Earlier this week, the Houston Chronicle published three articles – “Abuse of Faith,” “Offend, Then Repeat,” and “Preying on Teens” – concerning some 200 ministers in more than 700 abuse cases occurring in Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years. These articles properly sparked numerous conversations about how Southern Baptists might respond both as local churches and through our cooperative structures. These conversations increasingly call for both immediate and longer-term responses.
As SBC president J.D. Greear urged, our first immediate response must be grief over the evil-pain violently imposed upon our brothers and sisters. Realizing these stories represent only a fraction of the abuses should haunt our souls. Surveys remind us that one in 10 children will be sexually abused by the time they turn the age of 18. We also know that only a third of the victims of sexual abuse ever disclose their story; even fewer report these crimes to state authorities.
Malcolm Yarnell, left, and Keith Whitfield, right.
Our second immediate response involves preparing ourselves to listen carefully as yet more cases of sexual abuse emerge. The great courage of survivors demonstrated in the Chronicle articles will inspire others to tell their stories. (After the articles began appearing, Yarnell learned directly from his mother that she was abused for a decade starting at the age of three by a church leader.) When we hear of such evils, we must follow the example of our Lord and minister in a gentle way that neither breaks bruised reeds nor quenches the smoldering wicks of the wounded who wandered without sanctuary through our sanctuaries (Matthew 12:20).
For far too long, too many among us have demonstrated negligence when dealing with the horror of abuse. Rather than shaming the little ones whom God calls his own, we must now welcome and encourage these victims, these survivors, to speak. And we must prepare our hearts to listen to every word, to grieve over every wound, and to repent of every wicked deed. If we refuse to follow the way of Christ, we may no longer claim to be the people of Christ.
At the SBC Executive Committee meeting next week (Feb. 18-19), we anticipate that Greear will share about the work of the Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group, and in particular, their proposals for preventing abuse in our churches, for reporting according to best practices when it happens, and for equipping our churches and entities to care for survivors in the wake of abuse. In this article, we want to share some proposals we think would address our long-term responsibilities and help us establish a cooperative culture that cares for the weak and vulnerable. So, these ideas are what we want to hear next week.
After the Chronicle's report was published various proposals were offered to address this devastating, systemic crisis. For instance, efforts within our national or state conventions to provide training curricula to local churches were offered as a solution. Access to this material is essential, and we pray that development of this material has already been commissioned. However, we believe that if we do not establish redemptive mechanisms within our local and cooperative structures, then these more minimal (even if necessary) efforts will ultimately fail. If all we do is merely call for action and supply literature, we will doubtless demonstrate that we refuse to use the “teeth” required for transforming previous attitudes and responses toward the reality of abuse.
Last year, after we co-sponsored the resolution, “On Reaffirming The Full Dignity Of Every Human Being”, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention resolved to “affirm the full dignity of every human being, whether male or female, young or old, weak or strong.” Moreover, we resolved to “denounce any and every form of abuse, whether physical, sexual, verbal, or psychological.” And we also resolved “to model God’s saving love by sharing the eternal hope found in the gospel, to call all people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
But literary resolutions constitute hypocrisy if we fail to follow them with appropriate action. Recently, Whitfield outlined five systemic factors behind the cultural practices that foster acts of abuse. These systemic factors painfully confirm to our consciences that we have not yet honored “the full dignity of every human being.” Our family of churches must address these factors in part by creating significant mechanisms to help prevent abuse within our churches and denominational entities.
We believe one should address problems through suggesting workable solutions for our churches and our cooperative structures. Therefore, we propose herein to change aspects of our cooperative structures. We do not offer these as a complete plan but as potential pieces of a cooperative effort to reshape the culture of our convention. In fact, there are two important additional recommendations that are not addressed below yet must be addressed at some point: (1) the responsibility of our seminaries to revoke degrees when one of our alumni has been either formally convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse and (2) the responsibility of churches who have the duty of ordaining and disciplining pastors to revoke ordination when an ordained pastor has been convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse.
For now, to help our family of churches live out our stated resolutions, we propose the following four-point plan.
1) We must leverage our autonomy to call our churches into a covenant of protecting the vulnerable.
We believe our churches should voluntarily covenant with one another to protect those who are vulnerable to abuse, and our entities should be asked (if not required) to participate in this covenant as well. Such a covenant must include the provision of both resources and training to remain current in the best practices for preventing abuse, reporting abuse and caring for the abused, as well as appropriate forms of cooperative assistance for referring leaders, recruiting leaders, removing leaders and reporting leaders to an offender’s database. The covenant should call churches and entities to commit to following these best practices, to report crimes immediately to the appropriate magistrates and to seek professional consultation when difficult situations arise.
Those who participate in the covenant of protecting the vulnerable will be listed on a registry of participating churches, convention entities and ministers who have voluntarily fulfilled the proper training, who faithfully follow strict standards and policies, and who continually remain accountable to this covenant. In addition to the registry, those who are fulfilling this covenant would be provided a compliance certification, with an official seal to place on their website, promotional materials and campus signage. This human-honoring and family-friendly certification would demonstrate that qualifying churches, entities and ministers remain in full compliance with standards for protecting and responding to situations of abuse.
Working examples for such a mechanism include the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which helps evangelical ministries employ appropriate financial standards. We have a number of entities to which such a ministry might be assigned, including Guidestone, LifeWay or the Executive Committee. The assigned entity should handle oversight of the convention-wide certification process, but it must work in openness with both internal constituencies and appropriate third parties in order to maintain the authenticity of the process (see our third point below).
2) We must remove churches from our fellowship who have knowingly hired someone who has been convicted of, has admitted to, or has been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
We must make it unambiguously clear that if a church and/or its ministers demonstrate a disregard for protecting those under their care from abuse, then we will remove that church from partnership with the Southern Baptist Convention. While we should clarify our governing documents in order to make negligence in the treatment of sex abuse cases a reason for disfellowship, we must not delay taking appropriate actions of disfellowship in the meantime.
We already possess the provision to take such action in our constitution. Article three of the constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention states, “The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work … which: Has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” In our cooperating faith statement, the Baptist Faith and Message, we have agreed to protect the abused by opposing abusive behavior and providing for victims of abuse (article XV).
Currently, disfellowship is not considered an avenue of last resort when a church either embraces the homosexual lifestyle or ordains a woman to be their pastor. Moreover, we have recently rejoiced over those who removed from fellowship churches who hold or practice racist ideology. However, we must now also begin to hold churches accountable for failing to protect their people from predators.
A church should be removed immediately from fellowship if it hires a registered sex offender or if it allows someone to remain in their ministry position after a credible allegation of abuse has been made. Each case should be duly investigated by an empowered committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the appropriate state convention and/or the appropriate local association for immediate investigation. Responses must be given to the reporting individual(s) or entity in a timely manner.
What we need now is the resolve to make good on our previous words. We are encouraged by all of the responses of godly sorrow, but we cannot claim as a convention of churches to dwell in the light of God if we maintain fellowship with darkness. The practice of associational discipline and convention discipline, a practice fully in accord with local church autonomy, must be extended to address the evil of sexual abuse. We must identify offending ministers and disfellowship negligent churches.
3) We must employ victim-survivor advocacy.
One of the clear lessons learned from the Houston Chronicle articles and other previously known accounts of abuse in our churches is that survivors of abuse need a trustworthy advocate upon whom they may call.
This advocate must not be in a position of power over the victim and must seek to advise and provide care to the survivor(s) of abuse. This advocate must be able and ready to report acts of abuse to state authorities as well as to various authorities within the local church and appropriate offices within the local association, as well as the state and national conventions. This advocate must not be professionally or relationally connected to the minister or the church nor be subject to financial or reputational pressure from the minister or church. Advocates should be professionally trained and carry sufficient “standing” within our cooperative structure in order to help reduce further harm.
Even godly, well-meaning and seminary-trained leaders are not always best equipped or suited to handle these situations. There are inescapable power dynamics involved when leaders deal with a hurting, vulnerable person. This demands high levels of empathy and discernment, emotionally and relationally. The realities of miscommunication and misunderstanding do not excuse the mishandling of a situation. Rather, they demand a survivor’s advocate be employed.
Calling a survivor of sexual assault into a minister’s office in order to be cross-examined by pastoral staff should never have been seen as acceptable, and now, we must make it clear that is complicit behavior. In order to protect vulnerable survivors, we need to appoint survivor advocates.
4) We must establish a foundation to help survivors with legal fees and counseling expenses.
Often the road to justice and healing comes at great relational and financial cost to survivors. The requisite legal representation to defend their cause, or the professional care needed in their process of healing can either be unduly burdensome and/or out of reach financially.
Local churches and state conventions should be strongly encouraged, and Southern Baptist entities should be required to have measures in place to cover legal fees and counseling expenses for anyone abused by a leader or a volunteer in their ministry.
In addition to these funds, the Southern Baptist Convention, through the Executive Committee, should develop a fund to help when the resources of a church are not sufficient or when a church fails to provide reasonable support to a survivor.
Obviously, a deliberate policy construction and vetting process is needed to decide when, why, and who should receive assistance. However, we believe it would be very wise for churches, entities, state conventions and the national convention to contribute to and invite contributions to a fund through which survivors may gain access to proper care.
We already have a mechanism to unite our churches to highlight a common need, such as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. And we already have united efforts for special offerings over and above Cooperative Program giving, such as the Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong missions offerings. Why would we not also join together to feature this pressing need and present to our people the opportunity to give in support of it?
It is time for transformation
Appeals to the autonomy of Southern Baptist churches have been used to explain why various proposals – such as creating a Southern Baptist offenders registry – could never be implemented. It certainly is true that our polity renders some proposals inappropriate and others difficult. However, we have operated with this polity for nearly two centuries, yet we still have managed to cooperate well enough.
We have created massive entities, supported global missions, trained generations of ministers through our six seminaries and created a cohesive Southern Baptist culture through ministry programs and literature. We even cooperated in order to implement historic theological course correction. More recently, through the leadership of our previous Southern Baptist president, we have sought to influence the financial stewardship of our churches and their members through the ministry of Dave Ramsey.
It is very difficult to fathom how, considering all we have already accomplished together, we cannot implement a holistic plan to protect our people, especially our precious children. We must seek together to prevent abuse, to guide our ministers in how to handle abuse accusations, and to equip our churches to care for survivors. We wholeheartedly believe that we are capable of imagining and implementing a plan whereby we cooperatively champion a culture that protects robustly against failure, that responds quickly to the faulty, and that continues to care for those who have been failed.
We need more than just words. We need a culture-shaping strategy to implement changes that teach us to have God’s heart for survivors, that equip us to protect and to care, that raise our expectations above the past, and that hold our churches and our ministers truly accountable. We advocate changes because we have the potential to shape a culture of protection in the Southern Baptist Convention. We advocate changes because the integrity, the honor, and the life of our family of churches depends upon a radical transformation. We advocate change because we believe our Lord demands that we function with the utmost respect toward his “little ones” (Matthew 18). May He judge us severely if we fail Him and them at this late hour.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Keith Whitfield is associate professor of theology, dean of graduate studies and acting provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. Malcolm Yarnell is research professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.)