Five Key Points for the Southern Baptist Convention Vote on Sexual Abuse Response
The Southern Baptist Convention, wracked by reports of sexual abuse and deep in controversy over how to respond, is set to vote next Tuesday on a set of recommendations produced by the suddenly questionable independent advisory group, Guidepost Solutions.
All believers have a stake in this vote. As goes the Southern Baptists’ reputation, so goes the reputation of American evangelicalism. More importantly, the Baptists’ strength in faithful, Christlike living lends strength to everyone’s, and their weaknesses burden us all. It is so for all of us, but they are very large and very influential.
In saying that, I am not forgetful of the victims of this abuse. Each person’s story is different, each one is marked by pain, loss, and trauma, to a degree I will not even try to speak.
(Literature on abuse typically speaks of “survivors,” not “victims.” That perspective is helpful for those who have suffered through abuse, but not so much for the perpetrator or his church. Someone has actually done the person harm, therefore I speak of “victims” in this column.)
It takes no one’s vote to know that sexual abuse is self-centered, self-gratifying, and other-destroying. Victims may pick up the pieces and move on, but the loss is still real. Sexual abuse is wrong, period.
Vote According to Principle
Messengers (delegates) to the Convention must know the principles that will guide their votes. I have four such principles to recommend. I have seen them put to the test, first when I was a human resource director in Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”), and again when I was a highly-involved lay leader in the church where my kids’ youth pastor was convicted for sex crimes with minors.
In Campus Crusade, I was responsible for investigating and responding to allegations of staff misdeeds. I was working within an excellent, Christ-centered leadership culture, and these cases were very few, given the nearly 1,000 staff members under my HR responsibility. These principles worked there. They also worked at the church where this pastor caused so much damage.
The church as a whole lost members and budget for a season. I would call it the most painful experience of my 65 years of living, and no one in my family was even a direct victim. (Again, I do not dare speak of those victims’ loss or pain.) By these principles, though, and by the grace of God, we recovered strength, began growing again, and retained our Christian witness in the community. They knew we were doing the right things.
I call on Baptist messengers to take these principles with them as them vote next week. Some of these may even affect their choice for president of the Convention.
Principle One: Sin Needs Correcting
Sin needs correcting, not cover-up. I’ve heard too many stories of churches hushing up sexual sin “for the sake of the ministry.” That’s wrong. It’s upside-down, it’s backwards, and it’s misguided. We didn’t do that at Cru, and we didn’t do it at the church I spoke of, either. It’s no help to the victim, no help to the church, and no help to the perpetrator. As I have often said, every sin takes you down, but your secret sins will take you out.
This does not mean sin gets exposed indiscriminately. No one needs to be informed except those who may be involved, either in the direct effects or in the decisions that flow from it.
But sexual sin calls for suspension, if not termination, and this is obviously not something to hold in private. Church members need not know all the gory details, and the victim’s needs must be considered, but an abusing pastor must face consequences.
Principle Two: Seek Correction and Restoration
Consequences are necessary, but their purpose is not retribution, but correction and restoration. Rightly applied they are good for all.
Churches may think they’re doing a leader a favor by hushing up his sins, but they’re actually helping him remain in a state of spiritual poison. The sinner who “gets away with it” will typically go on “getting away with it,” especially if others support him with a cover-up. This puts his soul in grave danger, far worse than what may happen if the sin is brought out into the open.
Walking in the light (1 John 1:5-9) means open fellowship with God and with each other (see verse 7). It’s about visibility, not hiding. Therefore consequences rightly applied are good for the perpetrator.
Meanwhile the victim/survivor needs to see the guilty person’s sin dealt with properly. She does not need to be further victimized by lies supporting him, and neither does she need the spiritual confusion that so often results when Christian leaders’ sin goes uncorrected.
The church also benefits from corrective consequences. To let sin fester is to let poison permeate the entire body. Those who keep it quiet become part of the sin, part of the problem, part of the poison. This is the lesson of Achan: Sin in the camp is deadly. That specifically includes secret sin.
Restoration is always the goal, first spiritually, and only secondarily vocationally, though separation is often part of the answer as well, for the protection of all but especially of victims. (In this I echo a lesson from 1 Cor. 5.)
Principle Three: Insist on Due Process
So far here I have been speaking in plain language of “sinner” or “abuser” and “victim,” as if the facts were clear in every case. Sometimes they are: Our church’s youth pastor was arrested, tried, pleaded guilty, and is serving time in federal prison.
Not every case is so clear-cut. Witness the many students whose college careers were upended by a woman’s accusation, adjudicated in secret, where the man had no right to an attorney and no opportunity to present his own case. It’s wrong when it happens on campus, and even more wrong when it’s done in a church.
Guideposts Gets This Wrong
Guidepost Solutions got its recommendations dangerously wrong on this point. (Josh Abbatoy covered this well in a June 1 American Reformer article.) They recommend the SBC create an “Offender Information System” for public dissemination, a list of persons “legally convicted, personally confessed, or those having been credibly accused or having substantiated allegations of acts including sexual abuse.” To be credible, an allegation need only be “not manifestly false or frivolous.”
The accused would be publicly shamed and most likely forever unemployable in ministry, not based on what the testimony is (“beyond reasonable doubt,” or even a “preponderance of the evidence,” as in civil cases), but on what the testimony isn’t: not “manifestly false or frivolous.” That’s too easy.
This is punishment without due process. It is wrong. It’s so completely and obviously wrong, if your candidate for SBC president supports it, I would seriously doubt his ability to know what is right.
Principle Four: Keep Your Balance
Guidepost’s report recommends that the Baptists create a national-level board to hold authority in dealing with sexual sins. would place both control of and liability for sexual abuse responses in the hands of a small national-level group.
This too is wrong. It implies national-level authority, but in one area only, sexual sin. It sends a message that walks dangerously close to accepting the world’s doctrine that the chief end of man is sex; or as the gay rights movement would more likely say it, sex is the chief identity of humans.
Either way it singles out sex as the one great thing that matters. God certainly says it matters, but not exclusively, as this recommendation implies.
If the Baptists are going to set up a national authority structure, it needs to be balanced, not merely focused on one sin. But I have more to say on that.
Principle Five: Align Responsibility With Authority
Liability properly belongs with those who have authority and responsibility. Obviously that starts with the perpetrator. As churches go, in the Southern Baptist Convention it also includes the local church. That’s it. There is no one else. The SBC is a cooperative convention of independent churches, whose only really strong connection is a common statement of faith and a pooling of resources for mission. There is no hierarchy above the local church.
Whether this structure is “right” or “wrong” is not on the table. It is how Baptists are structured. Authority rests at the local level, so responsibility properly rests there as well. Nowhere else.
Guideposts’ proposal would create a structural aberration among Baptists, where some authority remains local and some goes straight to the top, but there exists no structure to support that kind of split authority. I doubt it’s even possible to build such a structure. It’s inherently flawed; it cannot work. (Abbatoy covers some of the reasons it can’t work.)
Find a Real Answer Instead
If Baptists want to set up a national authority board on sexual behavior, they should do it right, and create a nationwide structure to support it, not just for sexual matters but for all. Of course I know they won’t do that. Therefore they must reject that aberration.
Just because there’s one proposal on the table doesn’t mean there’s only one answer. Work on it. Find it. And in the meantime, reject this one. (While also rejecting any cover-up of sin locally — as I’ve already said.)
This is basic organizational stuff, by the way. If your candidate for president doesn’t see this, he isn’t qualified for the job. Change your vote.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the recently released Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.