The complaint was that “the SBC” (scare quotes are essential in the present context; if an explanation is needed, just ask) uses autonomy as an excuse for inaction on abuse in churches and by “SBC” (same for the quotes around “SBC” but I’ll not take the time to do so for the rest of this article) clergy. I understand that. There are a number of high profile, long running abuse cases that involve churches affiliated with the SBC and staff for those churches. An abuser would move from one SBC church to another, complaints would be made to SBC leaders whose answer would be that that they didn’t have the power to intervene because very church is autonomous.
That’s true enough, though it looks like a dodge. Now, we have enhanced systems in place to take maximum action against an abuser and that maximum is to kick the church out of the national SBC and, presumably, state conventions and local associations would do the same although exclusion is not a transferable action.
No individual may be excluded or blacklisted in the SBC because the SBC is, at every level, a collection of churches, not individuals. There are no “SBC” ministers. Each entity affiliated with the SBC has to take their own autonomous (forgive the redundancy) action to favor or disfavor exclusion of a church. We will see next month what the SBC Executive Committee does with their in-house Credentials Committee that has a process for receiving complaints about churches. I’m presuming that someone filed a complaint about the church at which Paige Patterson is scheduled to speak.
But, if one of those autonomous local churches (the SBC has 47,456 of them) decides to hire a convicted, confessed, or credible sexual abuser or decides to invite a high profile (or no profile) SBC leader or former leader to speak, exactly how is it that autonomy may be inconsistently applied?
The complaint is that “the SBC” will react strongly if an woman is invited to preach at a church but will not react at all when the invitation is of one who is seen as failing in handling abuse cases. I’ve no argument with that. That’s autonomy at work. It’s reality.
Every individual associated with the SBC, SBC churches, entities, and institutions can express their personal opinion. They are autonomous actors, although their freedom to speak is not in any codified SBC doctrine. No SBC leader (save for JDG) has spoken out against Patterson’s speaking at a church. Greear’s asking for churches to “consider” Patterson’s record is his personal opinion. Reports are that some higher profile SBC leaders have chosen not to appear at the conference. (My view, written last week, is that “I’m not interested in attending the event or the church but I would not favor exclusion of this church for using Paige Patterson as a speaker.”) Folks have different views. I’m not in favor of any orchestrated system of blacklisting ministers unless you consider the national abuse registries that we already make available. There’s no system that would ban any individuals from churches. I hear that the devil is not officially banned from attending some SBC church every Sunday (I believe Adrian used that line).
Churches, state conventions, local associations, and SBC entities and institutions (seminaries, colleges, GuideStone, LifeWay, the mission boards, the Executive Committee, all of the similar entities that are state convention entities) are able to express their autonomy. Individuals just express their personal views. I don’t see the failure of leaders to speak as an expression of the inconsistent use of autonomy. It is an expression of inconsistent interest in and attention to various matters in churches but not of autonomy. Sure, we’ve been on the celebrity system for decades and when the mega-SBC celebs speaketh, sometimes things happen. But the doctrine of autonomy is an action of entities, not individuals.
We will see autonomy at work when we see the results of the Credentials Committee’s work next month. Whatever they do, they have absolutely no power to compel any church to do anything. Lawyers may make bold statements but even the tiniest SBC church hires its own clergy, ordains whomever they wish, supervises their clergy, and often fires their clergy. That’s autonomy.
I am well aware that different issues get greater or lesser attention from SBC celebs. Nothing new about that. It is also true that associations, state conventions, and the national SBC applies more or less rigor to excluding churches for different reasons. That is autonomy at work and it is inherently inconsistent, each acting as they so choose. Wouldn’t it be an expression of hierarchy, rather than autonomy, if all actions were consistent? Just asking.
It may well be that I am missing something in this and am always happy for anyone to tell me something I need to know. It is looking like “autonomy” is less and less understood.