In a few days I’m going to introduce to you a resolution that I have written regarding sexual predators in churches. I hope to introduce this resolution to the Resolutions Committee for this year’s Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. I’m taking the rather unusual step of offering this post as a preface to the post in which I will give you the actual text of the resolution.
Why compose a preface to a resolution? Because I’m trying to anticipate the suppositions that readers might indulge about my motivation for authoring this resolution. We tend to interpret people’s actions by what we know of their affiliations.
- If Rick Patrick had authored this resolution, some people would presume that the resolution was a veiled attempt to exploit accusations that have been made Sovereign Grace Ministries, which by extension could be seen as an embarrassment to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Calvinism.
- If Wade Burleson had authored this resolution, some people would presume that the resolution was a veiled attempt to exploit sexual predation by Darrell Gilyard in an attempt to attack Paige Patterson.
- But I’m introducing this resolution, and some people may very well presume that my motivation is rooted in the happy affiliation that I have with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the fact that scandalous recent headlines about Baylor University may pose an embarrassment for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Think about that for a second. Virtually any faction in American Christendom could advance criticism of church sexual misconduct as an “attack” against virtually any other faction in American Christendom. So, here’s an idea: Let’s take that as evidence of how widespread this problem is. This is not their problem; this is our problem. Let’s use the fact that this topic makes all of us uncomfortable not as a reason to avoid this problem but as a reason why we must address it.
For those who care to know, here’s why I’m addressing this. I’m addressing it because these days more of the women seeking pastoral counsel from me have been molested than haven’t been. A clear majority. The change has taken my breath away. No, not nearly all of it is happening in churches, but too much of it is. I know, the official statistics suggest that only 1 in 5 women and 1 in 6 men have been victims of sexual predators, and maybe I’ve just been unlucky (my sample size isn’t that large), but after the pornography explosion and the deterioration of the American family, it’s my unofficial read that among Millennials the percentage is A LOT higher than that. And indeed, even people who come up with the official statistics acknowledge that, for understandable reasons, a lot of victims do not wish to acknowledge that they have been assaulted sexually. A lot of people are being hurt. I’m trying to help them and to prevent their company from growing.
I author and submit this resolution at this time not primarily in some attempt to remedy the past. There are misdeeds in the past that need to be remedied, but that portion of my motivation is truly the least compelling aspect. What drives me to submit this resolution is my concern that the worst days of church sexual misconduct may be ahead of us rather than behind us. If pornography and family disfunction are contributing factors to sexual misconduct (and it takes a lot of denial to claim that they are not) then we have to take note of the fact that reported rates of pornography consumption among seminarians and church leaders are frighteningly high and the families of origin that have produced Southern Baptist Millennials are not exempt from contemporary sociological trends. The contributing factors are in the mix and we are foolish to ignore them.
Millennial Christian leaders come to ministry leadership out of congregations of Millennial believers who are alarmingly antinomian when it comes to their own sex lives. I once counseled with a Christian woman facing a problem that surprised me: Man after man who found her on a “Christian” dating website was pressuring her for sex as early as the second date. When the last one chastised her for her chastity (telling her “you’re not going to be able to date at all if you’re committed to abstinence before marriage”), she came to me to ask what she should do. Our flocks aren’t only being led astray into sexual sin; they’re bullying others into compliance with the low sexual morals that form in so many ways the heart of our zeitgeist. Barton Gingerich is right on the money when he writes for The Gospel Coalition about “The Millennial Generation’s Acceptable Sin.”
Yes, I know some REMARKABLE young Christians who are bucking this trend with a determination and intensity that is directly related to their having looked this beast straight in the eyes, and I’m thankful for those leaders. Nevertheless, how can we possibly believe that Christian leaders, both ordained leaders and lay leaders, emerging from this church culture will be more restrained than their predecessors when faced with temptation in the area of sexual misconduct?
What’s more, we are seeing anecdotal evidence of a serious problem. Tullian Tchividjian is in the news today, but stories of famous preachers who have fallen sexually are becoming more commonplace. Josh Duggar preceded him, along with other Christian leaders implicated in the Ashley Madison leaks. Back in the distant past, the Jimmy Swaggart scandal was truly scandalous. I remember it. That same level of surprise is no longer possible, because this kind of scandal just isn’t that rare any more.
What’s the solution?
Obviously, the grace of God and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit are the answer. But the Holy Spirit chooses to work through the churches, and I think we can do some things that can help. It won’t require scuttling our polity (after all, Catholic polity hasn’t proven to be all that successful in this area, either). It features two things that the Southern Baptist Convention can reasonably do. One of them is a negative action. The other is a positive action. Both carrot and stick.
One: Southern Baptists can disfellowship churches and discipline entities who handle sexual misconduct poorly. I know, a lot of these cases are confusing and involve competing claims. I also know that in a lot of situations the church is as much a victim as anyone else, having been kept in the dark all along by the perpetrators of sexual misconduct. But sometimes churches have wandered away from both orthodoxy and orthopraxy in their handling of sexual misconduct, and it is appropriate for local associations, state conventions, board of trustees, and the national SBC to treat such disorderly church life as grounds for the withdrawal of fellowship or support.
Two: Southern Baptists can promote a positive standard about how to handle sexual misconduct. No, there’s no such thing as a good story about sexual predation in a church. The last thing any church wants to do after weathering that kind of a storm is to talk about it, but what if doing so can help all of us to do better in this area? Apart from having read some positive examples of what to do, among those church leaders who face the nightmare of having discovered sexual misconduct in their churches, the only ones who know exactly what to do are those who want to do the wrong thing. Trying to cover up the sin and avoid the scandal isn’t all that hard to figure out; knowing the right way to address it rather than cover it up requires competency in a dozen skills that aren’t taught in seminary. Let’s demystify it and standardize a good approach to addressing sexual predation in our churches.
The text of the resolution will follow in a few days. I hope you’ll read it with an open mind. The worst days of sexual misconduct in churches could be behind the Southern Baptist Convention rather than before it. The next generation of leaders need clear boundaries (the stick) and clear guidance (the carrot). Maybe, if our churches pull together against this scourge right now, we can become an oasis of healthy sexuality in a culture that increasingly preys upon its youngest and most vulnerable members by way of sexual predation.