It’s been 31 years since Joel Gregory’s famous “The Castle and the Wall” sermon at the 1988 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the illustration goes, Lord Londonderry owned a castle in Ireland with fine stones that the local villagers began pilfering in order to rebuild broken roads and buildings. Prior to an extended trip, Londonderry gave orders to his agent to enclose the castle with a well-coped wall, six-feet in height.
Londonderry arrived several years later to find his castle had disappeared. In its place was a large wall enclosing nothing. Londonderry sent for his agent to learn the mystery of his missing castle. The agent shared that he had used the castle’s stones to build the wall.
Gregory’s point was obvious. What good is constructing a wall if you destroy that which the wall was intended to protect?
The SBC’s sexual abuse scandal is the new “castle and the wall” moment. There is division about how to handle the crisis, and the growing concern is that the Executive Committee (EC) is putting its efforts into defending the wall rather than caring for the castle, or more importantly, some of the castle’s residents.
At the recent February EC meeting, SBC President J.D. Greear gave an address that was overwhelmingly accepted by the Executive Committee and the meeting’s guests, evidenced by a standing ovation. This address included 10 calls to action on sexual abuse, followed by a call for inquiry into nine SBC churches listed in an investigative series by the Houston Chronicle.
Resultantly, an EC workgroup published a report five days after the address that cleared six of the nine churches. A common critique has been that the report was too hasty, the provisions too broad, and the workgroup not equipped or authoritative enough to render the report’s conclusions.
For many, the conclusions present the EC, and by extension the SBC, as more focused on defending its own reputation than caring for the sexual abuse victims among its membership; that it is more concerned with the wall than it is the castle residents.
We need to tear down the wall. The people trying to get back into the castle, in this case, the victims of sexual abuse, aren’t the enemy. They are precious citizens, on the wrong side of the wall for no reason of their own.
We can tear down the wall, first, by remembering that the safety of the victims is more important than the reputation of the Convention, second, by humbly coming out from behind the wall to repent for inaction, like we did in 1995 regarding the sin of racism and third, by the EC leaning on the President’s Sexual Abuse Advisory Group (SAAG) to provide guidance for how victims and advocates can have a voice in the inquiry and report of sexual abuse in the church. This will allow sexual abuse survivors to speak directly into the process and can help show that the residents of the castle are more important than the wall around it, and, dare I say, the castle itself.
The Convention exists not for itself, but to empower its residents so they can invite people into God’s Kingdom.
As it stands now, these castle tenants are struggling to see why they should remain in the castle. Several have reached out to share their thoughts regarding the events of the past week. One says, “… this has pushed me to the point that I don’t think I will ever attend a Southern Baptist Church again.” Another feels that the EC cares more about the image of the SBC than about actual human beings who are harmed by abuse. And another said that it should not be this difficult for victims to be heard.
Many would argue after the Conservative Resurgence that the Convention was able to have the castle and build the wall. Now is the time to fight to meet the needs of our own residents, otherwise we’ll have a resilient wall, and maybe some version of the castle, but it’ll be empty, and an empty castle is just a museum.
As members of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in history, we should look to Jesus, who made Himself vulnerable by taking on the likeness of humanity and becoming obedient to the point of death. By humbling Himself on the cross, Jesus tore down the wall between God and man and the result is the chance for residence in His Kingdom. It’s a template worth following for a collection of thousands of churches who joined the Convention to expand that very Kingdom.
This EC member says, tear down the wall, so our own citizens can enter the castle. We can do this with the tools of transparency, vulnerability, and humility. The castle and the Kingdom will be stronger for it.