My heart was heavy as I packed up my bags and prepared to fly out to Anaheim for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention last week. Many Southern Baptists have been pushing, in spite of great resistance, towards fixing some of the problems in our Executive Committee and in our convention of churches, especially related to sexual abuse. We have done some good work over the past few years. But the work is not finished. Heading into the annual meeting, I knew we needed to take some decisive action this year if progress is to be made. By God’s grace, we did.
A LITTLE CONTEXT
For at least the last twenty years, survivors of sex abuse in the SBC have been speaking out about the pastors and church leaders that abused them as well as the churches, church leaders, pastors, associations, and even leaders in our Executive Committee who failed to respond appropriately.
Last year at the 2021 annual meeting of the SBC, the messengers overwhelmingly voted on a motion that led to the creation of Sex Abuse Task Force. This SATF was tasked to hire a third-party to investigate how the Executive Committee has resisted sex abuse reforms, bullied survivors, and more.
The result was a months-long battle of resistance waged by some members of the Executive Committee, the EC president, and the EC’s legal counsel. Ultimately, the EC submitted to the will of the messengers (which is mandated by our governing documents, anyway).
Fast forward nine months. Most, though not all, of those resisting sexual abuse reforms in the EC have resigned, including Ronnie Floyd and our former legal counsel. And on May 15, a 288 page report was released which included what survivors have been telling us for decades. A small but powerful group within the EC, including some past SBC presidents, has been resisting sexual abuse reforms, vilifying and bullying abuse survivors, protecting abusers, lying to EC trustees and the rest of the SBC.
This report came with some recommendations on how the SBC can make changes that could help prevent sex abuse and help churches better communicate about sexual predators who often hop from church to church.
THE SATF RECOMMENDATIONS
Without question, the most important business that needed to be handled this year was the approval and adoption of the sex abuse reform recommendations presented by the SATF. The investigation, the battles within the EC meetings last Fall, and the millions of dollars we spent would have been all for naught if we would have failed to make the necessary changes to protect our brothers and sisters and children this year. Thankfully, we passed these measures overwhelmingly.
The first recommendation passed is that we establish an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF). This task force will begin working on making sure the proposed changes are made and what further reforms might be necessary.
The second recommendation passed is that we establish a Ministry Check database which will include a list of men and women who have been confessed, been convicted, or credibly accused of sexual abuse. A preponderance of evidence will be the evidential standard, which is the same required by a civil trial.
Churches that are hiring new staff or even placing men or women in leadership roles will be able to check this list to see if their candidate has a history of abuse. This database is an attempt to harbor the collective wisdom and knowledge of our network of churches so that we can protect the vulnerable.
No cooperative program dollars will be used to fund this project this year. Instead, money from SendRelief will be used. SendRelief is our compassion and crisis response organization that steps in in the event of an emergency.
THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
Because the newly elected president of the SBC will appoint the members of this ARITF, it was of the utmost importance that we elect someone who was sympathetic to the investigation and committed to carrying out the will of the messengers. There was only one candidate, Bart Barber, who was on record as being sympathetic and supportive. I think if you were to ask the survivors in attendance at the SBC, they would say that Bart was their preferred candidate, which says a lot.
Bart did win the presidency and has already made it clear that he desires Baptists to utilize our nimble ecclesiology to make our churches dangerous places for abusers.
He said in a recent interview,
“Sexual predators have used our decentralized polity to try to turn our churches into a hunting ground…In some cases, mov[ing] from church to church, from scandal to scandal, manipulating our system to hide from accountability and pick off the sheep one by one…
And yet, our decentralized polity can become, rather than a hunting ground in which predators brutalize their prey, a place where sexual predators are put on notice that the tables have turned and where the hunter is now the hunted.”
I like Bart because he is a guy who will go out of his way to understand what you are saying, especially if he disagrees with you. I would never fear that Bart would twist what I might say or try to paint me in an unfair light. He is well-versed in Baptist history and knows our polity well. He pastors a smaller, rural church. He’s not on the short list of conference speakers. And he’s not an angry man. When he speaks, he does so with gentleness. I trust that Bart will appoint men and women to the ARITF who are trauma-informed and committed to our Baptist theology and polity.
Each year, Southern Baptists pass resolutions. A resolution is a statement of opinion made by the messengers present at the annual meeting. They often deal with issues of interest in the public square. This year we passed nine resolutions, but in my opinion Resolution 6 was the most important.
Resolution 6 is a lament over how some within our convention of churches have been abused, and even more so, how some abuse victims have been mistreated by our SBC leaders. It is an official apology given to sex abuse survivors in the SBC. With permission, this resolution apologized to specific abuse victims that appeared in the Guidepost report by name. This resolution passed without any discussion. The messengers were immediately ready to pass the resolution. This resolution is a reminder that sex abuse is not just a statistic. They aren’t just numbers. They are real human beings with names and faces that have been harmed.
THE SADDLEBACK FIASCO
In May of 2021, Saddleback Church ordained three women as pastors. Saddleback is the largest church in the SBC and is led by pastor Rick Warren (the same Rick Warren who wrote the bestselling book A Purpose Driven Life).
This action is out of step with the SBC’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message limits the office of pastor to qualified men.
Last year at the annual meeting of the SBC, a motion was referred to our Credentials Committee to see whether this action by Saddleback would put them out of friendly cooperation with Southern Baptists.
This year, in the Credentials Committee’s report to the convention, they recommended that a study be done to determine exactly what Southern Baptists mean when they use the phrase “pastor.”
The committee said that there is agreement in the SBC that the word “pastor” in our statement of faith refers to senior pastors, but that there is less consensus in the SBC when it comes to the titles used for other staff members.
Some, like Saddleback, use the phrase “pastor” to refer to those who have “the gift of shepherding” but do not hold the office of pastor.
There was a strong reaction and rejection of this sentiment from the floor. It seems clear that Southern Baptists are not ready to abandon a complementarian understanding of the church.
Though I agree that many churches are sloppy in their understanding and usage of the word “pastor,” especially when it comes to staff and associate roles, I agree with Al Mohler who said that “Southern Baptists know what a pastor is!”
To be clear, there was no vote or decision as to whether we should disfellowship Saddleback. Southern Baptists did not really debate the issue of female pastors. There was some discussion, but the discussion was primarily on how to tackle this issue procedurally.
In fact, because the messengers were unhappy with the report, the Credentials Committee rescinded it and will return with a new report in the future. My prediction is that Saddleback will be disfellowshipped from the SBC in 2023.
ABORTION, ABOLITION, AND CONFUSION
For over forty years, Southern Baptists have been a part of the pro-life movement. The pro-life position has always desired to abolish abortion. In the pursuit of the abolition of abortion, pro-life men and women have tried to make any progress they can. Fetal heart-beat bills, legislation against partial-birth abortion, and other incremental approaches have long been applauded.
But over the past few years, a movement within the SBC has been advocating for the abolition of abortion. They have been vocal on social media and they have been vocal at the microphones at the SBC. They want abortion abolished.
That’s why many are confused about this movement. We all want abortion abolished. I don’t know a pro-life person that doesn’t pray for and work toward the abolition of abortion. This abolition movement is at odds with the traditional and historic pro-life movement for two reasons.
- They reject incrementalism as compromise. These abolitionists categorically reject any incremental approaches to the end of abortion. They view the incremental victories of the pro-life movement as compromises that have perpetuated abortion instead of ending it. In other words, bans against partial birth abortion are compromises because they fail to ban all abortions. They believe the pro-life view ought to be all or nothing. They cast aspersion on forty years of godly and faithful men and women working in pro-life organizations and in our legislature. And, if they are consistent, they cannot rejoice if Roe v. Wade is overturned this month, because that will be a significant, but incremental victory in the fight against abortion.
- They insist on the punishment of abortive women. Historically, the pro-life movement has understood both children and women to be victims of abortion. The abortion industry preys on women in their greatest time of crisis. They entice women into decisions that come with long-lasting guilt and pain. That is not to say, of course, that women are not guilty of a tragic sin when they choose abortion. But the abortion abolitionists extend their cause, not only in making abortion illegal, but also in specific penalties for the women who choose them.
It is for these two reasons that abortion has once again become a hot topic among Southern Baptists, and why some Southern Baptists are hesitant to embrace this new movement. Don’t believe the lie that Southern Baptists are going soft on abortion. Southern Baptists are unsure about rejecting incremental pro-life victories and they are uncertain about putting abortive women behind bars. But they have not wavered on their stance on abortion.
THE PIRATES ARE STILL HERE
Last year, a group within the SBC labeled themselves as pirates attempting to “take the ship.” This year they softened the language to “change the direction” but intensified the attacks. It is clear that unless the rest of the SBC gets on board with the CBN’s political and cultural warring, there will continue to be accusations of theological drift and liberalism.
I imagine they will continue this next year. They will mine every word that has ever been spoken by the new SBC president, they will send their sleuths to dig up every piece of dirt they can find, and they will attack good men.
But the rest of us will continue pastoring our churches, sending our missionaries, networking with likeminded churches to plant and revitalize, and we’ll show up in New Orleans next year to reunite and fellowship together.
FROM BURDENED TO ENCOURAGED
I went to Anaheim burdened, but I left encouraged. I spent most of the week with old friends with whom I’ve served for years in local churches. I saw old professors. I met some of my Twitter friends in person. I sang hymns late into the night with my friends at 9Marks. I ate a meal with my SEBTS family. I had In-n-out twice! But the thing that encouraged me most was when I saw sexual abuse survivors smiling. I do hope we continue caring well for them in the future.
Aaron Swain is the pastor of Students and Operations at Freedom Church in Lincolnton, NC. He earned an M.Div from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Sarah have two daughters. Aaron loves smoking meats, woodworking, and drinking chocolate milk. He’s also a lifelong Tarheel fan.