Southern Baptists and the Day of Reckoning

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Sexual abuse (and problematic responses to it when uncovered) is a plague wreaking havoc across our country, not only in the Catholic Church or in the independent fundamentalist congregations across the country, but also in Southern Baptist congregations. The Houston Chronicle‘s three-part report (the first part was released on Sunday, February 10) found more than 700 victims in just the past 20 years, with some of the accused church leaders still serving in SBC churches even today.

Read the report. Reread it. Don’t look away. Ask yourself, How can this evil flourish in churches that name the name of Jesus? Moving forward, we cannot excuse inaction due to of our Convention’s structure (“What can we do? Every church is autonomous!”) or because of our denominational bureaucracy (“It takes too long to get anything done”) or because we are not personally involved (“I’ve never fielded an accusation”).

What kind of Great Commission people are we if we move heaven and earth to send out missionaries to spread the gospel abroad, but cannot muster the will to stop predators from “slaughtering the faith” of people at home?

We can no longer accept the reality that we are “a porous sieve of a denomination” that makes it easy for perpetrators to move from church to church and for more innocent victims to be preyed upon. This is not a problem out there. If we are in this together when we celebrate God’s work among and through us, we must be in this together when the work of the evil one is exposed and our failures are so glaringly put on display before a watching world.

I don’t know all that we can or will do in the months ahead, but I trust that the feelings of grief and anger among many of us today will lead to renewed efforts to partner together in ways that uncover abusers and protect the vulnerable. Southern Baptists must do more, and it must start with us. God give us wisdom and determination.

Below are excerpts from several of the responses from Southern Baptist leaders:

J. D. Greear:

I am broken over what was revealed today. The abuses described in this article are pure evil. I join with countless others who are currently “weeping with those who weep.” The voices in this article should be heard as a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent. As Christians, we are called to expose everything sinful to the light. The survivors in this article have done that—at a personal cost few of us can fathom. We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary. We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again.

It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care). I will pursue every possible avenue to bring the vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to bear on stopping predators in our midst. There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists. The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse.

Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse. As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem.

Russell Moore:

Our approach is seeking to encourage policies and practices that protect children and the vulnerable from sexual abuse in autonomous but cooperating churches, all the while promoting compliance with laws and providing compassionate care for those who have survived trauma. True, we have no bishops. But we have a priesthood of believers. And a key task of that priesthood is maintaining the witness of Christ in the holiness and safety of his church. That means training churches to recognize sexual predation and how to deal with charges or suspicions when they emerge, and equipping churches to stop the pattern, in their church or from their church to others.

Malcolm Yarnell:

The Southern Baptist Convention cannot reform itself due to local church “autonomy”? No, my brothers and sisters, evil doesn’t get a pass.

“Autonomy” ought not be taken as an excuse to neglect the churches’ moral responsibility. The churches are equally responsible to Jesus as Lord. The churches must thus identify and rebuke any and all activities that harm any of his “little ones,” including in other churches.

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