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The Southern Baptist Convention’s Roman Catholic Moment

Someone sent me an article recently about how churches can do a better job of attracting young people. I’m a Southern Baptist pastor so I get things like this all the time. I haven’t read the article yet. Most likely, it tells us how we need to be more tech savvy and authentic.

There’s another article that needs to be written and it’s a shame that it has to. It needs to say that if Southern Baptists really care about reaching younger people, they need to stop sexually abusing them. Sadly, many church leaders and volunteers only care about reaching people so they can sexually abuse them. For proof, you need to look no further than the Houston Chronicle’s recent exposé on sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches.

The report is thorough and fair. It’s also disgusting. It’s not disgusting in the sense that a large media outlet is taking a cheap shot at Christianity — that’s not the case with this report. It’s disgusting because it documents years of abuse, cover-ups, and lies by prominent SBC leaders.

According to the report, since 1998, 380 SBC leaders and volunteers have been accused of some form of sexual misconduct. There are over 700 victims from that time period, some as young as 3. At least 35 of the accused were allowed to move to other churches. Almost a dozen SBC churches have welcomed the accused back in to leadership positions. In one instance, a man was allowed to serve as a pastor after serving a 7 year sentence for his sex crimes.

One word lies at the center of all of this.

Autonomy.

Southern Baptist churches operate independently. While they share resources for funding missions and seminaries, each local church is responsible for hiring and firing its leaders. This, we have been told by some leaders in the SBC, is the reason why nothing can be done. The Southern Baptist Convention simply cannot tell local churches what to do.

This isn’t true.

When a church steps out of line with Baptist doctrine, it has been routine for that local body to be disassociated from the larger collection of Southern Baptist churches. We’ve seen this happen for reasons ranging from the ordination of homosexual ministers to blatant racism. This begs the question. If a church can be removed from the SBC for their views on homosexuality and race, why then can’t there be any accountability when it comes to sexual assault?

Your guess is as good as mine.

There is no doubt that the Southern Baptist Convention is in need of serious reform. Change needs to happen from the highest to the lowest levels. The SBC is in desperate need of leaders who will not use autonomy as an excuse for inaction while people suffer at the hands of predators who use the name of Christ to lure their prey. J.D. Greear, the current SBC president, seems to be that kind of a leader. He has established a task force to address these concerns. The autonomy of local churches desperately needs to be one of the issues considered by that task force.

But this task force must be more than a mere committee that “looks into” the matter but never does anything about it. There needs to be a registry of predatory leaders and volunteers so that they can’t simply move from one group of victims to the next. And there needs to be a willingness to be held accountable by an outside third party that is not a part of the good old boy network for which the SBC is famous.

Southern Baptist churches typically belong to local associations. These tend to be small groups of churches in a given geographic area. Some of these associations do a lot of good work to strengthen churches and hold them accountable. Others exist to justify their own existence. I once asked a leader of one of these organizations what he would do if someone donated his association a million dollars. He told me that he would use that money to put on a fundraiser. This kind of thinking has got to stop. When associations are aware of predators on the prowl in their churches, they need to use all of the resources at their disposal to expose the wolf and protect the sheep.

At the church level, courageous leadership is needed. Sometimes the accused just happens to be related to the family that helped build the church and that now gives the most money to fund the church’s ministries and the pastor’s salary. Pastors must be willing to lose their jobs for this. Many believe that keeping these matters private will help the church in the long run by saving it from public humiliation. This is another lie. Churches that conceal this type of activity always end up being humiliated and aiding and abetting monsters in future crimes. It’s better to be fired for exposing this type of behavior than to remain on as a hireling–saying nothing while people suffer and sin abounds.

This is the Southern Baptist Convention’s Roman Catholic moment. The denomination is at a crossroads. It can either cling to power and continue to conceal this sort of behavior or it can humble itself, embrace strong leadership, and make the tough changes that are necessary.

The world is watching to see which road the SBC takes.

So are predators.

So are their victims.

And more importantly, so is God.

For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 1 Peter 4:17 (ESV)

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