The issues surrounding last week’s response to the sexual abuse controversy are incredibly complex. I know a lot has been written already. Yesterday I tried to give an overview of where things currently stand. In addition, there are so many details that deserve to be traced out to fully appreciate how we could have responded and where we go from here.
One objection we’ve heard from a number of places (just for an example this comment on a recent post) is that the bylaws workgroup wasn’t equipped or ready for the task they were given. Almost as if it was J.D. Greear’s fault for placing on them a weight they shouldn’t be expected to bear.
I believe Greear’s request to the bylaws workgroup was appropriate and in line with recent precedent.
What Was the Bylaws Workgroup Asked to Do?
The bylaws workgroup was not asked to conduct an investigation. It was asked to “perform due diligence to verify whether or not these churches are operating with a faith and practice that upholds the Baptist Faith and Message.” That’s a quote from Greear’s address.
Now, much has been made about the need to respond quickly to this request. A recommended time frame was never given by Greear. In fact, his calling for “due diligence” clearly indicated he was asking the group to take their time. I don’t know of a single person on record calling for a quick determination.
However, at this point, it’s more important to discuss the authority and capability of the bylaws workgroup than their speed of reporting. Let’s save discussion on the quickness of the report for another time.
Whose Role Is It to Verify Friendly Cooperation?
The bylaws of the EC do not explicitly assign the Administrative Committee or the bylaws workgroup of the Administrative Committee the task of verifying whether churches are in friendly cooperation. However, in recent history, those responsibilities have always been assigned to this committee.
To determine the scope of work that has been assigned to the workgroup, a little research into the Baptist Press archives shows this: In each and every instance of cooperation-related discussions in recent years, the bylaws workgroup was the group who did the legwork to help Southern Baptists decide whether or not to cooperate with a church or institution.
EC leaders have claimed repeatedly “the group doesn’t have the authority to do an investigation” or that it is “an assignment far beyond [their] capability,” however in every instance they have faced in the past decade, not only have they assumed the authority and capability, they have also exercised them. Here are four recent examples (though there are others):
- 2018: When the D.C. Baptist Convention was affirming pro-LGBT churches, who did the work of gathering information so the EC could determine whether they should remain a cooperating state convention? The Bylaws Workgroup
- 2016: When Augusta Heights Baptist Church was recommended for removal for same-sex marriage practices, who made the recommendation? The Bylaws Workgroup
- 2014: When New Heart Community Church affirmed same-sex marriage, who took up the task of processing that recommendation? The Bylaws Workgroup
- 2009: When the Executive Committee decided that further inquiry was needed into Broadway Baptist Church over their stance on homosexuality, who was tasked with the inquiry? You guessed it–the Bylaws Workgroup
On at least four occasions in the past ten years when cooperative matters required official inquiry by the EC, the bylaws workgroup was the group tasked to get the ball rolling. In fact, no other group has done this work. Therefore, it simply isn’t true what we’ve heard from some at the EC – that the group isn’t equipped, capable or tasked with this. We’ve considered them equipped, capable, and tasked in at least the four situations listed above.
Has the Bylaws Workgroup Made Specific Inquiries Before?
You also may be thinking that this time is different because the workgroup was asked to make a determination about a church, not just receive reported facts and make a clear recommendation, but one particular example gives some insight about that.
Let’s look closer at events surrounding Broadway Baptist Church.
“The Executive Committee began studying the church’s affiliation. . . after a messenger at the SBC annual meeting in June [of 2008] made a motion that the convention declare Broadway Baptist not to be ‘in friendly cooperation’ with the denomination.” (emphasis added)
See this follow-up story about Broadway Baptist. Note the quotes by Stephen Wilson, the chairman of the bylaws workgroup:
Wilson noted that some outside observers criticized the Executive Committee for delaying action at two previous meetings. He, though, said he had no regrets and that “it has always been our hope there could be reconciliation.”
“This was not a rush to judgment. We actually wanted — from the bottom of my heart — for this to be resolved by the local church where the convention wouldn’t have to be involved in any way,” said Wilson, who serves as chairman of a workgroup that studied the issue. “… I think [in February] there was a feeling that maybe this could be solved without having to go through the step that we had to do today.”
Prior to that February meeting, the church sent a letter to the Executive Committee, which stated in part: “Broadway has never taken any church action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior. Broadway Baptist Church considers itself to be in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention and has every intention of remaining so.” It further stated, “While we extend Christian hospitality to everyone — including homosexuals — we do not endorse, approve, or affirm homosexual behavior.”
But Wilson said the church’s actions ran counter to what it claimed in the letter.
“[I]t was more from what they were actually doing in practice where the conflict was,” Wilson said. “While they didn’t officially endorse it, they were allowing members and also people in leadership that were homosexual.”
To recap, in this story we have:
- A church called out by name by someone in the convention,
- An inquiry process by the Executive Committee,
- Work done specifically and arduously by the bylaws workgroup,
- A church who had not taken official action as a body and who wanted to remain Southern Baptist,
- A determination of cooperation that required a judgment call by the bylaws workgroup.
Now, this is not to make a retroactive assertion about what happened with any of these cases. But in the present discussion, many want to set very high thresholds for inquiry – including a level of knowledge and assent from the full church body. But in Broadway’s situation, they asserted they had not made any such statement as a church. They argued that as a church body, their belief was compatible with ours. The local association even kept fellowship with them. But ultimately the national body, the EC, assessed that their practice was not compatible, and that was sufficient reason for disfellowship.
We’ve said that the local associations and state conventions know best in such circumstances, and it should be handled by them first. Ideally, I think that’s true. But we don’t always believe that to be the case, either. That’s why the EC did what it did with the DCBC. And that seems to be why one of our entities evicted the local association who had a different position on what was going on at Broadway Baptist Church.
Now, many may say that the issues are different. That there are different levels of complexity. That’s fair. But if that’s the case, then that is the conversation we need to be having. Furthermore, working through the complexities when it comes to protecting children from predators is worth it. That’s the resolve we should be able to agree on, but it is not yet clear that we do.
We cannot save people, but we can send missionaries. We cannot force people to go to church, but we can plant a church in their neighborhood. We can not force people to grow in their knowledge of God, but we can produce good books, curriculum, and resources for them.
Likewise, we cannot force churches to adopt the policies needed to prevent and to properly respond to sexual abuse. But we can refuse to cooperate with those that harbor sexual abusers or fail to protect their church from them.
We cannot say that we have no authority to inquire or ability to make judgment calls if we have freely and intentionally done so in the past.
There are multiple precedent-setting events, even in our recent history showing the authority and the ability of the Executive Committee – beginning with the bylaws workgroup – to do exactly what was requested of them. This time, they changed their tune.
There seems to be a lot that has been forgotten regarding precedent, especially when some EC staff have dealt with these specific situations in the past. Why? I don’t know. But when issues are this serious, consistency is crucial.
Faith without works is dead. If we refuse to take meaningful action, the result of all of this will have been to show once and for all that the Southern Baptist Convention’s churches are an easy place for abusers to slip in unchecked, to move among churches that don’t warn one another, and to abuse children without any reason to believe we can stop them. Assurances that we are doing everything we can to end sexual abuse in our convention rings hollow when we do not manage to even live up to our own past actions.