Denison Forum is a nondenominational Christian evangelical ministry.
That said, let me offer this disclosure: I am a Southern Baptist minister and I love Southern Baptists. I am grateful for Southern Baptists and their impact on my life.
In the first decade of my life, I was raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic family. We were engaged in our local Catholic parish as deeply as any family could be. My parents were leaders, my siblings and I were in the Catholic school system, and the priest was a personal friend of the family.
Years later, my father would speak at the celebration honoring this priest’s fiftieth year in ministry. Yet some of my family members have some significant scars from some of what happened in our Catholic church.
When I was ten, my family dropped out of church completely. I was transferred to the public school close to my house, and there was little spiritual influence in my life as I entered my teen years.
At sixteen, my boss at my part-time job started having spiritual conversations with me. Then I met a Baptist Christian at school who had similar conversations with me that were reinforced by his loving family.
Through these influences, I came to understand who Jesus is and my need for a personal, saving faith in him. Soon after making the decision to follow Jesus as my forgiver and leader, my high school friend Chip invited me to his Southern Baptist church. It was and still is an amazing church forty-one years later.
God put me in a great spiritual incubator that enabled me to grow in the joy and foundations of faith. Within a few years, God called me into vocational ministry in that church. Since then, I have received three degrees at Southern Baptist schools and pastored four Southern Baptist Churches.
I am deeply grateful for all of it.
Sexual abuse and the SBC
This week, Southern Baptist people and pastors are reeling from the report from Guideposts Solutions about the presence of sexual abuse, the mishandling of abuse reports, and the cover-up that was executed by some denominational leaders in Southern Baptist life.
I’ll admit that the Southern Baptist Convention, the denominational entity that oversees our cooperative work around missions, minister training in six seminaries, and literature development has never been very personal to me. I learned about it, respected it, and supported the churches I pastored in their financial support of the SBC. I also backed away from close involvement in denominational activities thirty years ago because internal (nonsexual) controversy and politics frustrated and discouraged me.
With all that said, many Southern Baptist pastors and people are wondering how they should think about and respond to the revelations of sex abuse and this week’s report of the mishandling of abuse accusations. Pastors are wondering if they should address the report with their people this week or this Sunday.
Should they wait for more information or formal action that is likely to come at next month’s annual meeting of the SBC? Some have already started wondering if they should reconsider their financial support of the SBC and its extensive ministry given the failures of some of its most prominent leaders.
There is a lot to consider.
4 steps toward significant change
Here are a few things I’m thinking about in this regard:
1. Realize that this is a big deal for Southern Baptists and all Christians.
Abuse, especially sexual abuse of any kind against children, women, or others, must be taken seriously. We have seen sexual abuse exposed widely across the church, government, business, media, and the arts. We are all broken by sin and in our sexuality. There is no part of our culture that has not been touched by this brokenness.
The Bible says that sexual sin is unique (1 Corinthians 6:18). Because human sexuality created by God is so beautiful and powerful, when abused wrongly it damages in unique and profound ways.
2. Give victims our compassion and generosity.
Sexual abuse is horrific wherever it happens. But I believe it’s worse in the church because of the unique trust that spiritual leaders steward.
Christian leaders are sinners like others. But pastors, ministers, and leaders know better. It is an extra level of deception and evil that hides sexual abuse under the cover of spirituality and ministry.
3. Sound a clarion call of repentance with meaningful accountability—and follow through on it.
I have sometimes wondered where the practice of church discipline went. I once asked a great mentor of mine about pursuing formal church discipline toward an unholy believer in my church. My mentor told me to stay away from it.
It seems to me that we as Southern Baptists are reaping the fruit of ignoring appropriate accountability and outsourcing to the world and its systems the discipline we should be exercising inside our churches and our denomination. In our efforts to avoid being legalistic and to be people and churches of grace, we have not learned and practiced holy responsibility.
4. We must grieve and get better.
There is a lot to grieve.
We grieve how God—his goodness, his church, and his gospel—are stained.
We grieve the deep pain and scars the victims carry. We should weep with them and their families and their churches.
We grieve the failures of our leaders, many we regarded as heroes of the faith, maybe too much so.
We grieve the failure of our systems.
We grieve the unwillingness of some, including ourselves, to do the hard work necessary to prevent these forms of abuse and to address cases when they arise.
In these things we must resolve to get better—to ask God to change our hearts and to resurrect us to a better way of serving him by serving others in holiness and love.
What should we as pastors do next?
Finally, I urge you as a pastor to become informed on these issues.
Read the report and read good leaders who are helping us process through what it means.
Get with your staff and lay leaders to pray and talk through what this information and crisis means. Commit together to continue to learn what it means and how your church should respond.
Practically speaking, I encourage you not to change your support or participation in the SBC and its ministry at this time. There will be more to come on all of this. Southern Baptists are doing great things for Christ and his kingdom.
We should seek to do good everywhere and in every way we can while addressing our failures head-on as we help those who have been hurt.