Recently, the Houston Chronicle released a report on the cover-up of sexual abuse by the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches over the past two decades. In their reporting they found around 380 incidents of sexual abuse, of over 700 persons. That report can be read here.
It should be stated that these were the cases in which a victim of abuse was able to speak up. Statistically, this is not the norm. Especially in authoritarian systems wherein an abuse victim has been robbed of their voice and power. In addition to the kids who weren’t able to speak for themselves, or when they did were hushed, there are the countless number of women who fell prey to their pastors. Typically, this is referred to as an affair in the local church, but in reality it is the use of a position of power to sexually and emotionally use and abuse a vulnerable person. The reality of this is far more grim than even this report is able to convey.
Many of these abuses were ‘covered-up’, either by local churches, the seminaries in which they took place, or by leaders in the denomination. Many of these pastors, youth leaders, or deacons went on to work in other churches, with little to absolutely no accountability.
So, why is this?
How could an abuser bounce from one place to the next, with very little in the way of being held responsible for their crimes, or even responsible for the call in Scripture to meet the qualifications of a pastor/elder or deacon?
You’ll hear the line ‘church autonomy’ repeated throughout the Houston Chronicle’s report, just as it is repeated throughout the denomination. What they mean is that the denomination believes each localized church is completely autonomous and independent from the denomination, and global church, as a whole. Which means it is up to the local church to deal with a harmful or predatory pastor, and the denomination has little authority to do much about it.
Can you expect a bad seed to produce good fruit?
If you want to know why this type of sin is so persistent in this denomination, look at its historical roots. In 1845 the Baptists who lived in southern, slaveholding states, split from the Baptists in the north and created their own, new Southern Baptist denomination. They split because they wanted the autonomy to elect slaveholders as missionaries.
The SBC was formed solely for the reason that a group wanted the right to sin with complete autonomy while refusing the accountability from the denomination from which they split. Historically, there is no other reason for the existence of the SBC outside of this.
I have witnessed this in the SBC, as a child whose pastor used position for sex and then utilized the deacons to help blame the abused and cover up his wrongdoing. I’ve seen it repeatedly as a counselor who has worked with SBC pastors, as well as with the adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse that took place at the hands of ministers, deacons and ‘church folk’. One of the most damaging aspects of the abuse was the silencing and cover-up, which was most often done for the ‘good of the church’, forgetting Christ’s call in Matthew 18 to protect children at all costs. And I see it now, as the pastor of an SBC church in the way in which abusive and harmful pastors are allowed to freely move from one congregation to the next.
This seed, that the SBC was planted in order to sin with autonomy, will always be persistent in the denomination. That’s simply how sin works.
Until the denomination recognizes that the care of God’s people has priority of ‘church autonomy’, and then seek to change the system in order to take into account abusive and harmful pastors, this story will continue to repeat itself.
The resolution last summer, which was a response to the #ChurchToo movement, has many nice and correct words, but literally no actual measure to prohibit abuse, protect those abused or hold accountable the abusers who still fill pulpits.
It is great that the SBC has appointed a study group to more rightly see just how prevalent abuse is in the denominations churches, as well as to come up with solutions and actions. This is legitimately a much-needed step forward and I pray for their efforts and effects.
Training local churches is a great start and is completely necessary, but will do very little to protect them from the narcissistic and predatory pastors and leaders who know how to pass all these kinds of screenings. Cooperation between churches is good, but not good enough when it comes to this kind of rampant and covert sin.
However, it must be understood that this is not taking place in a vacuum. The denomination itself was set up in order that people might abuse others without accountability. It is not a coincidence that this sin remains prevalent.
Imagine this, you have a house which was built in such a way that it continuously catches on fire, harming those who reside in it. Installing new fire alarms, an updated sprinkler system, and means of repairing the fire damage are all well and good, but they do nothing to stop the house from catching on fire the next time. When the system is built on a faulty plan, then the system is what needs to be addressed. The abuse being exposed is not the problem, but the symptom of a much greater problem in the denomination.
My prayer, as well as my plea, is that the leaders of the SBC forsake the idol of ‘autonomy’ for the Biblical demand of submissiveness and accountability. To place the sole responsibility of protecting themselves from abusive leaders solely on the local churches, all while the denomination knows of the abusers, is absurd and cowardly. At the least, there ought to be a database that is accessible to local churches that contains the complaints and convictions of the churches leaders. What is needed is a systemic change to start taking appropriate measures against abuse in the church, particularly against those pastors and leaders who abuse and then simply move on.