The hidden sin of Southern Baptists comes to light
The SBC's enabling of sexual predators was anything but Christian.
I grew up in Southern Baptist churches, attending them across about five states in as many decades. Most of the people and pastors in the denomination were honest and god-fearing people who truly believed the Gospel and were trying to live out Christ’s admonitions to the best of their understanding and ability. Now it seems that was not the case for some in the Southern Baptist leadership.
Over the past few years, it has become apparent that there was a dark secret in the Southern Baptist Convention. The Bible and many pastors that I’ve listened to over the years warned us that hidden sin will be revealed. That’s where the SBC finds itself today.
Last year, amid allegations of coverups of sexual abuse by leaders of the denomination, delegates to the SBC voted to launch an independent investigation. The results are in and the situation is worse than anyone imagined.
The report, which is available online, is shocking. If you don’t want to read the 288-page document, Christianity Today has a good summary of the findings. These include the now-confirmed revelation that the SBC Executive Committee maintained a secret list of more than 700 sexually abusive pastors but refused to make the information public or release it to member churches of the denomination. Instead, the denominational leaders worked with their lawyers to demean and undermine the victims of the abuse and often openly sided with church and seminary officials who were credibly accused of sexual assault.
Victims of abuse were blamed for the crimes committed against them. Often, they were alleged to have engaged in consensual sex or adultery rather than being attacked by church officials. In at least one case, the Baptist Press took a victim’s first-hand account and edited it so that it appeared that she had a consensual “morally inappropriate relationship” with an abusive seminary professor.
Russell Moore, who has become the conscience of the Southern Baptists in recent years, wrote a scathing opinion piece in Christianity Today calling the scandal an “apocalypse” for the denomination and said that the matter is “more than just a crime. It’s blasphemy.”
Moore details how Baptists were pressured to look the other way on the abuses in the name of the good that the SBC was doing in the field of missions, spreading the Gospel around the world through the Cooperative Program. The claim was that admitting that there was a problem would undermine the denomination’s ability to fund missionaries.
But there was a serious problem and now the light has been shined upon both the underlying problem of abuse in Southern Baptist churches as well as the SBC leadership’s conspiracy to conceal, deny, and, if we are honest, to allow the abuse to continue. There seems to have been more concern about how to protect the SBC from legal liability than for how to help victims or prevent abuse in the first place.
At this point, let me take a moment to explain the structure of the Southern Baptist organization. Southern Baptism is a grass roots body. Local churches are autonomous but send delegates to state and local conventions. The denomination is based on voluntary cooperation between churces through these larger associations.
At the national level, the SBC has several organizations that support local churches through publications, education, and missions. These include the Baptist Press, Lifeway Christian Resources, and a network of seminaries. There is no Baptist equivalent of the pope as the theological head of the denomination.
It seems to have been these local church delegates who forced the SBC to confront the horrors that its executive leadership inflicted on sexual abuse victims. Revelations of widespread abuse first became public in a Houston Chronicle article in 2019. At the national convention meeting in 2021, abuse survivors protested outside the meeting and delegates voted to call for an independent investigation. Originally, the plan was for the Executive Committee to investigate itself.
I remember that as the Catholic clergy abuse cases were becoming public in the 1990s, there was a bit of smugness in Baptist churches. The assumption was that it couldn’t happen here and that the Catholic policy of celibacy was at least partly to blame. Little did we know that it was happening under our very noses.
The abuse itself is only half the story, however. The other half is the shocking callousness with which the victims were treated. Even pastors and officials who may have wanted to do the right thing don’t seem to have had the proper training in how to deal with revelations of abuse.
My wife has been open about how she was raped by a high school basketball star (one of three attackers) in the small Georgia town where we grew up, even discussing it with me in a piece for Resurgent during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Her abuse was not connected to the church but when she sought help from our SBC pastor, she was advised not to pursue the matter because it would lead to attacks on her character by the perpetrator’s defense team. The rapist attacked several other women before he was finally sent to prison.
My wife still harbors resentment towards the pastor and the church that we attended. The experience didn’t sour her on the truths of Christianity, but I’ll bet that many women who were abused twice, once by rapists and then again by the church, have probably been driven from the faith.
Sexual abuse is not something that is easily survived. The victims often take years to fully recover from the trauma. The effects are difficult to overcome for both the victims and their families. It is unconscionable for church leaders to not only dismiss them but to turn the church itself against them.
It is difficult to say how many fundamental tenets of Christianity have been violated here. There is the commandment not to lie, commandments against sexual immorality, as well as commandments to help the weak and downtrodden and to be honest and just. There is also the important admonition that Christians should ensure that their behavior does not make them a “stumbling block” to either unbelievers or their fellow Christians.
The SBC leadership has done all of this and more. Whatever the motive for the SBC leadership’s decision to cover up the abuse (and I don’t think the motive is even relevant), the ultimate outcome has done serious damage not only to the denomination but to the Gospel and the entire Christian religion.
It is difficult to imagine how a church could tolerate such evil as sexual abusers and rapists within its ranks (and not only its ranks but its guidance and elite), but it is even more difficult to grasp how any serious follower of Jesus could have turned to protect the guilty by while attacking and defaming innocent victims in the name of Christ. It boggles the mind.
It boggles the mind and yet it hasn’t been uncommon at all. The abuses that went on in the SBC are little different than the abuses in the Catholic Church. Or those in schools. Or the Boy Scouts. Or any other of a thousand different organizations in human history.
The story of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee is a story as old as the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. It is a story of depravity and sin. It is a story of power corrupting. It is a story of groupthink in which the organization itself becomes more important than the principles that it was founded upon.
The Fall of the Southern Baptist Convention is more proof that the Bible’s claim that evil lives in the hearts of men and that even those who claim to be saved can be led astray. In other words, the sin of the Baptists is evidence that the Southern Baptist and biblical doctrine of the depravity of man is correct. Modern pastors and church leaders are not any more immune than the Pharisees of Jesus’s day.
Southern Baptists should not feel that they have been abandoned by God. As I learned in Southern Baptist churches, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” The SBC is being “refined by fire” and its sinful appendages are being burned away. I don’t know that the Southern Baptists will survive this test and punishment, but I do know that the denomination does not deserve to survive in its current form.
More and more, the American church (and not just the Southern Baptists) remind me of the Laodicean church that John wrote to in the Revelation. It is a lukewarm church that thinks it is rich but is actually poor and wretched.
As Russell Moore put it, “Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a ‘pastor’ or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as ‘distractions’ and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.”
Southern Baptists need to admit the problems within their denomination and face them head-on. It isn’t jumping on a liberal #metoo bandwagon to confront sexual abuse within their own ranks. It is fulfilling Jesus’s admonition to care for “the least of these.”
As a popular slogan asked in the 1990s, what would Jesus do? A somewhat irreverent rejoinder was that “turning over tables and using a whip to drive people out of His house is within the historical realm of possibility.”
That is what is called for here. Southern Baptists need to clean the hypocrites and predators out of God’s house.
Tweet of the Day: A hot thread from evangelical author Beth Moore on the Southern Baptist scandal. Moore’s Bible studies were published by the Southern Baptist Lifeway Christian Resources until she left the denomination in 2021 over the Southern Baptist embrace of Donald Trump as well as her criticisms of sexism and naitonalism in the church.
“I loved you,” Moore says to Baptists. “You have betrayed your women. It’s too late to make it right with me. It is not too late to make it right with them.”