This is a common refrain from abuse victims, advocates, and others that follow the deplorable cases of abuse now prominent in secular, religious, and social media. In fact, the phrase “the SBC ought to do something about…” can be completed with reference to many issues – racism, sexism, poverty, human trafficing, and a host of other societal ills.
In regard to the title above the assertion is flawed in its expression “the SBC ought…” because of the autonomy of SBC churches and entities and our non-connectional system.
The “Southern Baptist Convention” doesn’t:
- have churches
- ordain ministers
- defrock ministers
- license ministers
- hire ministers
- fire ministers
- baptize people
The “Southern Baptist Convention” does:
- express opinions (we call them resolutions) on various subjects
- plant churches (the churches are autonomous but the funding stream ties them to an SBC entity or other church; even this is complicated)
- have various entities which relate to the public in many ways
Clergy sex abuse is being addressed by:
- The Executive Committee of the SBC which links national databases and points SBC churches and individuals to helpful resources
- The six SBC seminaries which train ministers and offer resources
- The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which has resources and speaks to the issue and others.
- LifeWay which provides resources and training
- GuideStone which provides resources and training
- State Convenitons which provide resources and training
- Local Baptist Associations, some of which provide training and resources
- State Baptist colleges and universities which provide training and resources
It a bit arcane to try and explain it but “the SBC” doesn’t do anything unless you mean all these separate entities.
While we all use the phrase “SBC churches” we mean individual, autonmous churches that are in friendly cooperation with one or more or all of these: an association, a state convention, or the national SBC. And, of course and most fundamentally, every “SBC church” is autonomous, makes its own decisions; hires, fires, ordains, de-ordains, disciplines, recommends or not, ministers, and does all this without being directed by any SBC entity.
In a follow-up story on one of the prominent sex abuse cases, Houston Chronicle writer Robert Dowen has a sentence of explanation about SBC churches and autonomy:
SBC churches abide by what’s called “local church autonomy,” meaning individual congregations are largely self-governing.
While pastors often complain about inaccurate reporting unjustly, it’s tough to describe autonomy in a single sentence. I’d drop the word abide and just say that SBC churches are autonomous and are self governing. I’m struggling to find a justification for his modifier “largely” though there may be some examples. Churches aren’t autonomous relative to health and safety laws, employment laws and the like.
It’s a losing proposition to offer a lengthy explanation of autonomy when discussing clergy abuse. Perhaps we should just say that wherever it is found it is evil and that victims should be supported and perpetrators punished.
When concrete proposals are made for “the SBC to do something” about clergy sex abuse, there will be time to deal with autonomy and non-connectionalism. I’m open to looking at anything that will help.