The SBC scandal is all of American Christianity's problem
Cleaning the predators out is absolutely necessary. But first, before anything else, comes repentance.
If your reaction upon reading about the latest abuse scandals rocking the Southern Baptist Convention is relief that you’re not a Southern Baptist, as a Christian, you’re as lost as a polar bear in the desert. If your reaction is not surprise, but schadenfreude, as a non-Christian, you’re more wanted by Christ than the first example. If your reaction is anger, you’re in good company.
Beth Moore left the SBC some time ago over the “men’s club” attitude pervading the U.S.’s largest protestant denomination. I can’t say it any better than she can.
But I’m not a Southern Baptist, and never have been one. In important points of doctrine, I disagree with SBC teaching. In one doctrine, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the Gospel, we agree. I am not a Southern Baptist, and have never been a member of an SBC church. In fact, I doubt some would even have me, as is, at least. But we’re not talking about teaching or doctrine right now. We’re talking about sexual predators in the church. In that regard, I am a Southern Baptist, and you are too.
Let’s get human here. Call it sin, call it hedonism, call it mental dysfunction, or as some extreme liberals call it: normal consensual relations. When people who desire such physical relations find their “calling,” they tend to gravitate to professions that put them in power/trust positions over their prey. You’ll find teachers preying on students, priests preying on altar boys, camp counselors (both religious and secular) preying on campers, scout masters preying on scouts, and some protestant pastors tempted by young women. It is the responsibility of the organization that creates these situations to police themselves, and do it without bias or favor. Justice demands the weak have an advocate.
The SBC has failed miserably in that function. David Thornton did a great job laying out the problem on this site yesterday. I agree with all except the last statement, with which I don’t disagree fully either: “Southern Baptists need to clean the hypocrites and predators out of God’s house.”
First, we will never clean the hypocrites out of God’s house. To claim that it’s possible is to claim that the hypocrites attending a ballgame, or drinking at a pub are somehow better hypocrites than the ones in church pews. We want hypocrites in the pews, because then how else are they going to hear the Gospel, get right the God, and be of service in the Kingdom? Cleaning the predators out is absolutely necessary. But first, before anything else, comes repentance.
If you’re like me, not a Southern Baptist, but a believing Christian, you might say “my denomination has tighter rules” or “we don’t allow that kind of thing,” or “we allow women to pastor a church,” or “we are not hypocrites.” And you’d be right on the surface, but wrong to believe that these same sins are not problems for your fellowship. If it happened to Ravi Zacharias, and so many others in evangelical and charismatic circles, it can happen to your church or denomination. It could happen right under your nose.
One man’s heinous sin is another’s opportunity to extend confidentiality, room to repent, counseling, and love. In other words, “ministry.” But there’s a problem in the American church, in that we do not emphasize public repentance. We talk about repenting at the altar, before God, or in the confession booth. Our altar calls are filled with “everyone close your eyes” and “no looking around” disclaimers because nobody wants to publicly get shamed. We see what happens when the teenage daughter of a deacon has a baby bump. We are more afraid of shame than we are of the consequences of public sin. But that’s not really the biggest obstacle.
What do the SBC pastors all have in common here? They’re ordained pastors. Most of them do ministry for a living. They derive their entire income from their church or ministry. Thousands of pastors were protected from debilitating legal claims (look what has happened to the Roman Catholic Church, the richest denomination in the world; look what happened to the Boy Scouts of America). The reason given for protecting hundreds of sexual predators was that thousands of pastors need to make a living, and a few bad apples can spoil the whole batch. That’s frightening.
What’s more frightening is the same attitude pervades many other ministries. I’ve seen what happens when a single pastor falls. It can devastate the church body and take years to recover. The denomination tends to react by burying the living. In fact, discussing the revelations about former SBC president Stockbridge First Baptist’s Johnny Hunt, I was asked what will be done. “They’ll bury him alive,” I said.
It’s not what should happen. Yes, Hunt and the hundreds of others who have committed acts against those who trusted them should not minister in leadership again. But more than that, they should publicly repent, and the church leadership that allowed them to hide their actions should publicly repent.
And the denominations and ministries who have been covering up their own sins should publicly repent before they have public scandals. These things tend to catch like fire.
Now, don’t think that the secular world is any better. We shouldn’t expect that “casting couches” and remote door locks at news networks and in Hollywood, or the grooming of male child stars by well-known kids studios so pedophiles can share them like a harem, is any less disgusting, because somehow it’s worse when done in the name of God. I got news for people who think that: God judges the same for sinners inside the church as outside. Hell is not particularly selective.
How should we respond to the SBC’s public scandal?
If you’re a Christian, think this: There but for the Grace of God go I. Yes, that’s me in that pew. Being defensive doesn’t lead anyone to repentance. Expressing relief that it’s not you only leads to pride, which always ends in a bigger sin. And taking joy in the downfall of others is an invitation to bring your own downfall.
What is God teaching us by these revelations? Perhaps we should learn not to focus on what divides Christians, but what unites us in faith. Whether you believe in the gifts of the Spirit operating today, or once saved, always saved, or you don’t believe in those things, is far less important than believing in love. In fact, without love, none of the doctrines matter. And without repentance, public repentance, we can’t really have love for others the same as love for ourselves.
God may also be teaching us that a paradigm shift needs to happen. Churning out pastors with no other work skills from seminaries seems to create a class of people who don’t benefit from public repentance. The people running the ministries of the church are both held to a higher standard and not given the freedom to be human by the laity and the denomination itself. Healing can only come when we recognize that we’re all human, all flawed, and all subject to sin.
The Bible lays out clear qualifications for ministry (and yes, I believe women can lead a church, and Scripture backs me up). There must be a zero-tolerance approach to these qualifications. We cannot suffer the attraction of groomers and abusers into the church as leaders. We cannot cover for them in the hopes that they’ll “get better” or move on and the problem will be someone else’s.
Until American Christianity adopts a new viewpoint about laity, clergy, responsibility and repentance, we will be hindered in our application of love. And without love, there is nothing. No wonder the church is shrinking.
This isn’t just the SBC’s problem. It’s all our problem.
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