Nothing in the past two weeks has changed these facts of SBC life and polity:
- The SBC (and I use “SBC” in the broad sense of the entire universe of churches, entities, committees, boards, organizations, and institutions) ordains no clergy. Only churches who voluntarily cooperate with Southern Baptist organizations ordain ministers. Neither does “the SBC” hire, supervise, and fire local church clergy.
- No body in the broader SBC – not associations, state conventions, the national convention or Executive Committee – puts clergy in churches or transfers them from church to church. Exceptions to this may be found in church plants where funding and vetting and hiring of ministers. Lots of people in SBC life, denominational leaders, megapastors, and others exert influence over churches hiring ministers but they cannot force any church to hire or fire anyone.
- The SBC Executive Committee may have taken upon themselves the task of investigating some churches for their handling of sex abuse cases but they have no authority to discipline any churches found afoul of the standards they have adopted save for recommending they be excluded from being considered a cooperating church. Such offending churches continue to be a part of a state convention and a local association unless these vote to exclude the church also.
- The Executive Committee of the SBC is not an investigatory body. They have no particular staff or skills to effectively carry out investigations of local churches. Churches have no obligation to cooperate with any investigation. The elected members of the SBC’s Executive Committee are heavily male, old, and white. Of 86 members, only 11 are female, and just 4 African-American. Many of these are recycled from other boards and such. Not a few observers find this body to be ill-equipped to handle a matter of this degree of importance.
So what, exactly, is happening?
We are seeing the beginnings of an exercise in leveraging autonomy. J. D. Greear, current elected president of the SBC, is using his position to call out particular churches for their handling of abuse. He is certainly free to use his position to try and influence matters in the greater SBC. I’m glad he is doing this.
The Executive Committee has exercised their autonomy in conducting a rudimentary investigation of ten churches named by Greear. They concluded that three of these warranted further inquiry. These three churches have no obligation to cooperate. The risk is exclusion from the national SBC.
The ERLC, I presume, is primarily responsible for the abuse training that is to be available for free in June (and did I read their website correctly a couple of days ago when the launch date for the training was going to be August?). No church has to use this. It is certainly withing the right (autonomy) of our seminaries and mission boards to require this as a prerequesite to enrollment or granting a degree, or appointment as missionary or church planter. It would be within the autonomous rights of any association, state convention, or the national SBC to require this as a prerequisite to being found “in friendly cooperation.”
There may be a requirement that trustees and elected members of SBC entities have to undergo background checks. I’m not sure the Convention or Executive Committee can impose this on all the various entities.
What is not happening is that the SBC isn’t committing to creating a database or registry of convicted or credibly accused sex abusers. Neither is the SBC Executive Committee agreeing to create and fund an independent group, composed of experts in the field, that will receive and investigate reports of abuse in SBC churches.
I don’t think anyone knows exactly where we are going on this at this point. If the EC is too aggressive, churches will simply relate directly to the SBC entities they value. If the EC fumbles and is seen to lack the capability of appropriate decisive action, then we all lose confidence in them and the view of the general public towards the SBC is further eroded.
Frankly, and this is the opinion of a semi-retired pastor in the distant SBC hinterlands, I don’t see the elected members of the Executive Committee as very well equipped to handle this. I think the EC staff is highly capable of guiding this process but don’t know if there is sufficient personnel to manage it.
JD called for ten churches to be investigated for their handling of sex abuse. All ten were named in the Houston Chronicle series on sex abuse. For better than a decade Bob Allen of Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press) has written hundreds of news stories about abuse in SBC churches. These were done individually and many of them show far worse handling of abuse by an SBC church than those featured in the Chronicle series. It’s a shame Bob Allen can’t aggregate all of these into one grand and sordid article that lists all these churches. I’d include Baptist Press and the state Baptist papers in this paragraph but they have been completely silent on the matter until the past few years, preferring not to let scandal in a local SBC church soil the pages of their news.