A massive investigative report appeared in the Sunday editions of the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. The headline was direct -- “20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms.”
This article, the first of three, contains sophisticated investigative journalism as the team of reporters distills harrowing accounts of rampant sexual abuse in the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The article reveals two chilling and horrifying patterns that have plagued the SBC—first, the reality of sexual abuse committed by church leaders and pastors, and second, the unwillingness of churches to investigate the claims made by the victims of sexual abuse. Indeed, the report uncovers many cases where pastors who committed sexual violence left one church only to secure a pastorate in a different church where they continued to carry out such acts.
The report states, “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… That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned.” The disturbing narrative only increased when the article noted that sexual abusers “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.”
The report detailed some 220 offenders who either stand convicted or took plea deals, while dozes of cases await adjudication. The demographic of offenders included pastors, youth ministers, Sunday school teachers, deacons, and church volunteers. Nearly 100 abusers remain behind bars while, as the article highlights, “Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today.”
A heinous cloud hangs over the SBC. This unchecked pattern of sexual abuse comes like a deluge as scores of churches and denominational structures fail to protect its most vulnerable. Serial sex abusers move from one pulpit or place of ministry to the next and continue to carry out dreadful acts of violence. Ministers of the gospel, entrusted with a sacred duty to care for the people of God in their churches, breach that trust and defame the name of Christ by their actions. These stories of sexual abuse illustrate, in a lamentable way, the barbarity of unrestrained sinful patterns. Indeed, these abusers, caught in the torrent of their rebellion, cunningly hid or minimized their atrocities while churches willfully adopted a policy of ignorance, unwilling to see abuse that stood right before their eyes. They should have seen it. Now, they must see it.
Our first concern must be for the victims. The dark reality of this kind of abuse leads many victims to hide their trauma—they sit silent in their pews while their abusers publicly preach God’s Word. Southern Baptists, indeed, all denominations, must ensure that denominational structures and policies promote safe places for victims to make their abuse known. Failure to do so not only commits gross injustice for the abused but fosters an environment where abusers can continue their acts of sexual violence on other innocent lives. If churches capitulate on this urgent responsibility, they stand culpable for tolerating the cycle of abuse that scandalizes the churches of Christ.
This report raises a myriad of questions. One pressing question centers on the failure of Southern Baptists to see the full, unmitigated atrocity of sexual abuse. Why has there been such failure to see the affect of this predatory behavior? The Scriptures are clear that this kind of behavior in no way marks the people of Jesus Christ.
I would suggest that Southern Baptists, by instinct, have practiced a form of moralism that views sexual misbehavior as an isolated event—deal with it and move on. This simplistic moralism reduces sexual abuse and glosses over the severity of the crime. Sexual abuse is not an isolated act of misbehavior; it leaves in its wake scarred victims as well as malicious victimizers. Abuse of this nature snowballs. What started out as a seemingly harmless lapse in judgment becomes an avalanche of destruction.
In light of this report and the nature of sexual abuse, an independent, third-party investigation is the only credible avenue for any organizations that face the kind of sinful patterns unearthed in this article by the Houston Chronicle. No Christian body, church, or denomination can investigate itself on these terms because such an investigation requires a high level of thoroughness and trustworthiness. Only a third-party investigator can provide that kind of objective analysis.
Furthermore, Southern Baptists find themselves in a precarious pinch because of its core ecclesiology—an ecclesiology that upholds the full autonomy of local congregations. A Southern Baptist church, legally defined, is a church in friendly cooperation with and contributing to the causes of the Southern Baptist Convention. No denominational hierarchy exists that can force local congregations into conformity. The SBC ecclesial structure directly contrasts with the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church.
From a historical perspective, this story highlights the collision between two Baptist realities: the historic Baptist ecclesiology that posits the autonomy of the local church, while at the same time, the prized convention structure of Southern Baptist churches who have, since 1845, worked together and combined their energies to the furtherance of the gospel around the world.
This report from the Houston Chronicle, however, magnifies the need for a mechanism that identifies convicted and documented sexual abusers who may be considered for positions of leadership within the churches. Basic tools already exist, like background checks and sex-offender registries. Woe unto the church, ministry, or employer that fails to act and act now. The report resounds with overwhelming evidence: many churches of the SBC have failed, and its leaders must enact a strategy to reverse the tides of abuse in our churches. This strategy involves difficulties, particularly for Southern Baptists who must balance the ecclesiological convictions of the denomination with the moral imperative of halting sexual abuse in its churches. The struggle, however, must be met. Southern Baptists must pursue this predicament with conviction and alacrity. Our faithfulness to the church, to the gospel, and to God depends on our readiness to respond.
Indeed, the SBC has had to deal with similar issues in its history. Certain theological controversies moved the SBC to redefine the essence of its membership and the requirements of churches who cooperate with the SBC. The basic principle is that a church must be “in friendly cooperation with and contributing to the causes” of the convention. The SBC amended its documents in light of the sexual revolution. Thus, a church which affirmed homosexuality could no longer remain “in friendly cooperation with the SBC” and thus removed. Some state conventions took direct action to excise churches that have demonstrated racism.
Now, it might be that this crisis will foster a new criterion of vital importance for the churches of the SBC—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.
This polity in no way compromises the autonomy of the local church. The SBC, however, has the right to determine the qualifications and standards of its own membership. Thus, the SBC exists as a body of autonomous churches, in friendly cooperation with one another, who hold to the doctrines and moral expectations of Southern Baptists.
And where is the gospel preaching that is bold to declare sin to be sin? Where are the churches that maintain godly order and biblical discipline? How could there be such a toleration of sin?
Another issue Southern Baptist’s must reconsider is the practice of ordination. How does one even become an ordained minister in the SBC? To start, one does not become an ordained minister through the SBC. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the SBC credentials no one; it licenses no preacher. Ordination as a Southern Baptist minister, rather, flows from the local church—a local congregation assumes the responsibility of ordination.
This marks a crucial point where Baptists have forgotten their ecclesiological roots. In the 19th century, the most famous Baptist preacher of the age was Charles Spurgeon. The “prince of preachers” was not ordained. Like many Baptists of the era, Spurgeon considered formal ordination, beyond prayer and the laying on of hands, as foolish and confusing popery.
Further, Baptists do not believe in any sacrament of ordination. We do not hold to a separate status of ministers—yet, we often allow that mindset to infiltrate our ecclesiology. The “ordained minister” is ordained in so far as he remains faithfully active in ministry under the authority and accountability of the local church that ordained him.
A return to traditional Baptist ecclesiology will resituate the status of an ordained minister in its proper context. No person should simply claim the status of an ordained minister and then hop pulpit to pulpit without any investigation, background check, reference call—or, to move from one place of abuse to another. Southern Baptist ecclesiology demands that local churches hold their ministers to a higher standard—a standard in accordance with the Scriptural qualifications for pastors and ministers of the church. A.T. Robertson, renowned New Testament and Greek scholar of the 20th century, pointed to the “hasty laying on of the hands.” Churches rush to ordain an individual based on emotion or sentiment rather than a true affirmation of fitness for gospel ministry. Lackadaisical ordination will produce doctrinally dubious and morally corrupt pastors. This trend must end and churches must take responsibility for those men they ordain for ministry.
In June of last year, J.D. Greear, the newly elected president of the SBC, appointed a task force dedicated to investigating the issue of sexual abuse in SBC churches. That task force is at work and I pray that they will be filled with God’s wisdom and quickly respond to this crisis. The vulnerable need protection and the victimizers need to be exposed.
The trauma of this story bears tremendous anguish and heartbreak. The SBC and all who love this denomination must pray for faithfulness on this vital issue—our usefulness for the kingdom of Christ hinges on our response to this horrifying reality. To be sure, there must be heartbreak and concern—that is a place to start, but work must be done. A long road lies ahead. For the church, for the gospel, for the glory of God, we must meet this challenge with fullness of conviction and fidelity to Jesus Christ.