The SBC enacts abuse reform, but have they addressed the real problem?

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The SBC enacts abuse reform, but have they addressed the real problem?

July 18, 2022 - Mark Legg

Pastor Bart Barber, a presidential candidate of the Southern Baptist Convention, speaks during its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Pastor Bart Barber, a presidential candidate of the Southern Baptist Convention, speaks during its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Every case of abuse is an individual with a unique story who endured heart-rending pain and trauma that might affect their lives decades later.

A pastor sexually abused Christa Brown when she was sixteen. She went to leaders of her denomination, and, instead of help, she faced shame and rejection—what she has referred to as “soul murder.”

In 2021, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) voted to have Guidepost Solutions conduct an independent investigation into the mishandling of sexual abuse cases by the top leadership of the SBC. The devastating results made national news.

The SBC has since held its annual meeting and voted on solutions, which we will discuss later. For now, let’s touch on the background to make sure we understand the issues first.

What is the SBC?

As Guidepost Solutions rightly states, “The SBC is not a church itself; rather, it is a network of independent churches.” The SBC essentially exists as a group of churches that pool their resources to help advance the gospel, missions, and give some structure to churches within their denomination. Per the Guidepost report, “Over 47,000 Baptist churches in the United States and its territories cooperate with the SBC. In total, the SBC network of churches encompasses over 14 million persons.”

However, the SBC as a denomination does not have authority over its affiliated churches.

In fact, it’s just the opposite. Member churches send representatives called “messengers” to the annual convention to vote on decisions and elect leaders.

Victims were met with “stonewalling, and even outright hostility”

For years, victims spoke out against the way the SBC handled abuse cases reported to them. The Houston Chronicle published a damning article in 2019 that helped spur the SBC to conduct an independent investigation, even though the SBC was already moving toward positive change.

The 288-page investigation uncovered a pattern of neglect and cover-ups. When the survivors communicated with certain people on the Executive Committee (EC) of the SBC, they were met with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.”

Ultimately, the EC wanted to distance themselves from responsibility, especially since they had essentially no authority over any churches. According to internal emails, those leaders in the EC were advised by lawyers to do nothing in response to “pleas for help and reform.”

These same leaders denied having a list of abuse accusations against ministers so they could plead ignorance. In truth, they held onto a private list of over seven hundred pastors.

This callousness was only part of what the investigation uncovered.

In a handful of instances, the ministers accused of sexual abuse simply moved to different churches. The churches where they came from sometimes gave the abusers neutral or positive recommendations to other churches without mentioning their abusive behavior.

The Baptist Press (SBC’s news site) published an article that made a victim of sexual abuse sound like a consensual partner. One previous SBC president, Johnny Hunt, was accused of sexual abuse with a pastor’s wife close to him in the report. He denies that the affair was not consensual. The list goes on.

More details are available in this Christianity Today article, and you can read the report yourself for more details and more cases showing a clear pattern. But that summarizes the SBC abuse scandal.

How has the SBC responded?

What steps did the SBC take to prevent future abuse?

In the annual meeting last month, messengers entered with heavy hearts, ready for soul-searching and repentance. Denison Forum executive director Dr. Mark Turman attended the meeting and wrote about whether churches should remain in the SBC in our newsletter for pastors, A Pastor’s View.

In a pivotal move, the SBC elected Bart Barber as the next president. He has been a vocal proponent of sexual abuse reforms within the SBC and is the pastor of a small church in Farmersville, Texas.

Guidepost Solutions gave several recommendations, many of which were directed at the state-level conventions or other entities under the SBC umbrella.

This convention overwhelmingly passed two measures and will review the rest for next year’s convention:

  • They voted to create a publicly accessible “Ministry Check” website that will show credibly accused abusers affiliated with the SBC.
  • They also voted to create an “Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF),” which is tasked to consider other suggestions by the Guidepost report, find ways to prevent abuse, and set up an abuse hotline. This comes with a $3 million budget.

It seems fair to say the SBC has taken reconciliatory, redemptive steps. Current leaders have been repentant, apologetic, prayerful, and humble. Conviction should lead to action, not just apologies, and the SBC is doing both as they start this process.

Is The SBC’s theology on gender roles the real problem?

Secular news often points the finger at the SBC’s views on women’s role in ministry as the root of the problem. Complementarianism is a big theological word that means men and women were created equal by God but have different roles in the home and church. In most complementarian churches, this means women don’t hold pastoral roles.

However, the fault is not necessarily the SBC’s theology; it was rather one of selfishness, sexual abuse, lack of responsibility, cowardice, and the sins of its leaders (James 4:17).

The truth is, when denominations have a strict hierarchy and authority (like the Catholic Church), abusers still hide in power. In the most liberal of institutions (like Hollywood), abuse still runs rampant. The common root is humankind’s sinful nature.

Although there never should be a single case of sexual abuse or child molestation in the church, we do live in a tragically fallen world. This means molesters and abusers will try to hide in the church. We cannot allow this to dull our compassion and righteous anger—this truth means every church leader must have accountability in place.

We must disabuse ourselves of our pride that allows abusers to hide. We must be wary of thinking, “My ministers or lay servants or deacons would never . . . .” Hopefully, that is the case, and where it is, accountability should be welcomed rather than feared. Keeping child abuse and sexual abuse out of the church requires each local church to invest in training, preparation, background checks, and resources for their volunteers and staff to protect the most vulnerable.

A ragtag band of grace-bestowed wretches

It seems like headline after headline reveals the ugly, broken side of the church to the world.

Small churches with older congregations are envisioned as backward or quaint, outdated, and not “seeker friendly.” Mega churches seem to jump on shallow trends, spending tens of thousands on stage lighting, only to have their fashionable pastors commit adultery.

Sexual abuse, racism, financial scandal, and other sins plague the church.

I was reflecting on these truths during worship last week at my local church. I started to weep—not in lament or sadness, but at the beauty of the church and the beauty of Christ.

The church is flawed, beaten up, sinful, and sometimes even cruel and harsh. Before the world, the church stands naked, defiant, calloused, and broken.

Yet, the Spirit works (Galatians 5:22–23). Elders pray with a hurting couple, members mentor an inner-city boy and pay for his college, families adopt orphans, children come to Christ, and elderly folks are baptized.

Yet no matter how much filth the church covers itself in, Christ’s blood cleanses it (1 John 1:7).

Yet Christ died for her. Christ died for each of us, meaning he also died for the collective, universal church (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25).

His blood was poured out for each judgmental glance at a family with a crying baby, each off-tune note, each pastor’s fumbled words, each misinterpretation by a Sunday school teacher.

And even each tragic abuse.

Christ’s blood covers it all.

It all made me think of my fiancée, in all of her imperfections, and how I nonetheless love her and would die for her.

That really got the waterworks going.

While I think a special place in hell will exist for unrepentant wolves in shepherd’s clothing (James 3:1), for those who keep “the little ones” from Jesus (Luke 17:2), for those who camouflage abuse in ministry—even they are not beyond God’s capacity to redeem if they truly repent.

The earthly consequences will remain: they should never serve in children’s or student ministres, and they may be rightly thrown in prison for decades, yet Christ’s blood is powerful enough for their lives too.

We are a ragtag band of grace-bestowed wretches, pointing people away from ourselves and toward Jesus, beautiful because Christ made us so.

The churches under the wing of the SBC are no different in their capacity and need for that grace. It’s encouraging to see them now acting from that reality with humility and action.

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