Well, in case you missed it, there has been a rather massive shift in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ll not rehash the waters gone by about the events at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. There’s about four million blog posts, tweets, and Facebook streams about it (give or take a few million). Something I’ve been trying to think through is what happens next? Where do we go from here? I’d like to offer my musings on that, and you can do with them what you will.
First, we need to pay attention to the fact there are very likely more victims who will come forward. And the instinct in some may be to dismiss additional statements as people who are just “piling on” or “kicking a man while he’s down.” In all honesty, they are not. These are people who have felt marginalized and ignored, perhaps for decades, who now see that we might just be listening. So let us make a priority of listening.
Second, while there aren’t enough characters in every tweet to make mention of the fact that very real people are innocent victims in this, we need to not forget that. It will be very easy to move on to “What is the future of the SBC?” “What is the future of SWBTS?” and put “What is the future of Mrs. Lively?” “What is the future of the other victims?”…now that we, as Southern Baptists, are aware of the damage done in our name to these folks.
Along those same notions, it might be the better part of compassion to save the “God will grant us revival through the exposure of sin!” statements for a few more weeks. We sound like someone showing up the morning after a tornado and saying “Well, look, we get to rebuild the community better!” without any compassion for the losses in the process. Seriously, if I came by your house as the fire department pulled away from the ashes and said “I can’t wait to see the new one,” you’d rightly think me an insensitive buffoon. Let’s not be insensitive buffoons, here. This is not primarily about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is about the damage we have done to other people.
As we remember that, we have to also realize that some of the victims will have taken different trajectories with their lives which might, normally, hurt their credibility in our own eyes. We might typically suggest that a Methodist or liberal Anglican or someone who has left involvement in the Christian faith is not a good source for what we should be doing, but we need to consider that our institutions drove some of those choices.
Third, we should be wary of scapegoating Dr. Patterson. Obviously, the SWBTS trustees feel that enough blame is warranted on Dr. Patterson to terminate him. Based on the evidence in public, I don’t disagree–but we stand at a decision point. We need to consider whether what we see here is the result of a systemic failure of all of us as Southern Baptists to do what is right, with varying levels of involvement, or simply one or two bad behavioral choices by a few people. In a rush to “move forward” we can blame the one or two without asking ourselves hard questions.
What hard questions? How about “How did we allow our seminaries to be a place where sexual assaults are covered up?” All this time, we’ve been haggling each other over Abstracts of Principles and name changes and relocations and curriculum, and the apparent case is that at least two of our seminaries, at various times, were hostile enough to a sexual assault victim that she had no recourse. The other stories that are percolating through, about missions boards and state conventions, suggest that we cannot pass this off as a problem “over there” or one that “true Southern Baptists” would have put a stop to. The reports are from everything from associational-level, which you can bike to so money isn’t a barrier, through the national-level. We’ve all looked off to one side.
And from there, “Are we still looking the other way because it’s too scary to consider the possibility that we are deeply down the wrong path?”
Fourth, we need to take a long, hard look at our doctrine. And, no, I don’t mean we punt complementarianism over this. While I do think we need to look hard at the fruit and see if we are misapplying Scripture, doctrine should still be rooted in Scripture. What we do need to do is reconsider how we are applying the texts that we see in Scripture. How do we work through the idea that 1 Corinthians has instructions about how a woman should speak in church…and speaks of women being silent? We need to dig into what it means to have “authority” in the first place, and whether or not we are trying to assign to men (or people in general) something that belongs to God through His Word alone.
Fifth, at some stage, we have to re-evaluate our response to accusations. I have seen some suggest that Jesus, in Matthew 18, meant for a rape victim to privately confront her rapist–after all, aren’t we supposed to go privately to the sinner first? Again, we have to bridge the gap between what the text says, how the context informs it, and how we apply it today. I would suggest that we might be misunderstanding Jesus if we put that barrier in front of someone, just as we might be misunderstanding having “everything established by two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5, and others) in a similar fashion. Due process matters, yet how dare we tell a victim of sexual assault that we will do nothing because she did not have the courtesy to bring witnesses to her assault?
Again, we have to deal with what the text says, but if our systems intimidate people into silence, we have to deal with that. We have to empower people to speak, even if they are speaking against our heroes.
And there’s nothing wrong with having heroes, as long we do not let them become idols. I have heroes in the faith, and it is on me to admit that even those great ones can make mistakes. The same is true of my friends: if I do not have the relationship with them that they can point out my sin, I don’t have friends, I have fans. You may not be the friend of your hero, but they need one–and when we keep some of these folks so busy running from one speaking engagement to the next, one book promo to the next conference to the next church, that they cannot build rooted relationships, maybe we should get out of the way and let them be at home some. It is entirely possible that someone without a book on the shelf at Lifeway can preach your revival, your evangelism conference, etc…
Sixth, we need to keep those in our prayers who are the side-effect victims of these moments. In some cases, this includes the spouses of the guilty. In others, it will include young men who had been taught to fear and follow their elders and so made decisions that probably horrify them now–but that there’s no changing now. Again, there may be necessary consequences, but in 1999, I don’t think anyone had a read a sexual abuse survivor blog and learned from it.
Finally, at least for now, we need to examine how we can do better. What can we do in terms of prevention? As Baptists, we have no centralized educational requirement, so while adding a class or seminar in seminary will help some, it won’t catch every new minister, and certainly won’t catch all of us graduated ones. Further, we do not require continuing education or recertification or anything like that, so how do we educate ourselves to do better? I do not have an answer, just that question among many. What do we need to adjust in our structures and systems? How
(Yes, I know, some folks think a database will deal with it…but that database is only as good as the information put into it–and our problem right now is people who should have reported information to the POLICE didn’t. What makes us think they’ll put information in a database? Tell the average Southern Baptist-affiliated church they “have to” do something, and watch the non-denominational Baptist-like churches multiply everywhere. Without even changing their names…we don’t own “Baptist.” Just one logo.)
We need to start by listening. Listening to people rework how they were hurt, what happened, and what they think might have helped. We need to look at whether we did not follow procedures and methods that would have helped, or if we did not have anything in place that would protect these. It’s a long, slow road–one that we are starting to travel too late for some, but we have taken some steps. We need to take some more.
From that, then, what shall we do?
Pray that God would forgive us our neglect and seek His guidance, the wisdom He has put in the Word and in other people, about prevention. Seek the forgiveness of those we have harmed, and find ways to try and restore them.
And then, maybe, we will start to show that love for our neighbors and for each other that is part and parcel to living out the Word of God.