Okay, here we go:
An SBC bylaws change is on the table, and I’d like to offer a word of perspective as one who, in 1992-1993, was the Executive Committee’s vp for convention relations, when the last morals-based bylaws change went through. At the time, two North Carolina churches affirmed homosexuality, one by licensing a gay divinity student to preach, the other by assenting to the pastor’s performing a gay marriage.
The matter before us is sexual abuse in the church, an issue brought to the forefront by a recent series of three articles in the Houston Chronicle. Some heinous cases were covered in the paper, and I’ve been heard to say that some of these villains should simply be shot. And I mean that. But however grave our concerns and pure our motives, I think we should think twice about making changes to our foundational documents over this. Let me offer some reasons for your consideration.
1. Insurance agencies, state conventions, SBC agencies and institutions, commercial consultants, local churches, and the police have already instituted procedures and programs for identifying, training, vetting, and/or supervising the parties who may be involved in these matters, and more and better protocols, safeguards, and courses are on the way. Of course, the media are spring loaded to expose the sins of our members in this connection, something they were not at all interested in doing back in the 1990s when homosexuality was the issue. Rather, on that matter, they were rooting for the North Carolina churches.
2. Our 1993 action was essentially a doctrinal stand, staking out our position in the face of widespread defection from the Bible by denominations affirming the homosexual agenda in its many forms, including ordination and marriage. Subsequently, these other groups (especially the Anglicans and Methodists) have suffered enormous internal conflict over apostasy on this matter. In contrast, no denomination, state convention, association, or church is affirming sexual abuse, so we lack the same motive in taking a painfully obvious stand against such phenomena. Furthermore, there is the danger of shaming wonderful churches because of the behavior of a few leaders or members, when (in contrast to 1993 congregations) there has been no action taken (or inaction consciously indulged) by the local body. Apples and oranges.
3. Some have said we need to act dramatically to cope with a “crisis” or “public relations disaster.” During my tenure, this was a familiar cry as first one Southern Baptist (individual, group, or agency) and then another tripped the culture’s “gotcha” wire, whether the issue was disparagement of Freemasonry; evangelization of the Jews; the HMB (NAMB) study that estimated, county by county, that most of America was going to hell; that “redneck Fundies” had driven thoughtful, “disenfranchised” moderates to start a winsome, powerful denomination in exile, the CBF; our speaking invitation to the “leprous” Vice President Quayle, who gainsaid Murphy Brown’s enthusiasm for single motherhood; and yes, our “homophobic” judgment that homosexuality was not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” While the press (print and broadcast) was having a field day generating and nurturing calumny, some within our own ranks were mortified that we had come off so badly and insistent that we should do what we could to make it right with our “friends” in the media. Yes, we did our best to clear up confusions and state our case, but we refused to let our critics and their sympathizers drive our agenda.
Secular courts insist upon the principle, “Innocent till proven guilty,” but the media is notoriously impatient with this standard. I fear that sensationalism is pushing us farther away from the judicial standard. Every year, we see a fresh truckload of half-baked and burned-to-a-crisp vilifications that prove unfounded. (Think, for instance, of the Olympic Park non-bomber, Richard Jewell, or, yes, the years-running “Russian collusion” rhetoric.) Scoops, awards, and causes are powerful motivators, and we need to be wary of frenetic dancing to the tunes the press is playing. Thank God for a free press; thank God even more for a free and responsible press when you can get it.
4. Stating the obvious—that the number of certifiable cases (as distinct from the horror of individual cases) is surprisingly small—will earn you the contempt of activists. How dare one downplay the “holocaust,” when even the ruination of one teenager’s life is infinitely disgusting and deplorable! Well, what if the articles had never been run and you were asked to estimate the number of Southern Baptists who were convicted of such abuse over a twenty year period (the span of the journalists’ study)? We read that 220 people were convicted out of a pool which included not only pastors and other church staffers, but also deacons and volunteers of every stripe, which is pretty much everybody. If one of the convicted had been an usher, a publicity committee vice-chair, or a Saturday-workday lawncare coordinator, he or she would have counted. So what about the math? With a baseline of 16 million members in 1998 and an average of 600,000 new Southern Baptists each year (through baptism or transfer), we get a total of 28 million people over that period, or 130,000 members per convicted abuser. Having read the epistles, especially 1 Corinthians, I would have guessed higher than 220 out of 28 million. Which leads me to suggest that the articles, devoid of perspective, amount to their own form of abuse.
Yes, some say that the number of unreported and unprosecuted abusers is much larger. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. But let’s say that over 1,000 should be in jail rather than 220—multiplying the number fivefold. That would still mean one certifiable case of criminality per 26,000 members, or one for every thirteen megachurches, if we’re counting Sunday a.m. attendance. Does that really constitute a crisis?
Yes, I’ve been told that if I mention numbers, “they’ll hear me to say I don’t care that much about the victims” or something along that line. There’s a lot of that sort of concern going around these days. PR, “branding,” and marketability are virtual deities, whatever the underlying realities might be. (And, I submit, that, in a fallen world, the “full counsel of God” is a “public relations disaster.”) At a certain point, we need to say, “Let them hear what they’re determined to hear. Let’s be wary of serving sensitivity at the expense of truth and reason.”
5. My lack of sympathy for these journalists is underscored by the fact that they made no effort to acknowledge what we might call the “Potiphar’s Wife” phenomenon. If they had wanted to provide some balance, they could have surfaced at least one case of a good man’s being slandered by a false charge. They could have sounded a note of caution, however slight, over the “MeToo” and “AlwaysBelieveTheVictim” phenomena. (In contrast, the March 14 issue of World ran a substantial article on the false-charge problem.)
6. In 1993, opponents warned that we were stepping onto a slippery slope. What was next? Excluding churches for providing wet bars to small group gatherings? Cancelling the evening service for the Super Bowl? (Of course, we argued that slippery slopes can go both ways. If we didn’t draw the line at homosexuality, would we eventually accommodate churches which affirmed adultery? incest? polygamy?) But in the current situation, the slippery slope seems real. As I read in one release, a second proposal called for excluding churches countenancing racism? But how would that go? How would they draw that line? What if a 80% Anglo church had a 100% Anglo staff (or the corresponding percentage in a Black, Filipino, or Korean church)? What would the Executive Committee do with a complaint that this church was racist?
7. The Executive Committee has already examined ten cases of negligence or perfidy with regard to sexual abuse, finding some with merit, some not. Wouldn’t this by-law necessitate an expanding investigative and judicial role for this agency, and also a sea change in liability. When I worked for the Executive Committee, the SBC would routinely be sued for damages incurred at, for instance, a Baptist college event (e.g., a hayride) or a church activity (e.g., with a sleeping child inadvertently left in a hot van on a field trip). In every instance, the Convention would legitimately avoid financial penalties since the churches were autonomous. But if the Executive Committee gains denominational oversight in matters of sexual abuse, it also gains liability for negligence in these matters, and responsibility for looking into all claims. If they go there, they should do so with eyes very wide open.
8. Incidentally, we’re being pushed to go where it seems the secular press fears to tread. The articles were built around proven cases, matters of public record. We don’t see fearless investigative probes into as-yet-undetected cases, outing, say, a deacon no one suspected in Little Hope Baptist Church, a leader caught by someone “wearing a wire” at the behest of journalists. Perhaps their lawyers told them this was too risky. Scrupulous confirmation can be expensive and time-consuming. Libel will put you in a very bad place. Better stick with court records and such. But it doesn’t look as though the bylaw change would permit the Executive Committee these scruples.
9. It’s reasonable to suppose that, within our congregations, the incidence of couples co-habiting without benefit of marriage is more widespread and detectable than sexual abuse. Yet, there are many churches who do not bother to initiate church discipline. Arguably, the tacit assent of the church to such indifference (ignoring a biblical mandate) is a bigger problem for the body of Christ. And what about those engaged in shady business dealings while remaining “members in good standing”? It’s a gnats and camels questions. (And, no, don’t hold your breath for a Chronicle series on the shocking neglect of a Matthew 18:15-20 response regarding members who are “living in sin.”)
10. The journalists and the activists they represent sneer in effect, at congregational autonomy, as though it’s a cheesy dodge to avoid dealing with serious problem, some sort of irritating Miranda Warning that protects the guilty. Actually, it’s autonomy which has been our saving grace with regard to the cause of biblical inerrancy and which provides the firebreak against abuses in the hierarchy, the sort of thing that got the Catholics in trouble. And, by the way, comparisons between the two groups on this issue are bizarre, not only because the Catholic incidence is vastly greater (and focused on clergy rather than the entire range of the laity), but also because their insistence on priestly celibacy makes them especially vulnerable to pedophilia.
I’m not arguing that it’ll be the end of the world if this bylaw change goes through. I am claiming that it won’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t. And, on balance, it could make more sense to let these other avenues for action do their consciousness-raised work.