Monday, Feb. 11, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, February 11, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The reality of sexual abuse hits home: A massive investigative report on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention
It is a massive investigative report. Thus far, one part has been published, two parts yet to come, a team of reporters from both the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.
The headline in Sunday's edition, "20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms." The team of reporters includes Robert Downen, Lisa Olsen, and John Tedesco. They begin by telling the story of one victim of sexual abuse in a Southern Baptist church, and then go on to allege what they identify as a pattern of 20 years, 700 victims.
Now, as you look at the story, it is a massive demonstration of investigative journalism, and we're talking about a massive story even as there are two additional parts yet to come. We're also talking about reporting that was conducted over a significant period of time and we're talking about a team of reporters that knows it has a big story, and it is a big story indeed.
There are something like 47,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. There is no way that any team of reporters, there is no way that any team of investigators could adequately determine all that goes on in 47,000 churches, but the pattern that is exposed in this article is abundantly clear. There has been a pattern of two different, very horrible developments.
In the first place, you have the reality of sexual abuse conducted by church leaders or pastors. Secondly, you have the unwillingness to investigate so many of those claims. Furthermore, you also have the reality that some sexual abusers were able to leave one church or place of ministry and abuse additional victims in another place, or even subsequent venues of ministry, all this over a period of years, 20 years covered in this investigative report.
In one of the most significant sections of the report, getting to details, the reports tell us, "It's not just a recent problem: In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct,” the newspapers found. “That includes," say the reports, "those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them," said the reporters, "worked in Texas than in any other state." They continued consistent with the headline, "They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions."
In further documentation, the reports tell us about 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, and dozens of cases are pending. They were pastors, ministers, youth pastors, Sunday school teachers, deacons, church volunteers. We are told nearly 100 are still held in prisons stretching from Sacramento County, California, to Hillsborough County, Florida, that, according, say the reporters, to state and federal records. "Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today."
There is no way on The Briefing to go through the raft of documentation, nor to give attention to the heartbreaking stories and accounts that are included within the investigative report, but this much is very clear, what is exposed is a horrible pattern of sexual abuse. We are looking at the reality of a pattern of sexual abuse happening in churches and of churches and denominational structures not reporting sexual abuse and sexual abusers. We are looking at serial sexual abusers able to get rehired in other ministry context, and we are also looking at the fact that this was an abuse of the vulnerable by those who were in positions of religious authority who misused that authority, who may be, in some cases, misusing that authority even now.
The first conclusion that has to be drawn from this report is that there are real victims, many victims, and we can count on the fact that there are actually more victims that are included in this investigative report. We see here documented various forms of sexual abuse, but there is one commonality, and that is that the abuser was holding a position of spiritual trust, a sacred trust, the trust held by a minister, or a youth pastor, or a lay volunteer, a Sunday school teacher, or a deacon in a church.
Even as we know and are constantly reminded we live in a sinful world, this is one of those hammer blows that comes to us in recognizing just how horrifying patterns of sin can be, and furthermore, how clever and how cutting so many abusers turn out to be, and you add to that the willful ignorance on the part of many leaders who simply will not see this abuse when it is right before their eyes. They should see it. They must see it.
When a story like this breaks, the first concern has to be for the vulnerable and the victims, and there are very real victims here. You're also looking at the dark reality that so many of the victims felt that they had to hide while their abusers ministered in public. A story like this must lead Southern Baptists and all Christians and all churches and denominations to make very clear that our churches, our denominational structures have to be safe places for victims to make their abuse known and to know that they will be protected. Right now, we can count on the fact that there are many victims of abuse who have not yet felt safe to come forward and report that abuse. That is not only allowing their abusers to get away with the abuse, it is potentially allowing them to abuse yet others.
As I said in a major article I wrote on this back in 2018, and a point I have tried to make in so many ways, there is no way for a Christian body, or a Christian church, a Christian ministry, even a Christian denomination to investigate itself on these terms. There is no way for any kind of institution or organization to conduct a thorough or, furthermore, credible investigation of its own potential misdeeds.
That can only come from an independent third-party investigation, and one day or another, at various levels and in various context that is exactly what we'll need to take place. This is true of any ministry in which there is alleged some kind of patter of sexual abuse happening, not being reported and being concealed, leading to further victimization and the fact that the abuse cycle just continues.
How did this happen? History, church order, and a moral crisis collide
Southern Baptists are in a particular pinch here because the very core of our ecclesiology is the autonomy of local congregations. Local congregations are so autonomous, Southern Baptist leadership cannot know at any given time even how many Southern Baptist churches there are. Southern Baptist churches, legally, are defined as churches in friendly cooperation with and contributing to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention, but that is generally measured in the course of a given year, a given fiscal year in the Southern Baptist Convention.
It's only actually tested if churches seek to send messengers. Often, they would be called by others as delegates to meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. There simply is no denominational hierarchy that can even demand the churches answer the mail or answer the phone. To the credit of the reporters for the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News, they apparently have tried to understand that polity, that basic issue of organization. In many ways, it is almost precisely the opposite of the kind of hierarchical structure that would be rightly identified with the Roman Catholic church. We'll get to another very important dimension of that in just a moment.
First, we need to recognize that somehow, there has to be some kind of way for Southern Baptists at all levels, whether that's state conventions, national entities, or local churches to understand that there is at least some kind of mechanism for identifying those who are convicted, documented as sexual abusers. Of course, there are other kinds of tools available from sex offender registries to background checks.
Woe unto the church, the ministry, or the employer that does not at least take care of that baseline credible investigation. But clearly, it's not enough. The report here is overwhelming. It's not enough. The reports that are coming from churches aren't consistent. It's not enough. There has to be a way that Southern Baptists, consistent with Baptist theology and our understanding of the church, can address this in a better and more faithful way. The fact that that way has not yet become evident is no excuse for not pressing until some way is found.
It should be instructive not only to Baptists but to other Protestants to understand that, in its own way, every denomination has a difficulty reconciling polity that is the organization structure, and the ecclesiology and the demands of the modern day, that's just something that's real. For Baptists in general, for Southern Baptists specifically, this is a particularly difficult question.
One idea that at least comes to my mind is the question as to whether there could be a third-party registry, even as third-parties conduct independent investigations of sexual abuse, it would seem that at least there we would be the possibility that there could be arranged some kind of third-party registry with particular responsibility to look at the Southern Baptist Convention, its churches, its denominational agencies, the convention at various levels, and document what should be and must be documented.
To look at this in historical perspective, we are looking at the fact that here, we find a collision between two Baptist realities. On the one hand, historic Baptist ecclesiology that posits and affirms the autonomy of the local church, period. The autonomy of the local church is so basic, it is the first principle of Baptist ecclesiology, and in this case, autonomous really does mean autonomous.
At the same time, going back to 1845, Southern Baptist have prized a convention structure that is the mechanism of Baptist congregations working together in a convention structure to combine the energies and the commitments of those churches. Here's the thing, when you look at 1845, and even if you fast-forward, say, to 1965, 1975, Southern Baptists were glad to count as many churches as possible, perhaps even more churches than were real, every church that would be imaginable that might, at any point, have contributed to the Southern Baptist Convention because that helped the Southern Baptist Convention to look large and to appear numerically healthy.
What really never crossed the minds of most Southern Baptists would be that one day, some of those churches would be an embarrassment, a humiliation to the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, there arises the question of whether or not the convention would have to redefine the essence of its membership, and thinking of churches participating and cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention amended its own basic documents in light of the sexual revolution to make very clear that churches that affirm or endorse homosexuality in any form are not to be considered in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention, and thus, no longer a part of the denomination.
Similarly, some state conventions have had to take direct action to excise churches that have somehow demonstrated racism, and they have done that using the same principle that those churches are found to be no longer in friendly cooperation with the given convention. Now, it just might be that this crisis is bringing yet another criterion that will be extremely important, and that is the fact that a church that would willingly and knowingly harbor sexual abuse and sexual abusers should not be considered in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Something else that has to be noted in historical perspective is that if you go back to the 19th century when the Southern Baptist Convention was established, virtually, all congregations were in fellowship with other local Baptist congregations. They came together in what are called associations, and those associations policed the doctrine and the practice and the integrity of those churches, churches that were found to be lacking in such way and would not correct the problem were excised from the association.
That's the way it should be. That is consistent with Baptist doctrine. It does not compromise the autonomy of the local church. It simply states that general Baptist bodies, whether an association or a state convention or the Southern Baptist Convention also have the right to determine their own membership. That means churches that really are in friendly cooperation. They are consistent with the doctrine and the practices and the moral expectations of Southern Baptists.
There are many questions in light of this report. A couple of them are particularly pressing. Number one, why would evangelical Christians in general, why would Southern Baptists specifically, fail to see the problem of sexual abuse as what it is, sexual abuse, predatory behavior in which you have victims and victimizers? Why would it take so long for Evangelical Christians to see this? It's not a problem in the clarity of Scripture. There has to be some other kind of problem.
I would suggest that a part of the problem is the fact that evangelical Christians, by instinct, have practiced a form of moralism that simply says, "Sexual misbehavior is sexual misbehavior. It is to be dealt with as sexual misbehavior and let's move on." What is lacking from that basic, very simplistic moralism is another deeply profound moral dimension, and that is, when it comes to sex, sometimes, there really are victims and victimizers. It's not a simple matter of just saying that some sexual act or behavior is the problem. It is the fact that abuse is now known to be a part of the equation in far too many cases.
There is another huge question looming over all of this. Just how does one become an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention? Now, even in asking a question, I have to hastily say, one does not become an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention. Unlike the Roman Catholic church, unlike many other denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention credentials and it ordains no one. It licenses no preacher, so how is it that people claim to be ordained Southern Baptist pastors? Well, it is because some church, at least in theory and by claim, ordained that individual.
Here is where Baptists have fallen very far from the roots of their Baptist tree and thinking about ordination. If you go back to the 19th century and you think about the most famous Baptist preacher of the age Charles Spurgeon in London, he was not ordained. He and so many other Baptists of the era considered formal ordination beyond prayer, the congregations affirmation and the laying on of hands as foolish and confusing popery.
Furthermore, Baptists, at the heart of our conviction, do not believe in any sacrament of ordination. We don't believe in any separate status of ministers, but yet, we often allow the implication to be that it's so. We talk about someone as an ordained minister. That makes no sense, at least it shouldn't make sense in Baptist life unless that person is ordained and active in ministry in a local church and accountable to that church.
You look at rosters of denominations that say they have ordained ministers, but they're not in ministry. That should not happen in the Southern Baptist Convention. One might be a retired pastor or a retire minister, but we do not understand any special class of persons as being ordained and somehow holding a special sacramental status. That's antithetical to Baptist doctrine.
Sooner or later, and we have to hope and urge sooner, some of these issues are going to have to be clarified. It should not be that someone is simply able to claim the status of being an ordained minister, and then move from place to place without any investigation, background consideration, reference calls, to be able to move from one place of abuse to another opportunity for abuse.
Next, this also puts back on the local church, back where it belongs, the responsibility for the ordination of ministers, and furthermore, also the commissioning or the assignment of laypersons to specific responsibilities of leadership and teaching in the church. What's the importance of this? Well, A.T. Robertson, the most famous New Testament Greek scholar of the 20th century pointed to the problem he called the hasty laying on of the hands. That is the all too hasty ordination of an individual based upon emotivist kind of concerns rather than a deep understanding, affirmation, and confirmation of an individual's fitness for ministry, doctrinal, biblical, personal, when to character, and by every other rightful understanding of qualification.
When North Carolina Pastor J. D. Greear was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in June of last year, he moved forward in the appointment of a task force especially dedicated to and commissioned for the investigation of this issue within the Southern Baptist Convention. That task for is well underway. I, for one, will be praying that they will be given insight and wisdom quickly to respond in such a way as to protect the vulnerable and to expose the victimizers.
The trauma of this kind of news story brings its own deep and anguishing heartbreak. That's natural. It's natural for the Southern Baptist Convention and for all who love this denomination and who pray for its further faithfulness and usefulness to the kingdom of Christ. Heartbreak and demonstrated concern for the victims of sexual abuse in all churches–that's the right place to start, but there's an incredible amount of work yet to be done, and a very long road that lies ahead.
Supreme Court and abortion: A recent decision, the question of momentum, and the sanctity of human life in America
Next, a big story that demands our attention, it broke just as we went into the weekend. Robert Barnes reporting for the Washington Post with the headline, Supreme Court on five-to-four vote blocks restrictive Louisiana abortion law. Now, I just need to say that this is either a big story or it's not, but importantly, we don't know yet. We will know eventually, and the answer to that question is going to be of extreme importance to the sanctity and dignity of human life, particularly, the vulnerability of unborn life in American, but we do not know yet how big a story this is.
Looking at the news itself, it comes down to the fact that late Thursday night, the Supreme Court released a decision not on a major case that it has received through oral arguments, but rather, it refused by a five-four vote to lift a block on a Louisiana state law restricting abortion. The key issue there is the number five-four because John G. Roberts, Jr., the chief justice of the United States voted with the four identifiable Liberal justices on the court, thus granting the majority against the Louisiana law.
Even as that would appear to be a clear victory for abortion rights activists, it might be, or it might not be. It's certainly is a short-term win, that is to say it is certain that the result would've been very different if the chief justice has sided with the Conservative and the Virginia law had been allowed to stand, but in any case, regardless of the court's decision on Thursday night, it is very likely that the case in full is going to come before the Supreme Court for the complete process of Supreme Court review.
This might be an indication of how the Supreme Court ultimately will rule on the question or it might not. In any event, close observers of the court such as Adam Liptak of the New York Times suggested that what it indicates is the fact that the chief justice really does privilege precedent, that is legal precedent before his court. He doesn't want sudden dis-jarring, disjunctive decisions reversing established precedents.
In this case, the precedents go back, of course, to Roe v. Wade in 1973, but they also go back to a 2016 decision by the very same court, the Supreme Court of the United States, blocking a Texas law that was, at least in many respects, similar to the law in Louisiana that came before the court last week. As you're looking at that case, we also need to remember that Chief Justice Roberts voted with the Conservative minority in that case.
If you're trying to read the tea leaves of the Supreme Court, you put those two things together, maybe Chief Justice Roberts is setting up a decision in favor of the Louisiana law, maybe he is not. We don't know. Again, we don't know if this is a big story or not. Liptak wrote about the story this way, "In a surprise move, the chief justice joined the Supreme Court's liberal wing in a 5-to-4 decision blocking a Louisiana law that could have severely restricted abortion in the state. Although he offered no reason for his vote, there is little doubt that he wanted to avoid sending the message that the court was ready to discard a 2016 decision, a precedent, in which it struck down a similar Texas law."
Then listen to the next sentences, "But the court's order was just three sentences long, and the stay it imposed was temporary. The case is likely to reach the court on its merits next term. And when that happens, it is hardly certain that Chief Justice Roberts will vote to strike down the Louisiana law." This just reminds us that you would not trade a short-term victory for a long-term victory. It's just a reminder to us that when this kind of preliminary action is taken by the court, it doesn't necessarily indicate where a majority of the court will go when the full case is heard.
Elizabeth Diaz and Timothy Williams of the New York Times also gave the very same day, in Saturday's print edition of the New York Times, a very important article that tells us why the pro-abortion movement is so very concerned about the future of legal abortion in the United States given the current composition of the Supreme Court and the recent addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The article begins with the headline, Anti-Abortion Activists Still Feel They Have the Momentum.
Why? Because as you look at this article, the math is stunning, not just the math on the Supreme Court with what is now believed to be a conservative majority, but the math of the court cases that are now headed to the federal appellate courts and eventually, to the Supreme Court, one way or the other. The math really is staggering. There are dozens and dozens of cases headed for litigation and state after state with pro-life majorities are determining that they want to be the state where the case originates that will eventually lead to the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
As the reporters tell us, "Conservatives in several key states are vying to have one of their states' laws be the one to reach the Supreme Court first and upend national precedent." The article in the Times also acknowledges a long-term Conservative legal strategy of attempting to get as many of these cases before the Supreme Court incredible form so that an avalanche of these cases will provide the High Court with obvious opportunities to chip away at Roe, and eventually, to reverse the deadly case going back to 1973 that has led to abortion on demand in the United States.
This story published in the New York Times, a very pro-abortion paper, it reminds us of what is necessary for long-term social change, long-term moral change. What is requisite is a very long strategy that is conducted over generations, that is concerted in its effort and very focused and sophisticated in its execution. That's exactly what we see in conservative pro-life legal strategies that are not represented by so many cases, at least a dozen right now, that will shortly be pending before the United States Supreme Court.
There's going to be a lot to consider this week on The Briefing. Of course, right now, on Monday, we really don't know some of the issues we will be discussing by the end of the week, but we are going to be looking at the green new deal, the greening of the Democratic Party. We're going to be looking at the re-emergence of all things of socialism, an American national discourse. There's going to be plenty to talk about and plenty of worldview analysis to bring. That will come over the next several days.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me at Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.