Updated: Aug 12, 2021
SBC 2021 in Review: Part 5
Sexual Abuse in the SBC
The Story Breaks...
In 2019, The Houston Chronicle Newspaper ran a series of stories entitled, “Abuse of Faith,” in which the paper identified more than 700 instances of sexual abuse that occured within Southern Baptist Churches over a 20 year span. It was a stinging indictment of the SBC. In a Christinaty Today article, Kate Shellnutt writes, “In Sunday’s report, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News were able to do what victims say the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has failed to for years: provide a picture of the extent of the abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention and a database of those found guilty of their crimes.”
The report specifically identified 380 abusers—most of whom had served in some pastoral role in a Southern Baptist Church—that had been arrested, accused of some form of abuse, and had taken a plea deal. Most of these offenders were able to go to another church, some in different states, and commit these same crimes again.
The series of articles (6 in total) shone a light on a growing issue in the SBC that was going unaddressed. People (mostly men) were getting into positions of authority and influence in SBC churches and using that position to commit heinous crimes of sexual abuse. And as the Chronicle article makes plain, no one seemed to know about it, and no one seemed to be doing anything about it.
The Convention Responds
The revelation of these crimes set into motion a number of things.
First, the SBC had to acknowledge that as a voluntary association of churches, the Convention itself, really has no control over the churches. The Convention does not tell any particular church who they can or cannot hire for a pastoral position, nor does a church have to consult the SBC when hiring a pastor.
Second, the Convention did take a strong stance in favor of the abused, with then President J.D. Greear calling for the disfellowshipping of churches that tolerate known abusers.
The previous year, in 2018, President Greear formed a task force to assess the situation and to issue a report of the group's findings. The Caring Well report was delivered on June 8, 2019. “The Advisory Study says one of its aims ‘is to begin to illuminate the evil that has occurred within our midst by sharing the stories of survivors of sexual abuse.’ The report expresses gratitude to the ‘brave men and women’ who told their stories of abuse so the SBC could understand the scope of the ‘sexual abuse crisis’ it faces.”
In addition to the releasing of the Caring Well Report, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in partnership with Lifeway Christian Resources, released the Caring Well handbook entitled, “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.” This was, and remains, a free resource available to churches.
Things get Complicated...
All of these things were positive steps in the right direction, and there seemed to be some genuine momentum building within the Convention to own the problem and start dealing with the issue head on.
In April of 2019, the then ERLC President, Russel Moore, announced that the ERLC’s national conference, which would be held in October of that year, was changing its focus from “Gospel Courage” to “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis.” Under Moore’s leadership, the ERLC really began to take a serious approach to pushing back against the darkness of sexual abuse in SBC churches.
At the 2019 ERLC national conference, Moore invited attorney, and abuse survivor, Rachel Denhollander to address the conference; a live audience of more than 1600.
“In the final address of the conference, leading survivors’ advocate Rachael Denhollander said Southern Baptists need to understand victims’ fear of ‘coming forward is very, very well founded, because most of the time when they speak up they are trampled on, and this has happened in the SBC over and over and over again.
‘It is up to you to change the tone and the culture,’ Denhollander told Southern Baptists in the audience. ‘It is up to you to elect people who are going to tell the truth and fight for survivors. It is up to you to surround them with care and support so that [the] fear of coming forward becomes no longer well founded.’”
This really hit like a bombshell because, according to Denhollander—who represented a number of SBC abuse victims—those who had come forward about being abused had been silenced and sidelined. This meant that leaders in authoritative SBC positions were not only aware of sexual abuse cases, but they were complicit in covering up these heinous crimes.
Denhollander urged those in attendance saying, “It is up to you to elect people who are going to tell the truth and fight for survivors. It is up to you to surround them with care and support so that [the] fear of coming forward becomes no longer well founded.” There is no mistaking her point: Those in leadership are not only not getting the job done, they are covering up for abusers.
Not a Stand Alone Issue
The ERLC Conference and the Denhollander remarks were heavy enough, but add to it the fact that other issues were occuring as well, and you really have a recipe for a problem.
In 2018, Paige Patterson, then President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and longtime stalwart in the SBC had been accused of inappropriate comments toward women. Additionally, accusations that Patterson had, himself, covered up sexual abuse surfaced. All of this led to Patterson’s termination by the SWBTS board of trustees.
Beth Moore, noted author and Bible teacher, had for some time, been sounding the alarm about a culture of abusive leadership, male chauvanism, and sexual abuse among top levels of SBC leadership. Moore departed the SBC in 2021.
The SBC Executive Committee Comes under Fire
As the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention neared, several consequential things occurred.
In May of 2021, Russell Moore announced his resignation as President of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Following his departure, two letters, written by Moore, were “leaked” to the public.
In the first letter, dated Feb. 20, 2020, Moore writes to the EC board of Trustees citing a culture of wickedness within the SBC Executive committee leadership. Moore levels accusations against many in leadership, noting specifically: Explicit racism and sexual abuse coverups.
The second letter, written to President JD Greear after his resignation, covers much of the same.
Just before the Convention meeting in June of this year, Ronnie Floyd, President of the Executive Committee, announced that a third party group, Guideposts Solutions, had been secured to conduct an independent investigation of the accusations leveled by Russell Moore against the EC.
Indicted in the accusation is Pastor Mike Stone. Stone was the chairman of the Executive Committee board of Trustees at the time, and is implicated in Moore’s letter. Stone was also a candidate for the SBC President at 2021 convention. For more on this, see here.
At the convention, it was noted that the Executive Committee of the SBC would oversee Guideposts Solutions as they conducted their investigation. A conflict of interests, to be sure. Thanks to the motion of a Messenger to the Convention, the EC was not permitted to oversee the investigation of itself.
The Investigation Begins...
A July 9th, 2021 article reports that President Ed Litton has put together a task force to oversee the third-party investigation of the Executive Committee.
The article states, “Calling formation of the task force his “first priority,” Litton said the seven members of the task force “represent pastors, as well as professionals in law, counseling, and abuse advocacy.” According to a news release today (July 9), the task force will be chaired by Bruce Frank, lead pastor of Biltmore Baptist Church of Arden, N.C. The vice chairman is Marshall Blalock, pastor of First Baptist Church of Charleston, S.C.”
It is worth mentioning that in addition to the seven members of this Presidential task force, Litton has also appointed Rachel Denhollander (an attorney and abuse survivor herself) as a legal advisor to this task force.
“The [approved] motion [made by the Messenger] required Litton, who was elected SBC president June 15, to appoint the task force within 30 days. The task force will have the discretion to begin its own review or to oversee an independent review already initiated by the Executive Committee. It is required to make the findings public and present them to messengers to the 2022 SBC Annual Meeting with recommendations for action.”
What Does the Future Hold?
For one thing, Southern Baptists can count on hearing the results of this third-party investigation at the 2022 Convention, if not before. We must pray that any wrongs committed in darkness will be brought to light; and we must pray that if there have been injustices committed against the weak and vulnerable, such violators will be brought to justice.
Proverbs 6:16-18 states, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.” (ESV)
If any of the allegations against the EC are found to be true, in any measure, Southern Baptist must clearly condemn them and hold the violators to account.
But while we await the findings of this investigation, we must also recognize that abuse is not confined to one group of people. Abuse, in many forms, exists right where we live...sometimes, in the very household in which we live. That is the one of the most unsettling aspects of abuse. It happens where we expect it the least.
What is so startling about pastors who abuse others is that pastors are supposed to be those whom we trust without question. Not only is pastoral abuse offensive, it offends us to the very core. It causes a great distrust not only of a person, but of all persons.
Churches must recognize that sin and the victims of sin exist all around them. The SBC Caring Well Initiative is a wonderful start at the process of identifying, addressing, and shining the light of the reality of sexual abuse in our world.
Churches must take seriously the threat of abuse that is real and so pressing in our world.
Churches must do all they can to equip their people to know the signs of an abuser, to make a report when there is credible doubt, and to act for the sake of the weak and the victim.
God hates abuse. God hates abusers. In the end, God Himself will have the final Word. Galatians 6 makes that plain, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked.”
While we all lament the reality of sexual abuse in the world, and within the Southern Baptist Convention, we confindely say with Paul, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar…” (Rom. 3:3-4, ESV).
Thanks be to God that man’s wickedness can never undo the everlasting goodness and promises of God.
May the light of righteousness shine into this thick darkness.
Up Next: Conclusion: The Tress and the Forest. Is there Hope?