NOTE: I just read the third installment, and to be honest, I may be sick. It is hard to read. Wow. Demented men.
NOTE: the second installment is out and is more specific, more maddening, and more saddening than the first. I will turn your stomach. I appreciate the research of the journalists at the Chronicle. They have done an excellent job of showing the problem.
I read the first installment of the Houston Chronicle’s “Abuse of Faith” story with much fear and trembling. The fact is that for those of us who have been following this story, there was little new there. The details of this indictment of the unacceptable SBC response to pastoral malfeasance have been known for some time. Many of the sad cases were ones that we had read of before and were just as painful to read again. I am guessing that the main effect will be to expose these facts to a wider audience, and that is a good thing.
Any response of the SBC, its entities, leadership, and the convention itself should be thoughtful, careful, and timely. As Todd pointed out in his previous article, we must listen to what the Houston Chronicle has to say – perhaps there are new revelations yet to be unveiled – and formulate a response. The initial response should be as it has been from our president, JD Greear, and others. Sorrow. Recognition that we have not done all we can do. A determination to do better. All of those things.
In addition to the wisdom of our leaders, I would offer the following observations, suggestions, and considerations.
1. We must admit that the coverup culture existed and was sinful.
I am old enough to remember the time when it was considered best for everyone to hush things up. It is sad, but it is true. Incalculable hurt was done to innocent victims because of the “keep-it-quiet” policy. Perpetrators were allowed to resign and move and victimize others elsewhere.
There is no defense for the coverup culture. It was wrong. It was sinful. It inflicted pain. The fact that it was widespread, almost universal, is no excuse.
Many churches, pastors, and other leaders of the SBC engaged in a culture of intentional coverup of sexual abuse and predation that enabled abusers to continue to hurt people. There is evidence that this took place even in some SBC entities. We must admit this, those who engaged in such must repent and seek the forgiveness of those they hurt, and if entities did so, they must also seek to make that right.
2. We must commit ourselves to seek real solutions to these problems.
It is right that we express our sorrow and horror over the mistakes of the past, but we must make real changes to fix the problems. It was actions that caused these problems and it will be actions, not words, that will fix it.
3. Our actions must be governed by who we are and what we believe.
I have no doubt that autonomy has been used as an excuse for inactivity at times, but if we are convictional Southern Baptists we cannot simply jettison the principle of free church polity because of this situation. We must find solutions that work in a free church environment.
Many of the suggested solutions are hierarchical in nature and conflict with our autonomous convictions. We are not autonomous simply to shield ourselves from responsibility. It is a longstanding core value for Baptists and whatever solutions we find must work within our autonomous system, not violate it.
4. Fortunately, there are solutions that work without violating autonomy.
Many people act as if the only solution is a national denominational registry, but there are other workable solutions.
- Churches must be encouraged to establish policies for childcare that protect minors. Such policies are available from denominational sources and insurance companies.
- Churches must do background checks on all employees and volunteers.
- Churches MUST report those who abuse minors or pastoral authority to authorities. REPORT. REPORT. REPORT.
There are other such solutions, that work on a denominational level.
5. Bart Barber has been promoting the “Excommunication Solution”
As autonomous local churches, we have the freedom to decide with whom we will fellowship. It is completely within the boundaries of Baptist polity and autonomy to say that if a church fails to report, if it harbors or protects an abuser, we will refuse to seat its messengers at the next annual meeting. We can pursue a bylaws change that will disfellowship such churches completely (as we did with churches that approve of homosexuality).
Bart offered a resolution that effect in 2016 but it didn’t make it out of committee. I’m guessing such a resolution would pass nearly unanimously this year.
For years, people were pressured to keep quiet. Now, pressure needs to be brought to bear on those who stay silent.
6. There are issues with a denominational registry.
Some continue to demand the denomination maintain a registry. I am not sure that is a great idea.
Rule #1 in abuse is that we are not to investigate, but to report! If churches report and do background checks, then the national database already exists.
This is a passionate issue – some have come to see support for a registry as the sine qua non of support for victims of abuse. I disagree. I do not think a denominational registry will be effective, and I believe it is a minefield to be avoided. It may not be legally possible to maintain a database that is substantially different from the information that’s already available in the form of criminal background checks. And if that’s the case, a registry would not help or accomplish anything other than a duplication of resources already available.
We can accomplish the goal of protecting the victims of abuse and punishing abusers in the SBC without a registry. That’s one old codger’s opinion, which I realize will expose me to attack in some quarters. But that is my opinion.
7. There are four fingers pointing back…
Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. Proverbs 16:18
When those icon-worshipping Catholics got exposed for all their pedophilic ways, maybe we looked down on them a little. That’s what your false doctrine and the celibate priesthood does to you. When they ran the article about the Independent Fundamentalists and the rampant immorality and abuse in those circles, perhaps some of gloated a bit. We’ve been called liberal and apostate by the King James crowd for decades and now they were exposed. It was easy to feel superior when the other groups were getting hit.
Now, it is our turn and we need to deal with it. The Catholic Church denied for a long time until they finally had to admit the truth under an avalanche of crippling lawsuits. The fundamentalist report was relatively recent, but mostly what I have read is denials and attacks – granted, I’ve not read widely there. We must take our medicine ***(, repent) and respond in a godly way.
8. This is no time to try to score points.
If there is one thing the current #metoo movement has shown, it is that sexual abuse and the abuse of authority are pretty egalitarian sins. There is hardly a segment of society that has not been affected. From Catholicism to independent fundamentalism. From Hollywood to Washington DC. Businesses and schools. There is not a segment of our culture where abuse has not reared its head.
- A friend showed me a tweet from a man of questionable social media history, who was complaining that the Chronicle article didn’t detail the failings of CJ Mahaney. There are still two segments to come, so he might get his wish, but clearly, he wanted to make this another anti-Calvinist diatribe.
- Many will point to the SBC’s complementarian stand and say that abuse flows out of the biblical teachings on the roles of men and women and such things.
But abuse doesn’t exist only in complementarian circles or in Calvinist circles. In general, when you try to take a tragedy like this and use it to make a greater point, you are using those who have already been victimized in an unfair way. Sexual abuse has cut across all lines and if you try to use this tragedy to score bigger points, see point 7.
9. A little bit of perspective.
The whole time I have been writing this, I’ve been trying to talk myself out of publishing – a word out of line, and I am open to relentless attack. But I’d like to give a bit of statistical perspective here, in balance to some things I’ve seen on Twitter.
Since 1998, the Houston Chronicle found 380 pastors and volunteers in SBC churches who have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. That is a nauseating and horrifying number, and we assume because of the fact that many churches do not report that the actual number is much higher. Is it ten times that high? Twenty times that high? Of course, we cannot know that.
But with 47,000 churches, I would simply point out that as we grieve and mourn, let us remember that we are not a convention of abusers or adulterers. This is a problem among a minority of our pastors. That minority must be dealt with – strongly and comprehensively – but we must remember that the vast majority of the pastors of SBC are morally faithful men who do not abuse those they serve.
The number of abusers is far too high – unacceptably high. But those who want to paint SBC pastors as abusers of women are abusing the facts.
The bigger problem, of course, is not the number of abusers, but the culture of coverup – far more have been part of that, protecting abusers instead of the abused.
But we are not a convention of abusers. I realize that saying this will offend some – I am not sure why, but it will. The vast majority of pastors in the SBC who do not abuse women and who are faithful to their wives must determine that we will not accept sin or participate in coverups.
10. Serve the victims
A lot of problems can be solved if we remember that when a situation arises, our job is to serve the victims, not to protect the victimizers. It really isn’t that hard.
When confronted with a situation a few years back that horrified me, that thought helped me. I am on “Team Victim.” I still ministered to the abuser and God has done a great work of grace there. But our goal was to help the ones who had been hurt. It as still a minefield, but that served as a helpful guide.
There are still two more segments of the story to come and our leaders are still working on how we can respond as a convention. But ultimately, it will be an individual response that matters, as we decide to treat women with respect and decency, and as churches, as we establish and follow responsible policies and as we do background checks and report offenses. This situation is fluid and by the time Birmingham rolls around maybe we will have further clarity on all of this.