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When Sexual Abuse Comes to Church

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By now, you have no doubt heard about the article released by the Houston Chronicle regarding sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Churches. The article details sexual abuse that has plagued Southern Baptist churches over the past 20 years. If you are like me, you are disgusted with the revelation. The most infuriating truths that it reveals are the fact that some of the victimizers still have leadership or vocational posts in Southern Baptist churches as well as failed efforts by victims to call our denominational leaders to action. Thankfully, one of the priorities of our newly elected SBC president, J.D. Greear, is to organize a task force that will address how the SBC should deal with these leaders and churches. I wait to see if our leadership will truly follow through.

As you might imagine, responses have been varied. For some, this is a clarion call to throw the baby out with the bath water. For these folks, the Southern Baptist Convention is hardly worth wasting precious time and money on any longer. Additionally, some have used these revelations to call into question a myriad of conservative theological positions such as complementarianism. Secondly, some folks are sticking their heads in the sand and want to blame the "me too" movement and the media of bias. They believe this is a smear campaign from the liberal media. Third and lastly, there are those of whom all hope is not lost. Southern Baptists can grieve but also must respond by evaluating the nature of our association together. I would fall into this category with this caveat; there is an enormous amount of work to be done among our churches and if our leaders continue to put their heads in the sand, then we must evaluate the nature of our association with the SBC.

Local Church Polity and Practices

 Unfortunately, there is a lot of red tape that needs to be unraveled if we are going to address this and the many other issues that face our denomination. There are two interrelated rubrics that must be considered: (1) understanding local Baptist church polity and (2) evaluating Southern Baptist associational standards.

 Before we can discuss changing things in the SBC, we need to look at the local church first. As many of you know, the SBC is not a top-down denomination. Technically, the SBC only exists for 2 days per year to do business on our budgets and hear reports from our committees and task forces. The SBC is a voluntary association of local churches, therefore we must first discuss Baptist theology of local church polity. Drawing off of Tom Ascol's helpful articlethat responds to this issue, the starting point in addressing the sexual abuse issue starts in the local church polity. We need to consider the confessions, membership and leadership practices of our Southern Baptist churches.

 Confessional Identity

You might hear in some part of the Baptist life that we are not a "creedal" people. That is true in some respect. We are people of the Book. The Bible is the final authority and standard for life and witness for Southern Baptists. There are even some Baptists and other groups like Churches of Christ who cringe at the thought of even having a confessional statement like that of the Baptist Faith and Message, 2000. But this is a twisting of what it means to be confessional. Almost everyone who holds to a confessional standard believes that confessions are manmade. Rather, they understand the purpose of creeds and confessions as simply outlining what the church universal has believed and passed down since Christ ascended into heaven and established the church on Pentecost.

One of the greatest challenges we face in the SBC is a lack of confessional identity. In the SBC, we have the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as our confession. It is a distant grandchild of the 2nd London Confession 1689 and the New Hampshire Confession, 1853. It is a solid yet broad confession of faith. It allows for generosity among Baptists who differ on some theological particularities. What's mind-boggling is that a church can be Southern Baptist simply by voluntarily giving to the Cooperative Program, agreeing to not install a woman as pastor and not allowing practicing homosexuals into membership. Even an essential conviction such as regenerate church membership and believers baptism can be bypassed in some cases. I know of churches in the SBC who hold to a dual-mode approach to baptism but because they generously give to the Cooperative Program, they are welcomed in with open arms. (Don't get me started about the money, ya'll!) This is not to say that a Baptist & Presbyterian church cannot network together for the propagation of the Gospel. Our church also partners with the Acts 29 Network which is a multi-denominational network of reformed churches, but I am strictly thinking about getting our house in order in the SBC.

 For Southern Baptist Churches, what is needed is a recovery of our confessional identity on the local church level and insist that our denomination holds to a meaningful confessional standard for admittance into membership of the SBC. The SBC should only admit thoroughly confessional churches that can agree with the BFM 2000. Yet, Confessionalism starts on the local church level first!

 Meaningful Membership

On the basis of solid confessional identity, a church must then outline how that confession will be lived out in the church. This usually comes in the form of a Membership Covenant. Some folks get uncomfortable when you start requiring membership covenants for entry into church membership. I don't have time to outline the history of the practice here, but suffice it to say, churches that don't require a member covenant in Baptist life are a fairly new breed (about 100 years or so). Let me recommend the work of 9 MarksMinistries for further study.

 The reason I argue for meaningful membership is that it strengthens discipleship and discipline in the church. This is not to say that the membership is led with an iron fist. Far from it. But a good membership covenant outlines how we agree as a body of Christ to live in light of what we have learned from our study of the Bible. It also empowers us to call one another to repentance when we fail to live in such a manner. When mutual brotherhood and sisterhood fails, then the process of church discipline is established for cases that require more thorough work in the life of an unrepentant brother or sister in Christ.

Hopefully, you can see how this helps the challenges we face like in the case of sexual abuse. If we train and expect churches and their members to live confessionally and in a disciplined manner, we can better weed out these wolves from within our fellowships. This would and should directly impact how we associate with other like-minded churches. Churches with strong confessional and membership standards will likely want stronger and more defined associational standards as well.

Leader Training and Eldership Standards

Lastly, we need to address the standard by which a man is called into pastoral ministry whether as a vocational or non-vocation pastor/elder and how he carries that call from church to church. Additionally, we need to address how men and women are trained for diaconate positions in the church. Our leadership training in the church is broader than the expectations for the offices of Elder or Deacon but it is never less than that. When we strengthen our process for training and installing Biblically and confessionally sound candidates for elder and deacon, we strengthen the rest of the leadership in the church in the process.

One of the struggles I have with the majority practice of "ministry calling" in the SBC is that it seems to be largely a "self-calling." Brother Dan senses the Holy Spirit calling him to preach and brings that to his pastor. The pastor is pleased to hear that God is moving in Dan's life so he has the church question and subsequently ordains him to gospel ministry where he might then be sent off to seminary. Once he leaves the church, there is no responsibility for that call. This was the pattern of my ordination in the church. I had an hour-long question and answer session with the pastor and the deacon board. The questions where more emotive than substantive. I cannot remember a meaningful question about my personal theology if I am honest. They then organized an installation service, laid hands on me and gave me a sheet of paper confirming my ordination. That single young man in 2001 was in need of so much more mentoring and training in the church than to simply be patted on the back and sent out into the world of ministry. I know that not all pastors in the SBC are ordained this way but I don't think its a stretch to say that the vast majority are.

Thankfully, when I submitted to be assessed in the Acts 29 Network a few years later, I was thoroughly examined on a level that my ordination should have been. To be clear, Acts 29 does not ordain men to pastoral ministry but their process was thorough and helpful like what a good ordination process should look like. The men and their wives walked with Amanda and me for nearly 2 years before we were confirmed into membership of Acts 29. What if this was the pattern of ordination in the local church? What if this was the expectation of our local, state and national associations for admittance as a church? At the very least, there should associational standards that carry from church to church and a dismissal of the idea that ordination is not a lifetime call.

Associational Identity

A lot of what you will hear in this discussion surrounding what to do with the churches who have harbored sexual predators is that because each church is autonomous, nothing that can be done from a denominational perspective. You will remember that I stated earlier that the SBC is not a top-down denomination. It begins and ends with the churches. Frankly, this rings hollow to me.

It rings historically hollow. We can preserve meaningful local church autonomy while also bolstering associational standards without becoming a quasi-presbyterian denomination. If we were to examine the London Particular Baptist Association as well as the Philadelphia Baptist Association, you would find a strong confessional identity as well as other robust associational standards. Associational standards DO NOT nullify a local church's autonomy. As I noted above, our church is also part of the Acts 29 which is a voluntary association of networked churches. That network expects our leadership at Grace to meet certain network standards and reaffirm them each year. If we choose not to, we can leave the network. We are autonomous as to whether we stay or go but if we stay, we must submit to the network standards. Southern Baptists need to recover this practice.

The real question is where do we start in such a large animal like the Southern Baptist Convention. As far as the immediate issue of sexual abuse predators in the local church, we can and should disfellowship or at least put on probation any church that empowers or harbors these leaders in their church if it is demonstrated that a restorative process has not been met to restore them to their leadership roles. Where do we get this power? Simple. In our confession. Article 6 on the Churchstates that only men may be installed into the office of pastor. Because of this article, many associations have disfellowshiped churches that had women as senior pastors because women are not scripturally qualified for service in that role. I would argue that on that basis, we can and should extend this to include disfellowshiping churches with other unqualified leaders as well.

About 5 years ago, the Acts 29 Network painfully but decisively disfellowshipped Mars Hill Church and their pastor Mark Driscoll because of abusive behavior that deemed Driscoll unqualified to be part of the network going forward. Why can we not do this in the SBC? Again, if we go back to the Philadephia Association, one can find churches that were disfellowshipped because their pastors did not meet the ordination standard of the association. It's not an autonomy issue.

A Pathway Forward as a Church

Here are some ways we will seek to address this from our side of the tracks at Grace Church.

  1. At Grace, the elders will examine the nature of our associations regularly and do our best to unite with groups that hold to our confessional standards.
  2. At Grace, we will make sure our elders, deacons and other leaders are qualified and have a background church done regularly.
  3. At Grace, we will examine our membership standards frequently and continue to grow in them together.
  4. At Grace, we will continue to grow in our confessional identity through preaching and teaching in the life of the church.
  5. At Grace, we currently require background checks on leaders and those who work with minors. This practice will be continually evaluated and the elders will work to have a response policy in place on how to deal with any issues that may arise in the safety of our children.
  6. At Grace, we will immediately report any allegation of sexual abuse to the proper authorities.

 A Pathway Forward for Southern Baptists

These suggestions are just that...suggestions. I don't pretend to understand all the complexities of the internal workings of our denomination. But it is my conviction that none of these suggestions violate church autonomy.

  1. Establish a better confessional standard for association with Southern Baptists. This does not mean it has to be a uniformly Calvinist confession but it does need to be clear and convictional. The BFM 2000 is a sufficient confession to get us where we need to go. We must establish it's centrality in our associational life in some way and do so immediately!
  2. Establish a standard for the training and installation of pastors/elders and deacons. This does not mean that a church is not free to implement it as they see fit or that the church is not ultimately responsible for the training. That is will always be the church's responsibility. What it means is that we should have a clear and centralized standard for who leads the churches that associate with us and our churches need to take that seriously.
  3. Establish a covenantal agreement with churches that outline practices that will be expected to be lived out. This document will likely have to be updated regularly as the times change. It should outline expectations for safeguards with minors, expectations for general theological commitments as well as reasonable expectations for giving to associational causes.
  4. Establish a medium whereby churches are required self report their adherence to associational standards and any violations of those standards especially the abusive behavior of a church leader. The ACP (Annual Church Profile) could be useful here instead of using it to brag about numbers. This could also be used to created a profile of vocational pastors who serve in our churches according to ordination standards. If those standards are breached, then establish a probationary standard and disfellowship process for churches that are not in line with these standards.

Some will say these suggestions are too strict. I disagree wholeheartedly. Every church has the freedom to associate with whatever denomination and partners they feel best advances their mission. No church is forced to remain in the Southern Baptist Convention if these expectations are too stringent.

Others may say these ideas are simply unrealistic. The size of the SBC will rule out the probability of this ever getting off the ground. That is probably true. But if Southern Baptists are going to be a global witness for Jesus Christ, then we have to try, even if the turning the Titanic called the SBC one degree at a time is what we have to settle for.

Others still will say that too much money is on the line if we put churches on probation. Why? Because several of the churches mentioned in the article are the largest churches in our convention it may appear that their giving is too important to the Cooperative Program. If this is the case, this is detestable and I believe Jesus would agree. Jesus, help us repent of our idolatry to money as the means to real mission and ministry. What good are money and resources if they are tainted with our indifference to sin and folly? I believe the Holy Spirit will go with us if we stand on his Word and act decisively and boldly.

For the glory of Jesus and the advancement and growth of His Church, we must try. Sexual abuse (any form of abuse) and providing cover for abusers should be intolerable to any truly confessional and Jesus loving church. If homosexual practice is unacceptable for membership and if we deem women scripturally unqualified for pastoral office, then it is unthinkable that Southern Baptists cannot expect other moral or theological standards of the leaders in our churches.

May God be glorified through this article.