to his advantage. “Dorothy is famous for being able to accomplish the impossible,” Paige says. “Anytime I want anything done and there seems to be no way to do it, I automatically go to her.”
Paige relates an incident that occurred while the two were still in college. He mentioned a desire to speak with the president of the United States, and soon afterward his wife announced that a meeting with the president had been arranged. On another occasion, Dorothy arranged a meeting for him with Yassar Arafat in the guesthouse of Saddam Hussein.
Dorothy’s strength, however, does not affect her submission to her husband. Paige says his wife is “the embodiment of Proverbs 31:11,” which says, “Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.” Paige knows that when he is away from home, he leaves things in the capable hands of his wife, who in all situations “does what I would have done.”
Dorothy says that while she has always tried to be a good wife, her husband never fails to be an earthly example of Christ’s love to her. He was the one to insist that she pursue her two doctorates to develop her talents and abilities. After graduating from Hardin-Simmons University, Dorothy received a Th.M from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a D.Min. from Luther Rice Seminary and, in 1998, a Ph.D. from the University of South Africa. Yet he also warns her when she stretches herself too thin. “He protects me against myself,” Dorothy says.
Paige has also been known to pack Dorothy’s bags and whisk her off on an unexpected vacation. “She puts up a fuss at first, but sometimes she needs to get away from it all,” he says. No wonder Dorothy describes her relationship with her husband as a “blessing of submission.”
Perhaps the role that Dorothy trained for the longest was that of mother. Her sister, Kathy, recalls that when they were young Dorothy had imaginary children instead of imaginary friends. “On Sunday mornings we couldn’t leave for church until Dorothy had lined up all her ‘children’ and made sure they were dressed and ready to go.”
Even this role for which she was so well prepared required her to submit. Dorothy recalls an instance when her son, Armour, was playing football in junior high school. The Pattersons were out of town speaking at a family life conference, and Dorothy attempted to arrive home in time to watch her son play. She missed her plane and missed the game. “When I got home, I said to myself, I cannot do this. So I asked my husband if I could walk away from all of my outside engagements.” Her husband concurred.
Dorothy confesses that, at the time, this wasn’t what she wanted to do. “I enjoyed traveling as a part of my husband’s ministry. I cried for days after the kids left for school.” Eventually, however, she realized that God was creating an opportunity for her to use her strengths. “I took all the creativity and the energy I had poured into ministry and poured it into my children.”
Some of Dorothy’s creativity went into building traditions around her favorite holiday, Christmas. For years she celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas with her children by hiding a surprise for them somewhere in the house on each of the 12 days prior to Christmas Eve.
Despite all the creativity that Dorothy put into her parenting, the thing that her daughter, Carmen, appreciated the most was simply her mom’s presence at home. Carmen credits her mother for setting an example for her as she rears her own daughter — Dorothy’s only grandchild — Abigail. “Mom has turned down jobs that would have paid her a lot of money because she knew that being there for us was more important. That is where I get my instinct to be there for Abigail.”
Dorothy will do anything for her friends. Her husband recalls an incident at New York’s Kennedy Airport when he and his wife were traveling with a group. Some of the group had just landed at Kennedy and were trying to get to their connecting flight, but the pilot decided to take off without them.
After much discussion, Dorothy managed to get the flight delayed, allowing her friends to catch the plane. Dorothy’s strength proved to be a great asset to her friends.
Equally impressive, however, is her willingness to submit to her friends, even to the point of bringing embarrassment on herself. The day after her husband was elected president at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998, pictures of him and Dorothy showed up in newspapers across the country. She has received some criticism because of the hat she was wearing in those pictures.
Dorothy is known for her love of hats. Many women have given her their hats. One of those women had entered into a legal dispute with Criswell College, where Paige was president. The dispute was settled, and the lady harbored a great deal of regret for her part in it. Dorothy often visited her and assured her that there were no hard feelings. This lady asked her, as a show of their renewed friendship, to promise to wear one of her hats to a special event. Dorothy promised that she would.
On the day of the election, Dorothy was looking through all she had packed to find a hat to match her dress. She initially dismissed the lady’s hat because it was not a style that flattered her, but she remembered her promise. She swallowed her pride, wore the hat and still receives a bit of ridicule to this day.
Those who know Dorothy well are not surprised by her actions. No matter how busy she is, she always puts others first.
Her former assistant, Sarah Hughes, remembers that when she needed a solace from the pressures of life, she would go to Dorothy. “Amidst all the confusion of the telephones and doorbells ringing, the papers stacked to the ceiling, the sticky notes stuck to every free inch of space, I can still envision her sitting there with glasses tipping the end of her nose, smiling and compassionately asking, ‘What can I do for you, honey?’”
Dorothy cannot remember a day in her life when she did not love Jesus. She was reared by godly parents who took her to church at every opportunity. She was general editor for The Woman’s Study Bible and has written three books. And she speaks at women’s events in churches across the nation. Most recently she guided Southeastern Seminary in the development of a degree in women’s studies. God has used her in ways that she could never have dreamed for herself.
“I love letting women know that the Bible does speak to them directly and has a special message for them,” Dorothy says of the study Bible, which she describes as a comprehensive resource for women involved in teaching or counseling which also can meet the needs of women who want to study the Bible for themselves.
“A woman in a rural community might not have access to a Christian bookstore or a church library, but from this one volume she can study a number of topics,” Dorothy says. “Maybe she has a neighbor whose daughter has an eating disorder. While the Bible doesn’t speak directly to this issue, she can look in the index of this Bible and find a note that suggests biblical principles that might help.
“Maybe she has a friend who was raped and she is trying to comfort her. Maybe she is trying to teach a Bible study in a church that has no study material available. In each of these situations she can have what amounts to a one-volume commentary and inspirational guide.”
Concerning the subject of submission, Dorothy believes the biblical principle has implications in all arenas of life, including politics. The candidacy of Elizabeth Dole for president raises questions about how the Bible speaks to the issue.
“I do not see anything in Scripture that forbids a woman to hold political office. I don’t see anything that says a woman should not be president.” Patterson says. However, she says, “for me, I have to not only consider what the Scripture explicitly says, but also the implications of things clearly stated in Scripture. When it comes to a woman who has chosen to marry, who is to be a helper to her husband, I cannot say that Scripture allows her, much less encourages her, to become his commander-in-chief.”
Patterson acknowledges this decision can only be made between a woman, her husband and God. “I would be the last person to tell anyone that she should or should not run for political office.” She also asserts that she considers Elizabeth Dole a “stateswoman.”
So what should Dole do if her husband insists that his wife run for president? “They must both understand that this could put a strain on their relationship because it is reversing their roles. But if her husband tells her to do it, then she’d better do it!”
Dorothy’s own Christian journey has not always been easy. She’s a workaholic and struggles against letting busyness become godliness for her.
God began to deal with this problem in Dorothy’s life when, as a young bride, she was struck with severe asthma. Her condition often forced her into bed for days at a time, unable to finish projects she had started, unable to care for her new husband and sometimes unable to care for herself.
“God taught me a new meaning to the verse in Psalm 23 that says, ‘He maketh me to lie down.’” Dorothy spent time in her Bible in those days and began to appreciate her time alone with God.
Dorothy knows she hasn’t attained perfection in any of her roles, and she still struggles with balancing her tendency to do for God against her need to sit at his feet, but through the years God has faithfully brought her into a submissive relationship with him. When she now speaks of her time alone with her Father, she makes it sound like a priceless luxury. “Those moments of solitude with God have become a dear friend to me.”

Paris is a writer based in Greensboro, N.C. Reprinted by permission from HomeLife, a family magazine published by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • Sheri Paris