It was only a matter of time before journalists dove into an evangelical institution to find skeletons of sexual abuse in locked file cabinets. In the wake of revelations last May surrounding Paige Patterson, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler warned the Southern Baptist Convention and the evangelical world that judgment had come. He did not know that the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News had already begun an investigation. Now, the articles have begun to appear.
Many writers—Mohler—have identified a number of problems that created a conducive climate for sexual abuse. The problems can be classified in three ways: open networks, denominational culture, and bad theology.
Many have underscored the Chronicle’s claim that local church autonomy present in Baptist polity has allowed sexual predators to move freely from church to church. Another issue is how easily Baptist ministers are ordained. Since local churches ordain, one has only to secure the endorsement of any church in good standing with the convention, regardless of how small or remote it is.
But the problem extends beyond the Southern Baptist Convention. As one denominational leader pointed out to me, ministers brought up on charges and dismissed from one denomination have simply gone to another for credentials. It’s not just laity who take advantage of evangelicalism's big tent to move around.
These open networks for ministerial movement from one part of evangelicalism to another allow sexual abusers to escape judgment and start over. We don’t need a database of sexual abusers for the Southern Baptist Convention, we need it for evangelicalism as a whole. We need greater cooperation and transparency among evangelical churches and institutions on matters of church discipline so we can close these open networks.
The Chronicle also raised the concern that denominations have begun to function like corporations. Their instinct is to protect the brand rather than the victims. Will evangelicals allow ministers to remain as long as they maintain orthodox beliefs (and thus protect the culture), even when their behavior contradicts the beliefs they assert?
Evangelicals have too often succumbed to victim shaming while simultaneously protecting their leaders. This was the subtext of the Paige Patterson episode—Patterson’s status allowed his behavior to go long unquestioned. Moreover, in light of the culture war, evangelicals sometimes too easily move from viewing a challenge to the authority of a leader as a challenge to the authority of scripture. Evangelicals claim to stand for the truth, but this claim is often narrowed to doctrinal or biblical truth rather than the truth about events unfolding before our eyes.
Bad theology has buttressed a climate of spiritual abuse against sexual assault victims. There is a tendency within evangelical circles to extend forgiveness over and over—even when patterns of sinful behavior have been established. The problem isn’t that they offer the mercy of Christ to persons caught in sinful patterns, but the idea that extending such forgiveness means the person should be allowed to remain in a position of authority. Church discipline should deal with entrenched patterns of behavior. The failure to enact church discipline for grave sin is itself a form of cheap grace, and it flows from an overemphasis on justification by faith alone to the exclusion of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
Closely related is the “sin is sin” problem. It is an evangelical tendency to level out sins as though there were no difference between lying and sexual abuse, since “before God” all sins are worthy of judgment. At the same time, evangelicalism has allowed the larger culture war to determine what counts as “grave sin.”
These tendencies have created a deep inconsistency within evangelical moral theology. Some behaviors are treated as leprosy while others are treated as “white lies.” This is how cultural norms (“boys will be boys”) erode theological norms and reinforce the culture of protectionism. The impact of debates over female ordination or LGBT persons reveals how deep the inconsistency goes: Hard lines have been taken against homosexuality and the ordination of women while sexual abuse has been allowed to run rampant. Recently, Seth Dunn tweeted that a woman who wants to be a pastor is “just as bad as a sex offender who is hired as a pastor” because he wanted to make a point that the larger culture is out to get Baptists. Russell Moore is absolutely correct that this kind of response is “deadly dangerous” to victims and survivors of sexual abuse. Evangelical moral theology has to begin to differentiate between sinful transgressions on the basis of their destructive force.
Everything that can be shaken is being shaken. Last year Ross Douthat pronounced that a Baptist apocalypse was upon us. We are now in the midst of a great tribulation, and we should not expect a secret rapture to open up an escape route. Instead, we have to face these issues head on. The truth of the gospel is at stake.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University