If you do an internet search for the acronym for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) you will be inundated by articles about sexual abuse within the SBC. Abuse cases have been going on in SBC churches for years. People in leadership positions within the SBC knew about these cases for years and did not know how to handle it. These cases were widely unknown to the SBC population at large other than the particular churches where these incidents had occurred (and even these individual churches did not know the extent to which these cases were going on in other churches).
The first time the larger population of SBC members found out about these cases was when the Houston Chronicle article was posted in 2019. The larger SBC population realized something needed to be done. The Executive Committe (EC) is in the spotlight for the recent investigation. The EC knew about these problems and failed to disassociate churches that hired sexual abusers. They also failed to make churches aware of sexual abusers that were hopping from church to church to find new victims. By the time the article was spread widely enough, and the problem should have been addressed, the 2020 annual convention was cancelled due to Covid.
According to the SBC website the Executive Committee does the following:
Currently, the Executive Committee is comprised of 86 representatives chosen from qualified states and defined territories. Although the Executive Committee does not control or direct the activities of Convention agencies, it reviews their financial statements and recommends the Convention annual operating budget. In addition, it receives and distributes the moneys Southern Baptists give in support of denominational ministries, acts as the recipient and trust agency for all Convention properties, and provides public relations and news services. It also performs other tasks assigned by the SBC and promotes the general work of Southern Baptists. To carry out these duties, the Committee employs an executive and professional staff in its Nashville offices.https://www.sbc.net/about/what-we-do/sbc-entities/executive-committee/
How Does the SBC Work?
The SBC is not governed by the Executive Committee (EC) like a pope or bishop. The power of the government of the SBC rests with the local churches. It works like kind of like a representative democracy. Each church is allowed a number of representatives, called messengers, they send to the annual convention. Messengers then vote for leadership in the convention for committees who focus on various things within in the SBC. So just like it would be wrong for the President of the United States to appoint your city’s mayor, it would also be wrong for the EC to appoint a pastor of a local church. It would be wrong for the EC to “govern” a local church in any way because Baptists believe in local autonomy. Autonomy essentially means each church governs itself without any outside influence.
The EC does have authority to disassociate churches from the SBC. These cases are rare. But if a local church decides (as a church) to deny doctrine laid out in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM 2000), they may be removed by the EC from the SBC. If an individual pastor at an SBC church denies the BFM 2000 at a local church, the EC cannot nor should not remove that pastor from the local church. It is the local church’s responsibility to remove that pastor.
This does not only go for pastors who fail doctrinally, but also morally. It is the local churches’ (that is, the people who are members at that church) responsibility to remove that pastor from their church, not the EC’s. Otherwise, the EC would start to govern and corrupt local church autonomy. So, when it came to navigating these moral failures that were coming out, the EC had no right to usurp local church autonomy. The fact that pastors and others in church leadership positions were jumping from church to church finding more people to prey on shows a failure in these churches’ ability to vet candidates for ministry. The burden of responsibility lies squarely on the local church for failure to do background checks and contact prior churches at which these minsters were employed.
This is not to say that the EC did nothing wrong. If a local church failed to report abuse and any other entity found out about it and also failed to report, they are both guilty of covering up abuse. If the EC was the only entity abuse was reported to, and they failed to report abuse, the individuals who knew and refused to report are guilty of covering up abuse.
How did Messengers Respond?
The convention met in the summer of 2021. One of the things that was called for was more openness from the EC. Representatives from SBC churches across the world called for a third-party investigation of the EC and for it to report their findings publicly. Some members in leadership agreed to the investigation but said it would be best for the findings to remain private. The SBC legal representative even argued that the findings should remain private for legal protection. The messengers said, “No!” One messenger argued that we are the church, we should hide nothing. Guidepost Solutions (the third-party) investigated and posted their findings in May, 2022. I want to emphasize again, that the messengers themselves recognized a problem and demanded that it be brought to the light. Here’s a summary to the guide post findings:
For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) Executive Committee (“EC”) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff. They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press…only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC. Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations. In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy – even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.Report of the Independent Investigation
So, were there problems with leadership in the EC? According to this report, yes. The SBC messengers to the convention, which is the actual governing body of the SBC, voted to bring these things to the light.
This is an important point to be emphasized over and over again. I have not read many news articles about what’s going on in the SBC, but the few I’ve perused paint the SBC as an evil entity governed by wicked people who cover up sexual abuse. That’s not the case. We voted to expose the abuse, not cover it up. The secular news industry wants to insinuate a part-to-whole fallacy to kill the SBC. Other times, the news outlets just get things wrong. The Washington Post quotes a legal expert saying, “The SBC, she said, is the ‘governing body of the whole church, so they are responsible for the policies and for the coverup, which is evident.'”
The SBC messengers govern the entities (EC, NAMB, IMB, ERLC, et. al.); however, they do not govern local churches. The SBC as a convention does not create policies for local churches because of local church autonomy. The EC, Southern Baptist seminaries, and the convention itself cannot dictate what a local church must do in terms of its policies. The SBC (as in the convention of messengers) cannot be responsible for the coverup when they were ignorant of it. In fact, when the coverup was made widely known, it was the SBC messengers who demanded the investigation!
How do we Move Forward?
- Recognize that this trial is for the purity of the church. There are going to be some uncomfortable decisions for the convention coming up in 2022. The SBC is not lost. However, the idols of SBC branding, SBC finances, and SBC reputation must be destroyed. Our primary allegiance must be to Christ, and we must subsume our brand, money, and reputation under his authority. Although some leaders in the SBC wrongly handled sexual abuse cases, it was the SBC as a whole that had the courage to stand up and decry this leadership. The SBC government is functioning to keep our leadership accountable, and we must continue to do so.
- Do not succumb to liberal theology in any form. The conservatives within the SBC fought to keep the Bible as the foundation of our beliefs and practices, securing victory in the 1990’s. Anyone who argues this is the cause of a sexual abuse coverup is committing post hoc ergo propter hoc (a logical fallacy that an order of events automatically equals causation). The solution to this coverup is not to elect people who believe in the Bible. Nor is it to elect people who promote a form of “social justice” without respect to the law of God. The Scripture has been and must continue to be our foundation.
- Local churches must step up in their vetting process for volunteers and hired staff. Background checks must be enacted. I would never argue that there is a sin that is impossible to repent of or overcome. At the same time, measures of accountability must be in place no matter what. Many places offer sexual abuse training that local churches can utilize. Churches should work with local authorities when accusations of sexual abuse are made. The local church has autonomous authority which means they have responsibility. Churches must be committed to promoting an environment that protects the vulnerable and sexual abuse survivors.
- The gospel must be central for survivors. Some of these survivors have been stiff armed by their local church and the EC. Churches must come alongside survivors and do all they can to support them legally and keep them safe. We know our only hope is not found in the church. And while therapy is an important part of the healing process, it alone cannot provide the healing found in Jesus Christ.
- The gospel must be central for perpetrators. The full extent of the law must be brought down upon those guilty of sexual abuse. This civil law is reflective of God’s own justice. The church must recognize their responsibility to act in reporting these events to civil authorities and walk through the process of church discipline in Matt. 18. If the perpetrator then truly repents (which is not just feeling bad for being caught) and places his trust in Christ alone, there is forgiveness for sins in Christ. Christ is powerful enough to save from every sin.