Southern Baptists, Sexual Abuse, and Partnership

I have spent my whole life in the faith tribe called Southern Baptists.  Like any large network of churches, there are some really positive aspects and outcomes found in Gospel partnership.  I have mentioned before that our participation in the Gospel and giving through the mechanism called the Cooperative Program  (CP) results in our being part of sending missionaries and planting churches all over the world and throughout North America.  This faith tribe also mobilizes here and around the world when disasters strike in ways that should make all of us proud.  These are primary reasons we have stayed in this network of churches and continue to give.  Yet, a large network of churches like the Southern Baptists will also have an ugly side, since it is made up of sinners.  This week has been a very tough week as the independent firm Guidepost Solutions published a report on the SBC Executive Committee relating to its handling of sexual abuse claims over the past 20 years.  This report is not pretty, and will do much damage, but also comes with much opportunity for our faith tribe tif we process repentance.   The report found a myriad of troubling problems that included actual claims of sexual abuse by some leaders, and a whole system of coverup and protectionism rather than efforts to love victims and get rid of wolves.  Here are a couple articles if you would like to read more on the report.

Russell Moore – the Southern Baptist Apocalypse from Christianity Today

Gospel Coalition Article – How should Christians and Baptists Respond

Albert Mohler – The Reckoning of the Lord in World Magazine

I have pastoral reasons for writing today.  While I would be honored if those outside of Genesis read, I want to help us process this together and think about our partnership.  I have already received questions from church members wondering if we should stay in the SBC tribe after this report, so I have decided to write a post that shares a little bit about how we got here, what is going on at this moment, and what the future might hold.  But lets start with some biblical and moral clarity.  I cannot think of a darker and more heinous sin than that of sexual abuse and rape.  As God’s people, a statement like this should not be controversial, and any place these sort of acts are found our response should be prophetic and consistent.  It is evil in the most vicious sense and we should be offering safety for the abused, seeking justice for perpetrators, while also offering the grace of the Gospel to both the accused and the accuser.

How we got here

Let me start by saying that this report did not catch me or those who are concerned about the SBC tribe off guard.  There is a lengthy story leading to this point, and to be honest, I believe that the report that dropped this week is actually a good thing.  While there are many aspects of the story that begin before February, 2019, the issue of sexual abuse in this faith tribe hit the front page with a series of six articles written by the Houston Chronicle (and then of course republished in newspapers all over the world) that documented over 700 stories of sexual abuse in churches and even among our missionaries serving in various places over the previous 20 years.  This was sort of a “dam break” moment putting our faith tribe in the spotlight.  The reports of abuse were troubling enough, but the more disheartening part of the story was how church leaders and even in places denominational leaders actually protected the offenders while discarding the victims.  Instead of inviting a criminal investigation they would often shame the victim, calling for him or her to “forgive” the offender, then quietly dismiss person from a ministry position enabling monsters the opportunity to find another ministry role and repeat his wicked activity.  This happened in local churches and even on our seminary campuses.  In fact, there are at least two stories of abuse cases brought to the attention of one of our seminary presidents.  This man served at two of our seminaries at different times, Southeastern and Southwestern Seminaries.  In both cases an accusation of abuse was made and this man was made aware of the charges.  The result in both situations included  story ending with the shaming of the victim and protection of the perpetrator.

The articles in the Houston newspaper brought a significant sin out from the shadows and into the light, and I do believe our faith tribe as a whole responded quickly and positively.  Immediately, several steps were taking to change the tide, and even work to bring forth the fruits of repentance.  Of course, there were many in SBC life who were crying that this was an attack from liberal media on our denomination.  Yet, there were real victims, real stories, and authentic failures to protect those who were harmed and prosecute offenders.  The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission launched the Caring Well Challenge, an effort to lead churches to do the work of strengthening their policies, protecting those in their care, and caring for sexual abuse victims.  We as a church gladly joined this challenge and spent a year working toward better policies for our work with minors and for dealing with any accusation.  The first and big key for us was a realization that we are not an investigative organization, and if an accusation of abuse with any credibility is made to us, our first step will be to bring in law enforcement authorities.  On a denominational level it became apparent that the SBC needed a mechanism to deal with churches that failed to report and deal with accusations of abuse.  A plan that was approved at the 2019 Annual Meeting of Southern Baptists in Birmingham that would discipline and dis-fellowship churches that were negligent in dealing with sexual abuse.  I had the honor of voting for this as a messenger (this is what SBC calls delegates from churches).

Yet, as time went and more information was made available it started to become apparent that the stink of sin raised to really high levels in the SBC, and that there were transparency issues all the way up to the Executive Committee (EC).  At the 2020 Annual Meeting of the SBC which took place in Nashville, the EC brought a recommendation for an internal investigation into some of the allegations.  Messengers saw an immediate problem with an organization that was already being accused of cover up creating an investigation for and on themselves.  So, an alternative motion was made for a task force outside of the EC appointed by the Convention President to lead an investigation into the allegations of sexual abuse directed toward the EC and some of the leaders in SBC life for the past 20 years.  This motion included the call of the EC to have full transparency and the waiving of attorney client privilege for the investigation.  I was honored to join thousands of Southern Baptists in voting for this motion because I believed that we could not come to full repentance until everything that was in the shadows was brought into the light.  This task force hired Guidepost Solutions to conduct the investigation.  Early in the process some within the EC fought the waiving of privilege, which seemed again to be an attempt to hide things and keep them in the dark.  But this was overruled by an eventual vote of the entire board, the investigation took place, and the report dropped this week.

What is the Executive Committee?

To get to the heart of what this is about, I need to explain the Executive Committee (EC) to you.  As mentioned, Southern Baptists give generously to the CP for the cause of missions around the world.  This money is funneled through the EC and then distributed to our agencies and organizations which include our mission sending agencies (International Mission Board and North American Mission Board), six seminaries, and the ERLC among others.  The EC is sort of the organizational center for the SBC.  They promote the work of the SBC, organize and host the Annual Meeting, and work to develop our partnerships as a convention. They have employees whose job it is to carry out the work of our faith tribe, and the EC has a board that is elected by the messengers of the SBC who have oversight.  Since the EC does function as the organizational center and hub for all of our work, this report shed light on some awful things that happened, included significant attempts to cover up reported abuse.  Some went as far as creating a data base of abusers from our denomination, yet rather than using this data base to protect victims and churches those who developed it used it to protect the organization from liability.  Because of the centrality of the EC in SBC life, they were often the group who would gather information, and even receive reports, and then form responses to accusations on behalf of the larger denomination.  Rather than being a safe place for victims, and being an organization that sought the truth by creating an atmosphere for honesty, it appears that there has been at least two decades of cover ups and protectionism as somewhat an official doctrine.  Yet, there is hope moving ahead as much of the Board and leadership for the EC is going to be different moving forward.  This includes our own Curt Ballard who will be nominated and elected to serve on the Board of the Executive Committee in June at the Annual Meeting (and it will be my honor to cast my vote for him as well).

The Report

So now the report has dropped.  The actual report is 244 pages (if you want to read the whole thing click here) .  To be honest, those of us who have been watching are not surprised.  As an outsider to the work of the EC, it seemed obvious to me that there were incredible efforts made to keep this sort of investigation from taking place, then efforts to stymie the investigation, followed by multiple resignations from EC staff (including the President, Ronnie Floyd). When the realization that the report would happen without attorney/client privilege many of those on the Board of the EC resigned when it became obvious that this report was going to happen and bring full exposure.  I was shocked and saddened by some of the names in the report as those who were accused abusers.  But like I have been trying to say in this post, this did not come out of the blue.  Its just that finally, after several years it is all in the open.  Our faith tribe has had their Nathan moment (more on this in a minute) and now we can figure out how to respond and if we will repent.

What’s next and where do we go

One of the claims that has been consistently made by some who have been protecting the EC and the SBC has been that for us to get sidetracked on this will hurt the mission.  This is and always has been a false dichotomy.  If we are Gospel people, then the first place we must apply the Gospel it to ourselves.  Yes, we must be passionate about taking the Gospel to the nations, planting churches, caring for the marginalized and poor, and proclaiming Christ everywhere.  But when we fail to let our own sin come into the light and deal with it honestly with authentic repentance, then we have to know that God will quickly cease using this tribe and bring greater judgment.  In a few weeks the SBC family of churches will meet again in Anaheim.  I will be there, serving as a messenger from Genesis Church.  We will hear this report and will entertain motions that will include steps the SBC and its churches can take to bring forth the fruits of repentance.  Some will fight this, others will agree, and others will determine that it is impossible for this tribe to change.  I am hoping that there is a clear majority voice that will boldly confess our sin and push this tribe to transparency and repentance, and that we can begin a new day related to this issue.  That will not mean the work will be completed in Anaheim with this report,  just the opposite.  It means that the work will just begin.  If the SBC does this, I will continue to lead our church to joyfully link arms with this tribe for the work of the Gospel here and around the world.  If not, we will seek another outlet for partnership here and abroad.  I still believe that the Cooperative Program is the best missionary sending and funding mechanism anywhere in the world, but this does not negate the evil that we face in this moment, nor does it allow us to stand silent at this time “for the sake of the mission.”  No, we must speak clearly, repent openly, accept the vulnerability of having our sin exposed in the world, and respond with trust in the power of the Gospel.  I hope and actually do believe that this is the trajectory the SBC is on, and I believe the majority voice in Anaheim will be in that direction.  But that is yet to actually happen, so we should pray for our tribe in the coming days.

The Old Testament has two stories that run parallel in the sacred story that shows the possible when sin is exposed.  Both of these stories involved kings of Israel who were confronted with their sin by the Spirit of God.  In 1 Samuel 15, Saul willfully disobeyed a command of the Lord as he went to war with a neighboring nation.  God’s instructions were clear, and Saul purposefully did his own thing.  When confronted with the reality that his sin was known Saul quickly resorted to blame shifting and the protection of his own kingdom.  He did confess, but his confession was soon proven to be nothing more than an attempt to keep power and honor.  David succeeded Saul as king.  During his reign we have the awful story of his adultery with Bathsheba leading to her pregnancy, his attempted cover-up, and eventual murder of her husband to protect his reputation.  It was then that Nathan the prophet showed up and confronted David about his evil heart and wicked actions.  In human terms, it feels like the sin of David is actually worse than that of Saul, yet God rejects Saul but forgives David.  The answer to the reason God did this is found in how these two men responded when their sin was brought into the light.  Saul protected his reputation and position, seeking to keep his sin hidden and even blaming others for it.  David wrote Psalm 51, one of the most beautiful prayers of repentance in all of Scripture.  If the Bible teaches us anything, it is that we as believers are sinners, and even though we have been redeemed we still sin.  It should not shock us that leaders fail and systems are broken by the sinfulness and protectionism of people. I look at any of the stories from this report, and while I am grieved and even angry, I also have to confess, but by the grace of God there go I.  The beauty of our authenticity in Christ is found not in the perfection of our lives but the authenticity of our repentance.

For the Southern Baptist Convention, Nathan the prophet has spoken.  He has pointed to this tribe and declared, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7).  It is not shocking that our sin is exposed, this is always an act of God’s love and mercy for His children.  The question at this moment is whether we will respond as Saul or like David.  If we turn to protectionism and defending our own rightness God will be just in rejecting the SBC.  We may deserve this anyway, much of our story is not great.  But if we respond by welcoming the grace of shame and running to repentance as a tribe then maybe we can have an authentic witness in this culture for generations to come.  I hope so, I am praying so, and I will vote in this direction in Anaheim in June.


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