Grieved beyond Words… and Resolved

The Houston Chronicle has published part one of an extensive investigative report on sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Churches (there will be two more installments in coming days). They uncovered 250 ministry leaders and volunteers who have been convicted as sex offenders and over 700 of their victims. Those numbers alone are horrid, but I agree with the report that there are likely many other such instances that were not uncovered by this investigation.

The report reveals horrors that have long been out of the light of day. Without question, the most difficult parts to read are the testimonies from the victims. They are beyond heartbreaking. I can hardly imagine what some of these dear souls have been through and how difficult it must have been to come forward. But I am grateful that they did.

I hope their courage inspires resolve on the part of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. We need to grieve, listen to, and pray for these victims. We also need to act. Just because our churches are autonomous doesn’t mean we can do nothing. The stories of these victims illustrate the urgency of the work of the SBC’s “Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group,” which SBC President J. D. Greear appointed last summer to investigate practical steps the SBC can take to prevent sexual abuse in our churches. This group’s assignment is…

“…to consider how Southern Baptists at every level can take discernable action to respond swiftly and compassionately to incidents of abuse, as well as to foster safe environments within churches and institutions. This group will study both how Southern Baptists are currently engaging these issues and develop recommendations in consultation with relevant SBC entities on strategies and resources for ministering to victims and protecting people and churches from predators.”

The Study Group will give their report and recommendations this June at the annual meeting of the SBC in Birmingham, Alabama. Last month, Philip Bethancourt published an update on their work thus far. I encourage you to read it. Among other things, Bethancourt writes:

“Once resources and strategies have been developed, the implementation phase will launch a wide-scale, comprehensive effort to educate, saturate, and motivate Southern Baptist churches, entities, and leaders to embrace and incorporate the recommendations and findings of the study. As SBC churches await these broader findings and recommendations, we want to encourage taking initiative to serve survivors and prevent abuse. Even now, churches should implement basic, common-sense initiatives such as background checks and ‘two deep’ policies that require two adults to be present when working with minors. Although the study will highlight how there is much more that can be done, we encourage churches to take action now.”

Amen.

The article in The Houston Chronicle implies that there is nothing in the SBC governing documents to prevent sexual offenders from leadership in SBC churches. According to the Chronicle,

“The SBC has ended its affiliation with at least four churches in the past 10 years for affirming or endorsing homosexual behavior. The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches.”

I think the Chronicle can be forgiven for not understanding our polity. Nevertheless, I do think that this statement is an error. The governing documents of the SBC do in fact give messengers authority to disaffiliate with such churches. SBC President J.D. Greear said as much in his remarks to the Chronicle. The SBC Executive Committee also acknowledged this in its 2008 report on sexual abuse. They wrote:

“In our opinion, declaring a church not to be in ‘friendly cooperation’ with the Convention would certainly be justified in any specific case where a church intentionally employed a known sexual offender or knowingly placed one in a position of leadership over children or other vulnerable participants in its ministries.”

Greear and the executive committee are correct in my view. The SBC Constitution says that an SBC church must be one that has “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” Our statement of faith says that we have a responsibility to care for “the abused.” It also says that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” (emphasis mine). The specific scriptures listed under that article say that church leaders must be “above reproach” and “have a good reputation with those outside the church” (1 Tim. 3:7). Sex offenders fail these qualifications and many others (e.g., Titus 1:6-9).

That is why I would support SBC pastor Bart Barber’s proposal, which he posted earlier today:

The SBC can indeed do something about churches who employ the known sex offenders identified in the Chronicle‘s report. There is much more to do than simply disaffiliating with such churches, but it still needs to be done if they fail to act.

In the meantime, we need to listen to and care for these victims. We should “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak,” and “have mercy on some, who are doubting” (1 Thess. 5:14; Jude 22). We also need to pray for them. They need to see our resolve to foster safe environments within our churches and institutions and to protect God’s people from predators. And they need to know that we love them and that we don’t want them to bear this burden alone.

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