Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The SBC Report

First, a warning - this blog post is dealing with the Sexual Abuse Task Force report about the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee response to sexual abuse allegations. This subject matter may be triggering to you. It is not necessary that you read the report or even this blog post if it will do emotional or spiritual damage.

Second, an apology - this blog post is dealing with SBC life & practice... and my first attempts at writing it bogged down rather seriously in trying to explain some of the vagaries and oddities of the denomination I have been a part of my entire life. If you find yourself confused by terminology or certain references, please do not hesitate to reach out to me and I'll do my best to clarify and/or explain.

Third, a second apology - this blog post is really long. (I have a lot to say & share.)

The Report

For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention (“SBC”) Executive Committee (“EC”) to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff. They made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at SBC and EC meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press…only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC.

Our investigation revealed that, for many years, a few senior EC leaders, along with outside counsel, largely controlled the EC’s response to these reports of abuse. They closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits, which were not shared with EC Trustees, and were singularly focused on avoiding liability for the SBC to the exclusion of other considerations. In service of this goal, survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the S could take no action due to its polity regarding church autonomy - even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation. 

First Reaction

On Monday morning (after the release of the report on Sunday afternoon), I posted on Facebook:
I'm nearly 200 pages into the report and am struggling with immense anger - both with the legal folks who prioritized protecting the organization over protecting and caring for survivors & local churches AND with the "spiritual" leaders who chose in many cases not to push back on legal advice that was clearly anti-Biblical... and in some cases, chose to actively participate in covering up/excusing sexual predators.
A good friend replied that I was the first person he'd seen that was surprised by this news. 

The sad part is that he was wrong - I wasn't surprised. I've been in SBC and evangelical circles all my life. I replied:
It's a level of clarity that I'm both sickened by and extremely grateful for...
And that sums up my initial reaction quite well - while I'm not blindsided by the revelation of the excuses, posturing, callousness, and outright hypocrisy, I'm deeply angered by the sins of apathy, cowardice, and self-protection. I resonate with Psalm 5:10 (VOICE):
Find them guilty, O True God; let their own devices bring them ruin. Throw them out, and let them drown in the deluge of their sin, for in revolt they brazenly spit in Your face.
At the same time, I'm hopeful that dragging this into the daylight will begin the long, hard process of not only changing who is in leadership at the Executive Committee but the needed culture changes in SBC life to prioritize the care of survivors and end the "say you're sorry and shake hands" stupidity when it comes to dealing with sexual abusers.

As well, I'm thankful for the messengers to the 2021 SBC meeting, who overwhelmingly demanded this investigation... and to the men & women of integrity on the Executive Committee who refused to roll over to political pressures and scare tactics in the fall of 2021, thus insuring that attorney/client privilege was waived for this investigation. To borrow from the book of Hebrews, "The world was not worthy of them." (11:38 HCSB)

My Jumbled Thoughts

  • I have questions about my own decisions as a former pastor and how I dealt with members of my congregations who were accused and/or convicted of sexual abuse. Was I too trusting of their confessions? Did the safeguards we put in place adequately fence in destructive behavior? Was it too easy to lean into grace for the accused while doing a substandard work of grieving with and supporting those caught in the fallout of their sinful & destructive betrayal?
  • You may not like Kristin Du Mez's Jesus and John Wayne or Beth Allison Barr's The Making of Biblical Womanhood or Sheila Gregorie's The Great Sex Rescue... but the behavior and beliefs made clear in the Guidepost report means we have to grapple with the issues raised in these books. The rationalization of toxic masculinity, the cherry-picking of church history and Scripture to exclude the role of women in the faith, and the excusing of men's sexual sins whilst blaming women for their tempting ways are, as one of my mentors in ministry used to say, "straight from hell and smell like smoke." We can do better. We can definitely be more Biblical.
  • It's substantially past time to stop looking at the 1967 meeting between at Cafe du Monde between Page Patterson and Paul Pressler as some kind of shining moment in SBC history and instead note that both of the key players in the Conservative Resurgence are profoundly compromised in their integrity when it comes to the treatment of survivors of sexual abuse (Patterson) and what looks to be clear predatory sexual behavior (Pressler). 
  • That same kind of second look needs to taken at the Conservative Baptist Network, supported by Patterson after he was fired from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. All of the Executive Committee members in attendance who are affiliated with that group voted to oppose following the will of the convention messengers and refuse to waive privilege. (For more information on the history of the CBN and the role of Page Patterson, Robert Downen (journalist for the Houston Chronicle) has what he calls "an absurdly long and meticulously sourced thread" available on Twitter.)
  • We as Southern Baptists have to quit acting like our polity - the autonomy of local Baptist churches and general Baptist bodies - came down the mountain on a extra "secret tablet" with Moses.  It was clearly used as an excuse to avoid accountability in dealing with sexual sin and hypocritical practices of cover-ups and excuses. This does not mean we need to create some kind of hierarchal denominational structure - it simply means we have more options to cooperate to do the right and godly thing. (Note: the 1992 Resolution on the Autonomy of Local Baptist Churches references not one Scripture passage - which ought to tell us something.)
  • That said, I can't get too excited about this... the job of changing the culture that supported and/or ignored the sinful behaviors is going to be a difficult and lengthy process. It's just too easy to trade silence for access and proximity to power.
  • What now? I think the recommendations of the report are excellent - now it is up to the messengers to support those recommendations with specific action.

Other Thoughtful Responses

If you still refuse to believe facts stacked Himalayan high before your eyes and insist the independent group hired to conduct the investigation is part of a (liberal!) human conspiracy or demonic attack, you’re not just deceived. You are part of the deception.

If you can go on your merry way in your SBC organization and carry on like nothing happened and like none of this convention rot concerns you, it will not have been “they” who decayed a denomination. It will have been you. With this I will do my best to close my mouth in regard to the SBC:

If you can dismiss or explain away this investigative report or do the bare minimum for the sake of appearances, still denying that your men’s club mentality was in any way complicit, my head covering’s off to you. 

Lottie Moon’s tiny little body is rolling over in her grave.

I loved you. You have betrayed your women. It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them.
“Their main concern,” the report says of the SBC’s leaders, “was avoiding any potential liability for the SBC.” Consider that for a moment. Their main concern was not women and children who were violated by sexual predators. It was the limitation of their legal exposure. What does that say about the content and quality of their beliefs?

There is also a warning here specifically to Christian institutions. When pastors believe that the importance of their mission — reaching the lost, spreading the Gospel — somehow justifies the concealment of terrible crimes, they have crossed the line into heresy. The Christian message can never be advanced through strategic lies. Deception is its magnetic opposite. 
We were told they wanted to conserve the old time religion. What they wanted was to conquer their enemies and to make stained-glass windows honoring themselves—no matter who was hurt along the way.

Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.

Most of the people in the pews believed the Bible and wanted to support the leaders who did also. They didn’t know that some would use the truth of the Bible to prop up a lie about themselves.
I would strongly suggest reading Dr. Moore's heart-rending response to the report... he does not pull any punches. In his former role as head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, he fought to do the right thing.

David French
The majority of American evangelicals (and evangelical pastors) aren’t guilty of the abuse exposed in the Guidepost report—or of the abuse exposed in multiple other places at multiple other times—but we are all responsible for repairing our culture. On June 14, Baptist messengers will gather in Anaheim, California, for their annual convention. It will be their responsibility to take decisive steps to reform their Church.

But the responsibility does not rest with Baptists alone. Christians have created a culture that all too often celebrates male power at the expense of female dignity. Our churches frequently follow charismatic leaders even when they wave red flags in our face. And when other churches fail and other leaders fall, we shake our heads and say, “Thank God we’re not like them.”

Reform isn’t just a matter of prudence. Christians believe in a God who burns with anger when his people abuse and neglect the most vulnerable among us. Jesus once said it would be better for a millstone to be tied around a man’s neck and for him to be “thrown into the sea” than for him to cause a child to stumble.

No one knows this better than Baptists. Few denominations understand the power of character better than the Southern Baptist Church. In fact, in 1998 the Church passed a resolution on the importance of moral character in public officials that echoes beyond politicians.

I’m haunted by one clause in particular. It says: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.” Millions of Americans don’t believe in God’s judgment, but Christians do, and while we are grateful that God is merciful, we should tremble with the knowledge that he is also just, and his justice can be terrible indeed.
There is a fair share of blame to go around now that the light has gone on. Including and perhaps especially, about why it took so long for that light to go on, and why survivors had to carry that fight. But right now, the SBC Messengers did good work in commissioning this investigation and giving investigators access to all the information. It was good work. And it will have an impact, if you follow it through. And I do believe, for the vast majority in the SBC, bringing truth forward, standing against evil, and shining light into the darkness, is why they do this work. Because that is also the work of Christ.

I remember my Sunday School teachers telling me repeatedly “the gospel isn’t just fire insurance. If you really believe it, it will change the way you act. It’s about what you do here and now, not just about what happens when this life is over.” That’s going to be an important reminder as you weigh where to put time, and effort and energy and resources. Standing against abuse and caring for those who were crushed, isn’t a distraction from your mission. It’s an integral part of it. Because the gospel isn’t just fire insurance.

Rachael Denhollander is a survivor, an attorney, a follower of Christ, and was an advisor to the Sexual Abuse Task Force that commissioned the investigation. Her entire statement is worth your time - especially as she talks about a cultural unwillingness in SBC life to reach out for help "outside our walls". 

My Final Word

We must be a people who do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8) We must be a denomination who "give(s) justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain(s) the right of the afflicted and the destitute, rescue(s) the weak and the needy; [and] deliver(s) them from the hand of the wicked" (Psalm 82:3-4 ESV). Words are not enough... "thoughts and prayers" and public offers of assistance are meaningless if they are not followed up with action (James 2:14-24).

So, how will we act? How will we follow through? 

1 comment:

JasonB said...

> and the excusing of men's sexual sins whilst blaming women for their tempting ways

There has been a great deal written over the last few years about how minority neighborhoods are simultaneously "overpoliced" and "underpoliced." The cops in those neighborhoods end up shaking down a lot of people over various minor crimes, while leaving major cases unsolved, giving the residents the worst of both worlds.

My experience in SBC churches is very similar - minor sexual sins, especially by teenagers or other young members, are heavily policed and shamed, while clearly major sin by leadership is excused. I don't think the answer is more emphasis on purity rings, but maybe instead focus on the serious sin, instead of shaming teenagers.